Looking at Australian politics right now, one thing stands out: the federal ALP has become a little Shorist. I don’t know how long it will last, or whether it’s even a conscious strategy. But it’s definitely happening.
What does “Shorist” mean? Well, David Shor (pictured in that YouTube video above) is a US electoral analyst. In 2020 he was somewhat famously fired by his Democrat-aligned consulting firm. His offence? Pointing, during the Black Lives Matter protests, to research showing that the violent protests of 1968 lost Democrats votes, while non-violent protests gained them votes.
The ensuing publicity underlined that Shor had something pretty distinctive to say, particularly for a self-confessed Sanders-voting socialist. He had a whole critique of US left-wing politics that went beyond just rejecting violence as a political strategy. It also translates pretty well outside the US.
Shor’s critique was that a lot of the left’s preferred policies are really unpopular, and so leftists should stop talking so loudly about them.
Note that Shor didn’t even argue that the Democrats should abandon all their unpopular policies. He just insisted that if you spend most of your time yakking about things people don’t want you to do, you are less likely to get elected.
The Shorist political strategy seems almost insanely simple: talk about issues where people are likely to agree with you, and shut the f**k up about issues where most people disagree with you.
The less educated desert the Dems
Shor starts any discussion of the US electoral scene by pointing out that people with less education (especially in former manufacturing and mining areas) have been abandoning the US Democrats. Shor points to Stark County in Illinois, which voted 54 per cent for Obama in 2008 but just 12 per cent for Biden 12 years later. Conservative Hispanic voters, in particular, have moved towards the Republican Party; Obama won them by 10 points, he says, yet Trump won them by 40 points. People with high education, meanwhile, have moved towards the Democrats. (It’s education, not income, which really differentiates today’s US voters, Shor argues.)
Shor wants to arrest this drift, and he thinks the easiest way to do it is for Democrats to spend more time talking about the things they want to do that the electorate wants them to do too. “Contrary to what a lot of people would think,” he says, “talking about [popular] issues and tying your party to popular issues is the single most persuasive thing that a candidate can do in order to get people to vote for them.” And this effect is increasingly determining people’s votes, he claims, while political campaigns grow less and less important.
Shor also points to a huge problem for the US Democrats, which seems likely to be duplicated in other left-wing parties: the people who run it are far younger, more educated and more left-wing than the part members, let alone the electorate. They are, in fact, like David Shor. Then – and here’s the surprise twist – he advises left parties to guard against letting such people (people like him) dictate policy. In the past, Labor has seemed to suffer from this. Remember Kevin Rudd’s office, which sometimes seemed full of people just out of their teens?
Albanese embraces the Shor strategy
Now, it could be just coincidence; I have no inside sources. But accidentally or intentionally, Australian Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese has been running a strategy that looks almost as if Shor was advising him. It’s popularist in the Shor sense of the word – which means it’s centred on left-wing policies that people really like. Albanese may put forward some of the less popular stuff later on, but right now he seems to be homing in on things that people will nod along with.
And so far at least, he’s avoiding issues which people seemed to dislike at the 2019 election. He’s not promising to abolish negative gearing or impose carbon taxes; he won’t even engage in discussion about whether they would be effective.
Instead, Albanese is homing in on aged care. He’s been relentlessly pushing the aged care issue ever since the Budget. And the strategy behind that push seems kind of perfect. This sort of policy pops up in Shor’s US analysis as some of the best ground for a left-wing party.
I’m not sure whether Shor has tested aged care, but he has certainly tested health care in general. In Shor’s testing, telling voters that Democrats want to make health care cheaper polls very well indeed. (Telling people that Donald Trump is a terrible person, in contrast, doesn’t work at all.) There’s every reason to think health care works for the left in Australia, too, for similar reasons. And aged care is a particularly compelling issue.
Ticking all the boxes
For Labor right now, aged care ticks an insane number of boxes. It responds to a real and pressing labour shortage. It addresses some of the deep problems outlined by the very high-profile Aged Care Royal Commission just last year. It raises wages for some of the least well-off. It shrinks the gender pay gap, since aged care workers are disproportionately female. It reinforces Labor’s brand as the champion of downtrodden workers, and probably helps it with older voters who might otherwise be tempted to vote against Labor. It’s real and substantial policy, giving Labor useful protection against the claim that it’s not making enough policy commitments. Not a single major lobby group is raising their voice against it. And it has left the government stuck in no-man’s-land, supporting a wage rise but not promising to fund it – that is, agreeing with the policy without neutralising it as a weapon.
Perhaps most important of all, this is an issue that touches a heck of a lot of Australians, since most of use know or have known someone in aged care, and many of us know workers or ex-workers in the sector as well – and almost no-one thinks “yeah, those people get a fair deal”.
True, an aged care wage rise will cost the government real money. But the Liberal and National Parties are struggling to make that much of after the spendathon of the past two years.
It’s not just aged care. Albanese is also stressing “cleaner energy”, “stronger Medicare” and “higher TAFE funding”, all classic Shor issues. The TAFE funding, in particular, speaks both to left-wing credibility on education and to Labor’s traditional base, which Shor’s analysis suggests it needs to work at keeping. It has the additional benefit that policy analysis actually suggests that done right, more TAFE funding will be great both for lower-income people and for the country as a whole.
All these ideas also benefit from the government’s sudden ineffectuality in claiming that a given Labor program will cost billions we don’t have. That’s an effect that can’t be underestimated. (I simply don’t know whether Shor has any data on supporting childcare or propping up manufacturing industry, other frequent Albanese themes.)
Shorism in the ALP
Something very like Shorism has history in the ALP. The idea that Labor can do plenty of popular things was Bob Carr’s big theme back in the 1980s, when he was the Labor Right’s leading ideas man. (Carr was also successfully urging Labor to really embrace such ideas as “communism has been terrible for working people”.) And it was behind much of Kevin Rudd’s appeal too. So it’s either a natural fit for Labor, or perhaps Not That Big An Idea After All, at least in Australia.
Nevertheless, you might not expect Albanese to run the Shor strategy. It’s unpopular with much of the US far left, and from what I can see, the Australian far left doesn’t like it much either. And Albanese is a former Labor Left firebrand who as recently as 2012 declared “fighting Tories” was “what I do”. But then, Shor is an avowed Sanders socialist; he simply seems to have collided with reality. For Albanese, the collision with reality might have been the 2019 federal election.
It may be that Albanese, too, has been in politics long enough to notice that his job is not to enact every single last left-wing idea in legislation. Albanese may indeed have decided that it’s enough to just get a lot of stuff done, without getting everything done – and to actually get elected to do it.
Note: In writing this, one other possible Labor advantage occurred to me: compared to the US Democrats, Labor may benefit from having the Greens to its left.
The Greens are not quite a pure left-wing party at this stage, but they are pretty close; they’re certainly further left than the old Australian Democrats were. They syphon off some activists who would otherwise be pulling Labor further left. Yet in Australia’s voting system, Green voters’ preferences flow pretty strongly to Labor. One result of this is that Labor, unlike the Democrats, gets most of the far-left votes without being saddled with the need to talk about too many unpopular far-left policies.
The downside for Labor is that it attracts a smaller flow of idealistic young people who would slowly drift towards the centre as they age. Shorism seems sadly unattractive to most politically-engaged younger people. Indeed, it seems even less attractive than losing a lot of elections.