It’s no secret that the Australian Labor Party is having elect-ile dysfunction problems. Since Paul Keating’s victory in 1993, the party has only won a lower house majority in one election, back in 2007 with Kevin Rudd, while the Coalition has formed majority government seven times.
Most recently, of course, it was Scott Morrison who swept to victory with an against-the-odds trouncing of Bill Shorten. In the aftermath of that election, there was the usual talk in the media and elsewhere about how Labor lost what was dubbed the ‘unlosable’ election. Predictably, most of the coverage focused on short-term concerns. Was it Labor’s policy on franking credits and negative gearing? Was it Morrison’s charm and his way with voters? Was it Labor’s policy towards new mining projects, or even Bob Brown’s protest parade into North Queensland?
While short-term campaign issues are undoubtedly important and do shape election outcomes, to solely focus on them often means not seeing the forest for the trees. Indeed, the real reason why Labor didn’t win the last election, and has performed so poorly at them in recent years, is in many ways an issue of long-term changes in voter and electoral dynamics. More specifically, Labor now finds itself with a voter-base consisting primarily of two irreconcilable and diverging groups; meaning that the party is haemorrhaging votes, quite literally, left and right.
One of these aforementioned voter groups is Labor’s traditional working-class base. These voters are typically blue-collar workers living in what are, or were, industrial and mining centres in the suburbs and regions. Importantly, these voters are often conservative on social issues such as the nation, immigration, and LGBTI rights.
The second major voter group are inner-city professionals. These voters are typically younger and tertiary educated and view ‘social justice’ issues as being of greater concern than their immediate material wellbeing. This group is largely socially liberal; favouring policies of multiculturalism, and a high immigrant and refugee intake. In many ways, they are the opposite of the blue-collar workers described above.
What has occurred, chiefly in the last two decades or so, is that Labor has found it impossible to establish a policy platform that appeals to both of these groups, and it has therefore seen individuals belonging to these groups switch their allegiance to other parties. Indeed, no Labor policy on mining, immigration, or climate change — to take only three examples — has been able to satisfy all of the vastly different elements within its voter-base, and so the party has been left in the electoral doldrums with past voters deserting it in two directions.
The party’s blue-collar core has started voting for mainstream or populist conservative parties such as the Coalition, One Nation, and Clive Palmer’s various entitites. In practice, with Australia’s system of preferential voting, the bulk of these votes have ended up going to the Coalition regardless, providing it with an election-winning boost at the expense of Labor.
Additionally, Labor’s need to at least marginally appease blue-collar social conservatives has resulted in many inner-city, socially liberal, voters switching their first preferences to the Greens or a host of other far-left minor parties. Although with Australia’s preferential system this change in voter behaviour hasn’t hurt Labor as much as the changing voting patterns of its blue-collar base, it has seen the party become at risk of losing numerous inner-city electorates to the Greens. Moreover, this change in electoral dynamics is weakening Labor’s position in the Senate.
Australia is also far from unique in witnessing this phenomenon. Across the Western world, in France, Germany, Britain, Italy and elsewhere, traditional centre-left or ‘social democratic’ parties in the mould of Labor are recording some of their worst electoral performances since World War II. As blue-collar workers vote for parties of the right in ever-increasing numbers, and inner-city professionals move even further left, there is nothing short of a ‘crisis of social democracy’, of which Australia’s Labor party is certainly a victim.
So where does that leave the Labor party going forward, or indeed the Australian political system, which relies on a strong opposition, and a viable alternative government, that can hold the government of the day to account? Well, put simply, the prospects are bleak. Labor’s future success is predicated on it being able to bridge the divide between irreconcilable groups. What is needed is an innovative policy platform and a leader with rhetorical power that would put Cicero to shame.
Whether Labor can produce that is another matter.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.