In Praise of Elites

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.

Glover writes:

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.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

For too long over the past decade, Labor has short the short cut to electoral office by pitching to the ‘marginals’ voters.

That is based on the assumption that ‘safe’ seats are safe on whichever side they fall on and let’s save our energy and exzpenses for the votes that count. Perhaps it is related to the paucity of candidates, that the vision is so blinkered. The reality is that the Liberals have done the marginals better than Labor in any event. So the pitch ought to be to a wider group.

It is a dreadful indictment on Labor that over the past few elections it cannot muster a primary vote above 38%. Again the insiders have taken the easy way out, virtually claiming the Greens and independents as Labor’s vote when it is clearly nothing of the sort.

Labor only gets the preferences because the Libs are even more unacceptable. No Labor person should be allowed to pretend that it wasn’t really all that bad because we got 48 or 49% of the 2PPV. If Labor could appeal to a broader cross-section of the community, it would start to regain trust and respect. A lot of young people don’t know what Labor stands for because Labor has been so canny in not presenting any serious alternative policy. At the other end of the age spectrum a lot of long-standing members have deserted partly due to policy cowardice and partly because endorsements are virtually all stitched up for factional insiders. Craig Emerson having to leave the front bench simply because he annoyed Ludwig is pathetic.

It is far better to annoy some people and at least stand up for important principles of fairness and equity than to hold back to avoid controversy or a bad press.

Labor prides itself in its history, but the present generation of leaders seems to have forgotten history. Dunstan and Whitlam stood up for what was right even at the risk of confrontation.

I had great hopes that Latham would choose that path, and he still might. His biggest problem has been that he was forced to take the leadership about two years before he was really ready. That might be why he has seemed immature in handling the backstabbing recently.

Graham Freudenberg wrote a great article in the SMH recently in which he spelled out many of the points made in this article. the strategy should ideally be planned over a long period.

peggy sue
peggy sue
2022 years ago

Whenever someone mentions labor’s history, I like to point out that the first federal labor platform (1903) had only two planks:

Empire Loyalty
and
White Australia.

Zoe
Zoe
2022 years ago

Yes, Peggy Sue, and Menzies wanted to call the dollar the Royal.

We’ve all moved on since then.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

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.

I would have thought that one thing the election result suggested was that many people are actually quite happy with the way Australia is at the moment.

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.

Unfortunately, Lindsay, many people don’t see Labor as “the party for working people” anymore. If Labor really thinks they still deserve that mantle, no wonder they lost.

As a final comment, the most important thing Labor can do, *right now* is pick candidates for the next election who are local, hard-working and determined to achieve something for their local community, regardless of what faction they belong to. But that isn’t going to happen.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

One further comment: Federal Labor’s arrogance and distance from the electorate really dates back to PJK. One of the most interesting comments on election night came from one of the successful coalition candidates in the NT. He was asked why he thought he’d been elected. His response was 1) the Adelaide to Darwin railway, which federal governments had been promising for over a century and which Howard had finally delivered and 2) locals still remembered with anger PJK’s comment that the best way to see Darwin was from 30,000 feet in a Jumbo on your way to Paris. Presumably to buy another French clock.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’d thoroughly agree with your analysis, Don. Leadership is what is needed – and that has been in very short supply since PJK walked off into the Elizabeth Bay sunset.

Zoe’s right – and the Tories weren’t exactly the party of anti-racism and anti-imperialism – Empire Day, the Conscription Referenda and all that.

Alex, I agree regarding candidates but I think that Labor also needs a national story to tell.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Mark, indeed they do. But I’m not convinced that Latham is the man to do it. Nor do I think anyone in Labor has really worked out what the story is yet – although perhaps quite a few of the pieces have been worked on. Perhaps it would be worthwhile running a blog thread (or threads) on what the elements of this “national story” should be, and how to weave them into a coherent vision?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Good idea, Alex.

Btw – at the end of the post, I suggested Lindsay Tanner might be the one to weave the threads together.

PeterF
PeterF
2022 years ago

Don,
Your thoughtful post is close to the mark, but imho it conflates two phases of rather different Labor history. After the 1984 election, in which Hawke squandered a big majority, Labor was on a virtually permenent election footing. During each of the Parliamentary terms – 1984-7, 1987-90, 1990-93, and obviously 1993-6 – it was facing the likelihood/certainty of defeat. This inevitably strengthed the politically cautious, focus on the marginal voters wing of the Party. Iirc each of these elections (perhaps excepting 1993) saw a decline in the Labor primary vote, but “victories” derived from preference deals and allegedly superior marginal seat campaigning.
More ambitious policy development went to the back burner (if not out of the kitchen altogether), along with the process of persuading Labor’s own constituency of the merits of what were pretty drastic policy shifts.
Post-1996, this lack of philosophical conviction and a loss of faith in the Party’s power of advocacy has led to the disastrous absence of any consistent policy. The electorate can legitimately ask what, if anything, contemporary Labor stands for? So the process that should have been commenced in April 1996 hasn’t begun in December 2004.