Flat White

Techtonics: why the party of the workers has a problem with working people – and why it matters

30 October 2019

12:02 PM

30 October 2019

12:02 PM

This is the first in a series of articles on shifts in Australian politics and the future of the ALP.

The forthcoming book by Dr Nick Dyrenfurth, Getting the Blues, might be the most important book written for and about the Labor Party in the last ten years.

Most of the comment has centred on Dyrenfurth’s call for quotas for working-class people in Labor, with a percentage of seats set aside for tradespeople, hairdressers, mechanics and the like. Leaving aside the hilarity of some of the reaction — including bastions of the Left faction of a party with affirmative action rules for women fainting at the mere mention of quotas –it’s not the solution that’s as remarkable as the problem itself.

Because Labor really does have a problem with working people.

Not in policy terms, necessarily, but simply put there just aren’t enough of them in the Labor Party.

And for a party that was established to advance the cause of working people, this is little short of extraordinary.

Just 22 per cent of Australians hold a tertiary degree, with a slightly higher number having completed at least some post-secondary education. Yet within the active and activist ranks of the party, maybe 70-80 per cent would have a tertiary degree; fully 90 per cent of Young Labor is sourced from and organised on university campuses. You won’t find too many apprentice plumbers at your average AYL meeting.

This is not to denigrate higher education, but rather to point out that narrow gene pools produce narrow candidate pools — and ultimately, narrow political bases.

Put another way, the average Labor staffer, activist, MP or even member tends to be — compared to the Australian mean — younger, university-educated, socially liberal, higher-income and to live closer to the inner city. They tend to be single more so than in a relationship, if they’re in a relationship more likely to be de facto than married, less likely to have children and less likely to be religious.

By contrast, the average Labor voter tends to be older, more likely to have a trades or technical education, more cautious of social change if not socially conservative, with a lower income and living in the suburbs or regional centres. They tend to be in relationships rather than single, married rather than de facto, more likely to have children and more likely to at least identify with some form of religious tradition or culture.

But the divide between the Labor Party’s elite, it’s decision-making class, and the voters Labor needs to win (and even to compete in) federal elections is made worse when one looks at the alternatives. The Green Party’s voters tend to be — compared to the Australian mean — younger, university-educated, socially liberal, higher-income and to live closer to the inner city. They tend to be single more so than in a relationship, if they’re in a relationship more likely to be de facto than married, less likely to have children and less likely to be religious.

That is to say, a large proportion of Labor’s elite look, sound and think like Greens.


Meanwhile, if one looks at the grassroots of the Australian populist Right, what do they resemble? Think of your average One Nation candidate. They’re likely middle-aged, probably with a trades or technical background, married with children, living in the outer suburbs and regions…

Labor’s MPs and candidates are drawn overwhelmingly from a demographic that votes Green and indulges in post-materialist politics. So when Labor voters look for candidates and parties who look, sound and live like them, who do they see? Pauline Hanson, Ricky Muir and Jacquie Lambie.

It was no surprise to this column that one of the electoral dynamics behind Labor’s loss at the last election was rising support for populist parties in the outer suburbs and regions robbing Labor of any benefit in a Liberal primary vote fall. Those votes were then returned to the Coalition via preferences, keeping Scott Morrison in the Lodge.

Educational attainment — often driven as it is by economic and social opportunity — has been mistaken for political merit. Paul Keating, Mick Young and Peter Walsh would not be amused.

Not enough people in Labor can speak in the voice of the outer suburbs, the precariously employed, the tradesperson.

Not enough people in Labor can talk about politics in a way large sections of Australia understand.

Not enough Australians see and hear themselves in Labor.

The truth is that identity politics, like death, taxes and the poor, has always been with us. Labor was once an Irish and Welsh, Catholic and non-conformist working-class party while the Liberals were WASPy Anglicans and Protestants from the ethnically English middle classes. Policy is all very well but if it’s explained to you in unfamiliar language by someone who isn’t one of you. it’s a damn sight harder to vote for it.

It remains extraordinary that a Labor Party who’s grasped this truth when it comes to pre-selecting indigenous representatives in the Northern Territory and WA, or Asian candidates in Bennelong and Chisholm, persists with nominating an overwhelming majority of senior counsels, former university student politicians and middle-class professionals in outer-suburban marginal seats.

A survey of Labor’s membership conducted a few years ago by its national policy committee revealed the top two policy priorities of the ALP’s members were the environment and being nicer to asylum seekers. The economy came in around sixth, with under 10 per cent. Environmental causes and empathy are lovely things, but not much use in winning federal elections decided by voter concerns over the economy and national security.

And why be surprised at these priorities, climate change and refugees? Labor’s membership resembles, the demographics of Greens voters, after all.

It is therefore little wonder that a Federal Caucus who not six months ago lost an election in part due to an obsession with climate change, electric cars and other general enviro-policy wonkery chose a few weeks ago to pre-empt a Greens Party motion and declare, from opposition, a climate emergency.

Not a wages emergency. Not an emergency of low economic growth. Not a budget emergency. A climate emergency.

Collectively, the party does not instinctively understand why it lost the votes of the outer suburbs and regions.

For a party that claims to embrace diversity, Labor’s personnel — and as a result, its message and appeal — is the polar opposite of diverse. It is white, middle-class, university-educated and socially liberal. It accepts fewer and fewer deviations from its internal cultural norms.

An unkind observer might conclude that Labor prefers to fetishise diversity rather than practice it; it’s hard to enjoy a nice political movement with decent people, after all, if ordinary workers, cultural conservatives, ethnic minorities and other such people start showing up to branch meetings in Fitzroy or Balmain.

As Dyrenfurth incisively notes, Labor was once a working-class party that needed to attract middle-class votes to win; now, it has morphed into a middle-class party that needs working-class votes to win. Or perhaps more accurately it is a university-educated and recruited, white-collar, securely employed party that needs blue-collar, non-tertiary educated, precariously employed votes to win.

There’s nothing wrong with this as a political strategy — as long as you have enough tradies in your ranks to tell you what their mates really want.

We know that a tertiary education results in an average income 40 per cent higher than non-tertiary educated people. But it also creates better job prospects and greater security, which in turn allow for cheaper credit and higher borrowing to access, among other things, the housing market. It creates certainty.

Labor no longer has enough people within its ranks who understand, through lived experience, the alternative.

Quotas may not be the answer. But if in dismissing the solution, the ALP dismisses the problem it will continue to condemn itself to a future in which it keeps on losing and cannot understand why.

Luke Walladge is a former senior Labor staffer and campaign director.

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