Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Part 4: Lessons from History: The Limited Scale of the Threat

The End of the Party? Labor History and the Rise of the Greens.

Lessons from History: The Limited Scale of the Threat

The first lesson from history is that while left wing insurgent groups have been able to divide the progressive vote and damage the ALP, as Lang Labor found, there is a hard ceiling on the growth of their vote. The Greens may be able to woo voters within ideologically sympathetic geographic enclaves, but they are unlikely to grow their level of electoral support beyond around 15% of the national vote without significantly moderating their agenda and broadening their appeal. An examination of Australian polling and electoral data over the past decade provides substantial empirical support for this view.

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), a weighted aggregation of major pollsters as at 28 September 2011 (around Labor’s nadir), shows 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 voters who 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 subsequentlynoted, 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, did not opt for The Greens. The Liberal Party increased their primary support by a total of 11.64 percentage points in the election; ten times the increase in The Greens’ vote.

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%).

Consistent with the experience of all movements that have challenged the Labor Party from the left since Federation, recent polling and electoral evidence strongly suggests that the Greens’ appeal, at least as the party is currently orientated, is limited to a small sub-set of ideologically sympathetic Labor voters.   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.

Given the parallels between the rise in the prominence of the Greens and Labor’s historic experience with left wing movements inside and outside the ALP, what lessons can the Party learn from its history to avoid the long periods of damaging division that have often accompanied these movements?

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