Six per cent

So many commentators treat electoral politics as somehow reflecting the mood of ‘the nation’ as if it had a collective psyche. A few years ago ‘Australia’ was relaxed and comfortable, aspirational, sick of out-of-touch inner-city elites. Now ‘Australia’ is ready for change. The Coalition lost ‘the Australian people’ by going too far with Work Choices and ignoring the mood of the nation on climate change.

What actually happened was that a net six per cent of voters switched from the Coalition to Labor since 2004. The great Australian mood swing involved just over one in twenty.

The parties’ electoral strategists don’t see politics like the above commentators. They see things much more concretely. It’s that six per cent margin that counted.

So when Rudd claims a mandate against the left of his own party, against the unions, against the public service, he’s being dishonest. Rudd surfed the centripetal force of modern electioneering to get where he is. It was chasing that six per cent that put him there.

The fun bit of Saturday was when the Coalition got hammered. The sweetest moments were Howard (probably) losing Bennelong and Mal Brough’s much-deserved wipeout. There is something in the view that the ‘mood of the country’ has shifted – but it’s a consequence of the change in government, not a cause. It’s a morale boost for everyone left of the Liberals, and it changes the media playing field, precisely because it’s the journos who believe all that crap about the ‘mood of the country’.

But the less fun bit was watching Rudd’s ALP fill the vacuum. I say ‘Rudd’s ALP’ advisedly, because it’s not really the Labor Party of many of its members. ALP eminence and long time past president Barry Jones explained himself last year that the members and volunteers tend to be well to the left of the parliamentary party, but their energy is sucked away to the benefit of a party of the Centre Right.

The worst thing about the election – from the point of view of the Labor faithful themselves, surely, once the euphoria fades – is that it validates the strategy of the nomenklatura: what the US Democrats call ‘triangulation’, what Jones calls ‘small target’, and what Kim Beazley described as ‘under the radar’. It’s the recognition – entirely realistic – that it’s the six per cent, who once voted for the Coalition but could be turned, that count. The basic idea is that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them”, so the best thing for the opposition to do is, in Jones’s words:

insist that they are above or between Left and Right in the political spectrum, emphasise immediate self-interest, avoid any public commitment to ethical or ideological causes, and never show courage in tackling unpopular issues. Pragmatism is everything. [“Where are we coming from? Where are we going?” in Coming to the Party, 2006: p. 17]

It’s a strategy that rules out any departure from the status quo, no matter who is in power. (At least, no departure for political reasons: there has been plenty of change in Australian society, but little of it has depended on one party or other being in government.)  But it’s an eminently rational strategy given the environment, and it’s hardly surprising that natural selection hones parties into machines for pursuing it.

Where does that leave the left? There’s a large number of us, really, inside and out of the ALP, and certainly more than six per cent of the electorate. On many issues we are well in the majority. It’s easy to diagnose the environment that generates the strategy that locks in the status quo. But that brings us no closer to strategies of our own.

My ultra-leftist devil, who is always talking about structure, thinks working with the Greens is a fool’s game. He sees the ALP volunteers as mugs, wasting their energy to support the state. And a Green is just another kind of ALP volunteer, since the preferences flow with the same effect. As a commenter at Leftwrites put it, you can see the Greens as a pressure valve for Labor, enabling it to move to the right because those who defect maintain the Pure Soul illusion of opposition without threatening the ALP’s two-party-preferred vote.

But my social democratic angel, who is always talking about agency, is more optimistic. The Greens are not the only way to change the political environment. But they could be part of it, if they redouble efforts to join with the traditional Labor base in the unions and public service.

In the coming months the ALP is not going to sustain the left’s euphoria. Rudd means what he says about taking on the unions and the left. He stated outright before the election that fighting inflation was going to be the government’s first priority. Yesterday he promised an elevation in the importance of Treasury advice. He has been throwing around the term ‘razor gang’, and not as a bugbear.

The Greens directly attacked Labor on industrial relations and public services during the election, and some tried to make it the centre of the Green message. I think there’s potential for the Greens to start seriously threatening the ALP base in the urban centres if it’s prepared to follow this up. Go for the most politically conscious section of the union movement. Ask loudly why Labor won’t overturn the most egregiously offensive elements of Work Choices (the ABCC building industry police force) or the most industrially important (the ban on pattern bargaining). And why is it talking ‘razor gang’?

The Greens seem worth getting involved with if they’re serious about this, because they’re the only force presently putting any fear into the ALP leadership. The fall in the ALP primary vote genuinely does worry them. They needed Greens preferences to win in more than 20 electorates this time around. As Lindsay Tanner – soon to be Finance Minister – put it in Jones’s book:

The end result has been a downward shift in the Labor primary vote, from the high forties to the high thirties. As Labor has become more entangled in the contradictions between its major support bases, more of its tertiary-educated supporters have shifted their allegiance to the Greens.

While this loss of support to the Greens only threatens a handful of Labor seats, including mine, and it is reasonable to assume that any Green MPs would probably vote for a Labor government, the threat is very serious. The Australian electoral system rewards parties that poll more than one-third of the primary vote, and punishes those that fall below it. We cannot afford for our primary vote to fall much further, and we cannot afford any more hollowing out of our activist and membership base. [“Let’s Start the Attacks”, in Jones, 2006: pp. 209-10]

If the Greens want to really hit the ALP leadership, they should go for its union base. The Green Party is hardly now seen as a working class party, but if it keeps making the effort, there is a chance it could be.

Published in: on 27 November, 2007 at 10:51 am  Comments (3)  

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  1. This is a superb post, that does an incredible amount in a limited space. There’s a lot to say in response to it. Last things first:

    The Greens, for all my conversion to them, are not serious about doing anything. What you have to say here resonates: I think the Greens on election day and night, including myself, were inconsistently trying to get rid of Howard while also mounting an attack on Rudd from the left. Labor government should be a better time to be a Green, with the target clearer, although I’ve seen in the UK how the Tory bogeyman is enough to keep people from attacking Labour all-out. The Greens are not serious about anything, but reaching out to the unions would seem to be the appropriate place to go.

    This brings me to an astonishingly interesting article in the Herald this morning, which gave the breakdown of the Australian electorate that the ALP had from Essential Media:

    33% free market conservatives (Liberals)
    37% nationalistic battlers (swinging—of which, 10% lean to the Liberals, 9% are unaligned, and 18% lean to Labor)
    15% socially liberal professionals (left)
    10% welfare supporters (left)

    The left here is 25% of the electorate – perhaps 43% if construed broadly, Labor’s rump two-party-preferred. The Greens are stuck in the 25% rump, and could usefully start moving into the 18% of left nationalistic battlers. Of course, it’s your non-aligned nationalistic battlers who decide elections, and they’re the ones who’ve elected Rudd, clearly because they know that WorkChoices is no good for them.

  2. Cheers Mark. I’ve had the same experience of a crappy Labour government in NZ with Helen Clark et al. As you say with the UK the effects on the left are ambiguous. I hoped the arrival of the Clark government would sharpen the critique of those further left, with the lesser evil installed. But it didn’t happen. Partly because the left forces were co-opted by coalition (the electoral system makes a difference) and partly because the Alliance – once a real social democratic force polling (briefly) in the 20s – imploded after Sept 11 2001, with the leadership deserting the base.

    One difference that I see here is a stronger and more assertive union movement and its successful campaign against WorkChoices. Much of the leadership of that campaign has no interest in creating trouble for the ALP. But some of it genuinely does, and there is real cynicism among the base that could be coaxed into opposition given some space. And it really is a big base, perhaps the biggest semi-organised political mass in Australian society.

    Plus, the economic situation is likely to put the Labor government in a tough position, where they will be trying to deliberately restrain wage growth.

    One thing I wanted to put in the post but didn’t was that the Northern Territory invasion ought to be another key issue for the Greens – it may not be a vote winner but someone needs to keep it on the agenda.

    Yeah that SMH article is really interesting.

  3. I don’t see any hope in the unions at present, as long as the ACTU remains tied to the ALP. If you want to see something break out, you have to look to the severing of union ties to political parties – look at the (French) CGT since it broke up with the PCF (and then look at the PCF)!

    On this change of mood thing, where do we get our sense of the ‘national mood’? The change of mood is really in the media, and it’s been just about palpable that the media got behind Rudd.

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