Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Labor - Greens Electoral Dynamic in the Post Brown Era

The unexpected timing of Bob Brown's resignation has triggered off a slew of commentary about what the former Greens' Leader's departure will mean for the future of The Greens.

For his own part, Brown was unequivocal. At his resignation press conference, he repeated his oft stated claim that regardless of his involvement, it was The Greens destiny to replace Labor as the governing political party of the Left in Australia: 
"The Greens are on trajectory to become a future government. Our job isn't to make the so-and-sos honest - it's to replace them".
Looking at the big picture, rather than the personality driven analysis that is predominating in the wash up of Brown's decision, is this a realistic ambition? 

While people often discuss rise of the The Greens as an unprecedented challenge to the viability of the ALP, over the course of Labor's history, groups both within the Labor movement (eg the Socialist Leagues, the Industrial Workers of the World, the One Big Unionists) and outside the ALP (eg Lang Labor, the Communist Party) have frequently emerged to challenge Labor from the left. 

History shows that while these left wing challenger groups have been able to divide the progressive vote and damage the electability of the ALP, there is a hard ceiling on the growth of their vote. This suggests that while The Greens may be able to woo voters within ideologically sympathetic geographic enclaves, they are unlikely to grow their level of electoral support beyond around 15% of the national vote (the level achieved by Lang Labor at the peak of its appeal) without significantly moderating their agenda and broadening their electoral appeal. An examination of national Australian polling and State level electoral data over the past decade provides substantial empirical support for this view. This direct evidence is further supported by what little public evidence there is of the attitudes of potential left wing voters with those of Greens' candidates. 

In this context, while the departure of Bob Brown is no doubt a significant contemporary political event, in the long run, it does not seem likely to alter the broader structural obstacles to The Greens becoming a Party of government.

The Polling and Electoral Evidence

Peter Brent, a well known scion of the psephological blogosphere under his pseudonym, Mumble, recently compared a time series of ten years of Labor and Greens poll and election results and noted that:

“Since late 2001, Greens have tended to do well in the polls when Labor has done badly .. The Greens feed on dissatisfaction with the ALP from (in crude terms) “the left”. Their chances of winning more lower house seats at the next election largely depend on how badly the ALP does.”

As such, the data show that in 2001 when September 11 and the Tampa saw Labor’s vote crash, the Greens’ vote spiked by 5 percentage points. In contrast, in 2007, when Kevin07 had Labor ascendant, the Greens’ vote increased only 1 percentage point on their 2004 result. The pattern continued in the 2010 election, when a calamitous election campaign marred by internal Labor recriminations led to the Greens’ vote jumping 4 percentage points to around 13% of the national vote (11.76% in the House of Representatives and 13.11% in the Senate).

However, it is important to note that while The Greens’ vote tends to increase when Labor’s vote falls, this relationship is not linear. More often, only a small proportion of the fall in Labor’s support transfers into increased support for The Greens.  Significantly, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the Gillard government, unparalleled prominence of Greens’ spokesmen in the hung parliament and major wins on their key policy issues, the Greens’ surveyed level of support has barely increased at all since the 2010 election, bouncing between 12 and 15%.

Instead, as can be seen from the work of another online psephologist, Scott Steel, AKA Possum’s Pollytics, by examining a weighted aggregation of major pollsters as at 28 September 2011 (around Labor’s nadir), it can be seen that while Labor’s Primary support had fallen by 9.7 percentage points since the 2010 election, the Greens’ primary support had increased by only 0.6 percentage points. 

For every ten primary votes that had left Labor since the 2010 election, only one had gone to the Greens and five had gone to the Tony Abbott led Liberal Party.

Similar patterns can be observed in the recent Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland State elections. In Victoria, despite a major Greens’ campaign to build on their record 2010 Federal Election result by electing a number of lower house MPs in inner city Melbourne electorates, The Greens’ primary vote increased by only 1.17 percentage points to 11.21% of the state wide result, a result that failed to produce a single lower house seat. Meanwhile, Labor’s primary vote had fallen by 6.81 percentage points on a statewide basis, more than half of which was picked up by the Liberal and National parties.

The 2011 New South Wales state election result told a particularly damning story of the limits of The Greens’ electoral appeal. Despite confronting what was universally regarded as a historically incompetent State Labor Government and an utterly demoralised Labor organisation, The Greens were only able to increase its Primary vote by 1.33 percentage points (to 10.3%) in the face of a 13.43 percentage point fall in Labor’s primary vote.

Tellingly, as ABC elections analyst Antony Green subsequently noted, The Greens were not able to capitalise on the collapse of the Labor Primary in Labor held seats:

“There was a swathe of inner-city seats such as Coogee and Heffron where a collapse in Labor’s first preference vote could have put the Greens into second place. Instead the Green vote was static and all the change in vote was from Labor to Liberal. Even in the one seat the Greens did win, Balmain, the victory came about entirely because Labor’s collapse in support was so large that Labor fell to third place”

Ultimately, even left leaning former Labor voters who had given up on the ALP in disgust, chose to vote for the Liberal party rather than elect Greens MPs to replace sitting Labor Members. Across the state, ten times as many voters left Labor for the Liberal Party, who increased their primary support by a total of 11.64 percentage points.

A similar pattern can be seen in the most recent Queensland election in which a swing against the Labor Party of 15.4 percentage points (leaving a primary vote of just 26.8%) was accompanied by a fall in The Greens primary vote of 1.2 percentage points (to a primary of just 7.2%).

In total, across the Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland election results and polling since the 2010 Federal election, Labor has lost an average of 11.33 percentage points of primary support while the Greens have increased their primary support by an average of only 0.475 percentage points.

The Disconnect Between Left Wing Voters and Green Candidates

Observers should not be under any illusions as to the breadth of the electoral appeal of The Greens’ agenda. The ANU’s Australian Electoral Study has found that on a left-right scale running from 0 (far left) to 10 (far right) while voters on average place themselves in the centre of the scale, at 5.03, they place the Greens on average at 3.3; significantly more left wing than the mean voter.

Older, but more granular academic research shows that the attitudes of Greens candidates on specific policy issues are substantially to the left of the views of not only the broader electorate, but even of those of self-identified Labor voters (Betts, K. (2004), “PEOPLE AND PARLIAMENTARIANS: THE GREAT DIVIDE”, People and Place, vol. 12, no. 2, 64). For example, given a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, 93% of Greens candidates favoured spending more on social services. Labor voters, however, were split fairly evenly, with roughly a third favouring reduced taxes, a third favouring more social services, and a third indicating no real preference. Similarly, only 26.5% of Greens candidates agreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that high income tax makes people less willing to work hard, while in contrast 66.6% of Labor voters did so. While this research is more than a decade old and this ideological gulf may have moderated in the intervening years, this data is consistent with the apparent ceiling on The Greens vote, even in the most fortuitous of electoral environments, revealed by recent polling and electoral data.

The Strategic Implications for the Labor - Greens Relationship

The lesson from this data is clear. Labor should recognise this electoral disconnect and not embrace the ideologically limited electoral agenda of The Greens. Ideological isolation is a particular risk in a situation in which Labor is confronted by a left wing movement that is active electorally. Labor can never be ‘more left’ than The Greens on totemic ideological issues. No matter how far Labor moves to the left, The Greens will always be able to move further across themselves, continuing to harvest the votes of those who are motivated by left wing orthodoxy. However, by engaging in an ideological bidding war with a party who is pitching to only a narrow segment of the voting population, Labor can very easily lose the votes of the vast majority of voters who are not motivated by these issues, driving them into the camp of the conservatives.

In response to the increasing prominence (if not electoral success) of The Greens, Labor must explicitly reaffirm its philosophy of seeking office in its own right, with all of the tactical implications that entails. There is certainly widespread dysfunction in the modern ALP, however the dysfunction is not the instinct to retain government.  To this end, Labor must make the moral case for electoralism as the least-worst hope for the progressive movement. By focusing on remaining relevant to the interests, hopes and dreams of the majority of Australian voters, much can be achieved through the use of Government to achieve incremental progressive reform. Moreover, history has repeatedly taught that when ideology has drawn Labor’s focus away from the need to obtain majority support, the progressive movement has achieved nothing in the face of long term conservative governments. 

As the former UK Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell has warned progressives:“we can never go farther than we can persuade at least half of the people to go.”

1 comment:

  1. I wonder whether The Greens may lose support from being seen to be too closely associated with Labor? That would be an ironic outcome.