Saturday, 4 December 2010

The landscape, post-Brumby.

This isn't intended to be a post mortem of the recent Victorian election: there are many reasons, most of which have to do with Labor losing control of the narrative and considering its opponent to be unelectable and thereby a threat. (You'd think we'd have learned that one after the federal election.)

But this is will be an examination of the structural changes facing both parties.  There's big differences between both the LNP and the ALP's standard voter in Victoria and federally, from the halcyon days of Jeff (1992) and John (1996) to Julia, Ted and Tony (2010).  For all the whinging about Labor's problems, the shifting patterns of voters - and the type of voter who tends to 'die in a ditch' to support a particular party has affected the future of LNP, ALP and Greens.  But it's the ALP who is disproportionated affected by the changes.  With an increasingly divided electorate, the growth in consumer lifestyles and a corresponding trend in education, health, and social justice being viewed as 'lifestyle concerns' for those middle class types who can afford them, the ALP is finding itself increasingly and cleverly wedged by both the LNP and Greens, reduced to a bolted-on primary vote of 35% - and even that I'd imagine would reduce in time.

After all, there are still 25%-30% of voters willing to give their primary support to the ALP in QLD and NSW, no matter the state parties' problems there, so we can possibly consider that to be a 'low water mark' that the ALP should watch out for.  With the recent federal election and Victorian election giving an ALP primary vote in the high 30s, we have to start considering if this is the new norm - and why this might be so.

This post continues on from my pre-election analysis of the split in the Left between the ALP and the Greens (which can be found here), recasting and emphasising some of the points, and raising a few new ones.  I don't think it should be a shock to anyone who is really engaged with politics, but I do find it odd the amount of self-denial there appears to be among the ALP over the appeal of the Greens, in the Greens over how limited their appeal is, and over the state of the Lib-Green voter.  I'll also try and respond to some of the criticism I got on that post and through Twitter - I have a lot of Greens friends!

The thing I think we can take away from the Bailleu victory, and the four successive Howard victories, is how the rise of consumerist culture has broken a lot of the traditional political affiliations. We can see through Howard's loss in 2007 that your average voter and family doesn't want basic rights at work taken away, but with the fracturing of employment security being taken as normal, and the understanding by Gen Y that they'll have how-ever-many different careers in their lives, the value of unionism has plummeted.  It's not really about what benefits the workplace gets, as what benefits you individually get, and we react as a united front against evil management types or workplace deregulation only if the attack on the group is seen as an attack on the individual.  In other words, "I don't really care that they screwed over Employee X, but I worry it means they can screw over me, too."

Education, like good health and social values, is increasingly being seen as a utilitarian pursuit.  As a former teacher, I was very conscious that over the past decade it's become far less about 'What Will Help You Be a Better and More Well Rounded Individual' and 'What Will Help You Fit In and Get A Job.'  English Curriculum in Victoria speaks about how the student should better understand the structure of society so they can better fit in and achieve; ten years ago the curriculum talked about how the student should better understand the structure of society because that way they can critique/rework it for the betterment of everyone.  That's a pretty big jump.

In some ways, I think that's because we're victims of our own success.  In an increasingly affluent society in which your job is relatively safe, secure and stable (and employers held to standards by government and regulators), we can afford to think about the short-term.  About the new car, new house, better suburb, kids going to a private school, nice clothes, etc.  If we lose our jobs, it's shitty, but hopefully they'll be something else out there, and well, what did we expect?  Capitalism isn't supposed to be nice to people, is it?  The previous core base of the ALP's support, the working and industrial 'class' are those people in factory or manufacturing or industry work (mining, forrestry) where organised labour and class struggles decades ago mean they don't have to worry about work fatalies or being abjectly used.  The growth of the service industry and of lower-level management positions has also swollen the ranks of those who may previously have supported the ALP for job projection and regulation, but now with their growing affluence, and a lifestyle in which they are judged based on wealth and possessions, they increasingly opt for the short-term advocate of their financial gain.

Tje LNP has been brilliant at that under John Howard and now Tony Abbott, and under Ted Baillieu at a state level.  Suburban voters might like gays to be married cos it's fairer, and they might want environmental issues, but when push comes to shove it isn't a priority.  As a group who are largely up to their eyeballs in debt trying to sustain a certain middle-class lifestyle that's no longer about the quality education or connections but is about the house, plasma TV and the location of the house and kids' school, they'll plump for whoever can give them the best deal on stamp duty concessions, cost-of-living increases, etc etc.  And that's perfectly understandable - if your priority is basic government services and just keeping your head above financial flooding, there's little room to be thinking of the gays or the refugees or the environmental movement.  That's doubly so when the LNP wield the threat of systemic change like a cudgel: if we settle all the refugees, won't they take all YOUR jobs, and won't all YOUR taxes be used to take care of them rather than allow for tax cuts/rebates/transport?  If they're all concerned about the gay marriage, why aren't they fixing your suburbs/planning/hospitals?  If they give everything to the Greens, won't all the factories and industries shut down and everyone lose their jobs?  WON'T NAZIS AGAIN RIDE ON DINOSAURS?

Fear and insecurity is a great tool to use, and appealing to the hip pocket nerve is a guaranteed victory.  The problem around social issues, and the big systemic changes that both the ALP and Greens tend to advocate these days is that they are forging into the unknown.  We don't know how moving to a low-carbon economy will affect costs of living and job security; we don't know what accepting more refugees may do to already stretched social services (which isn't a reason to NOT do so, but we have to admit that if we are going to settle more boat people as we should, we have an obligation to make sure they get good counselling/mental health support/English language education/job skills/etc); and we can't even sell people on the benefits of the NBN because most of them involve changing the paradigm more than the first telephone did.

Just how the goalposts have shifted is something the ALP Right is very aware of, which is keen to talk about 'bread and butter' issues like job creation, economic management and low government debt.  The Right often derides the Left for trying to pander on environmental and socially progressive issues, as often those socially conscious voters are seen as bolted on Green or even Liberal, who may never vote Labor.  (See the washup post-Brumby amongst the Victorian Right, which sees social policy and environmental issues as opposed by working families who want trend conservatively, economically speaking, and therefore fall increasingly into the LNP camp.)  To the ALP Right, appealing to the inner city set is self-defeating: they either want you to go further cos they support the Greens or although they are socially progressive, as many inner city voters are, they are also Liberal and distrust ALP connection with government waste and union thuggery.

But there's a flip side to that: traditional voting patterns are shifting, and even as the ALP vote fractures between the 'working family' mob for whom low taxes and middle-class welfare are priority and the higher-educated, progressive type who is swerving to the Greens, the LNP vote has also shifted in turn.  More and more inner city voters trust to a lack of Government regulation and free market principles (Lib), but yet believe due to their social circles and their education in social equality and environmental action.  Just as there's a growing hub of Leftists in the ALP who are going Green, there's a swelling group of small-l Liberals who dislike the current trend towards authoratative conservative fundamentalism. They'd never vote Labor - that way lies union dominance, crap governance and waste - but at some point like those of us on the Left they'll be ask to consider their priorities - economy versus environment.  At that point things will get interesting.

I do think that the Greens will hit a 'high point' of 20% of the vote though, barring some ecological catastrophe which wakes the populace up.  This is not to say most voters are stupid, easily led or trapped in some sort of class consciousness.  It's just that increasingly both ALP and LNP have to appeal to short-term outcomes - and in doing so, long term policy and systemic concerns such as infrastructure, transport and the environment gets pushed off the political radar, or is seen as a 'barrier' to getting quick action on tax cuts, home prices, cost of living, etc.  The reason why the Greens will hit 20%-ish and not go up is because essentially the Greens ask most voters to take a giant step into the unknown by making huge systemic alternations to the current state of the economy, education system, career path, style of living and infrastructure.  They are the sorts of changes which can be a bit scary, and certainly it's why the LNP and the ALP Right tends to play the 'But the Greens will end up making you pay more in power bills!!!11' card.  As said above, though, the fear works: and I doubt more than one fifth of voters have the capacity, education and upper middle class income to not think about themselves and their immediate short term prospects.  As a upper middle class wanker, I can afford to think long-term, and also to support hitherto unparalleled changes to the Australian economy - no matter how many factory workers it puts out of a job.  As I've said before, a green economy with decently paying and secure environmentally derived jobs can't just spring up over night.  As a member of the ALP Left, I'm torn about action on climate change, because it's the largely limited-educated outer suburban types, the workers that the ALP was created to help advocate on behalf of, who will get fucked over by progressive change.

Now, if the 'wet' wing of the Liberal Party somehow rose again, then at least we could get something happening...maybe not with the moral certainty and bravado of the Greens' advocacy, but it would least remove the issue from being 'Greenies vs Normal People With Threatened Jobs.'

So the great lesson from the Brumby result is that voters increasingly care about short-term capability in Government, in 'wins' on the board, and disdain anything seen as too radical and unsettling.  Make sure the voter knows what they'll get from you, and you'll probably romp home.

Which is why we're pretty stuffed, really....

1 comment:

  1. Hey nice stuff; I'm wondering though why you've chosen to be a Labor supporter?