As Latho multiplies the apologies by adding one to all of us for the Labor Party’s latest bout of navel gazing and back biting, finally someone in the ALP has something sensible to say.
Wayne Swan’s staffer, Denis Glover, calls on the party not to ditch the elites.
Analysing the booth figures for the once safe Labor seat of Holt in Melbourne, where the ALP suffered a 6.4% swing, Glover discerns a significant voting differential between the elites (noting that “stockbrokerland” still votes Liberal – a useful corrective), the aspirationals and the working underclass. The poorest booths in Holt, complete with rusting Kingswoods on concrete front lawns, still gave the party of the workers over 60% over the vote. On the same page, Glenn Milne reports on some research by former Labor Senator John Black and retired academic John Lockwood which found that some non-religious tradespeople (that great army of “independent contractors”) parked their votes (and their utes?) with Family First.
Both these analyses actually tell us something about the social composition of the Labor and Tory votes, and point forward to possible political strategies, unlike the usual spin, hyperbole, unsupported generalisation and bias in the “elites vs. battlers” vein that characterises too much of Australian public discourse.
It’s this other Australia of stagnating housing prices, high unemployment and low school retention rates that can’t be accommodated by the elite/aspirational model. Nor can the model account for the fact that stockbroker land still votes Liberal. Not all elites are left-wing. Given that it’s unlikely that stockbrokerland will turn Labor, let’s take them out of the equation. For Labor, there aren’t two Australias, there are three: the educated “progressive elite”, the “aspirationals” and the “old working class”, who are rapidly becoming the working poor. While Labor may have lost votes recently in the middle group, it has gained support from the first and its safe seats are still based around the third. In Holt, while the working-class booths swung a little to the Coalition, they still recorded a Labor vote in the mid 60s.
He goes on to argue:
I’ve long advocated the need for Labor to appeal to the aspirational voter. It’s an absolute political necessity. But for Labor to abandon its twin bases of support in the process would be to court long-term electoral suicide. The party would lose completely its reason for being, members would leave and the party would slowly die. For Labor to turn on its own supporters and reject en masse their long-cherished beliefs would be like allowing itself to be swallowed whole by John Howard; within no time his digestive juices would start to break Labor down. In modern electoral politics you build on your base.
I really like this analysis, and the writing, and I look forward to reading more of this sort of stuff in the press, if the Australian suddenly changes tack and commissions readable and insightful columns rather than the usual fair of tired tripe of both right wing and left wing flavours.
LaTrobe political scientist Judith Brett in The Age has it right when she argues that “what Labor needed to win in 2004 was not the middle but the majority”. Linday Tanner made a similar point on Sunday:
We focus too much – and have done for some time – on the question how do we get people to vote for us, rather than the question how are we going to build a better Australia.
Tanner also says:
We’re the party of better living standards and better life opportunities for working people. Not just union members, not just employees or contractors or consultants. There’s no value in dividing people up into these artificial categories. We’re the party for working people, for people who work for their living. We should be proud of that, proud of our connection to the trade union movement, and proud of our achievements and have a much clearer, more coherent position to put to the Australian people, than we’ve managed in recent years.
Glover similarly calls for an overarching coalition between the ‘aspirationals’, the ‘progressive Left’ and the ‘working poor’, not a pitch just to the middle. Glover’s analysis is excellent, and echoes a point Chris Sheil and I have been making for some time – the point of political leadership is to aim for a majority, not an aggregation of minorities. In that process, it is quite possible for a skilful political leader to find points of connection between blue-collar workers and “progressive urbanites” (or whatever).
Chris put it well when he wrote:
As I said after the Australian election, Labor needs to find a language that reworks its internal implicit class relations, basing itself first and firmly on working class interests in the context of an image of society at large. This is to say that it should refuse to allow itself to be symbolically stranded as the party of the moral middle class. In so doing, the party needs a quality thesis (‘vision’) on working class interests ‘going forward’, not a return to dead working class stereotypes (which, ironically, Howard trades upon – Labor needs to leap in front here, to pick up today’s real working stiffs).
So, then, what we need is a vision and a narrative that unites and finds points of connection rather than attempts to pick off votes constituency by constituency. The question for the ALP, then, is do they have a skilful enough leader to do this? Personally, I’d like to see Lindsay have a go.