Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Part 5: Lessons from History: The Risks of an Ideologically Isolated Labor Party

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

Lessons from History: The Risks of an Ideologically Isolated Labor Party

During the first ten years of the ALP, when the future viability of the ALP was last discussed as openly as it is today, an intense debate developed within the Party about the electoral and parliamentary strategy that Labor should employ to advance its policy goals. Denis Murphy described the four most prominent theories as being:
  1. “Labor should remain on the cross benches, like the Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons, and support whichever of the two existing parties would agree to implementing parts of the Labor platform;
  2. Since the Labor Party could not hope, for some time, to win sufficient votes to govern in its own right, it should seek to achieve necessary reforms through judicious alliances with reform-minded Liberals;
  3. The Labor Party should merge with or remain a part of the Liberal party;
  4. As it would be only when Labor gained office in its own right that it could bring about any meaningful or major reforms, the party should eschew all alliances and maintain a separate and independent identity”.
Given that Labor has now outgrown the option of sitting on the cross benches and that the ideological gulf between the ALP and The Greens is too significant for a merger to be a realistic possibility, options 2 and 4 remain as the only viable strategies for the modern ALP.
In the 1890s, Labor chose the fourth option, to seek office in its own right and to see off all progressive challengers, and has pursued it for the better part of 100 years. It was the right decision for Labor and the progressive movement then, and offers a template for Labor’s future now.

In response to the increasing prominence of The Greens, Labor must explicitly reaffirm its strategy of seeking office in its own right, with all of the tactical implications that entails. 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. Labor must not make the mistakes of previous Labor leaders like Arthur Calwell who acquiesced to the agendas of the left wing movements without regard to their electoral consequences. 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.”

In this regard, Labor should not be under any illusions as to the electoral viability 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[i]. 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. This ideological gulf seems likely to explain the apparent ceiling on The Greens vote, even in the most fortuitous of electoral environments, revealed by recent polling and electoral data. Labor should take note of this electoral disconnect and not embrace the electoral irrelevance of this agenda.

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.

As the former Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, a Labor figure who has had more cause to contemplate the rise of the Greens than most, warned:
“The Greens have appropriated elements of the belief system of Whitlam Labor and, free of the constraints of seeking to govern, intensified them to a point where they have no prospect of attracting majority support. Labor can only compete with Green grandstanding at the price of an indefinite period in opposition”[ii]
The current electoral situation in which Labor has lost nearly 1.3 million primary votes to the Tony Abbott led Liberal Party and only around 140,000 votes to The Greens ought to give the current party leadership pause for thought in this respect.

As such, in response to the increasing prominence of The Greens, Labor must, in the words of Dennis Murphy, ‘eschew all alliances and maintain a separate and independent identity’. In the modern context this means that Labor must rule out any form of governing arrangement, formal or informal, with The Greens. Unsurprisingly, building on the current formalised ‘alliance’ arrangements with The Greens appears to be a key strategic objective for the Greens. Robert Manne, one of their most vocal cheer leaders of late has gone so far as to assert that:
“It is obvious that if there is to be a progressive politics in Australia, its sine qua non is an informal version of what the Europeans call the “Red-Green alliance”
While such an arrangement may well offer a rosy future for the Greens, as predicted by Labor strategists in the 1890s, such arrangements presents great danger for Labor. Labor must reject the tactical convenience of such an approach in the name of the long term strategic good of the progressive movement. As Labor has learnt over the past 12 months, a state of parliamentary alliance with The Greens is the worst of both worlds for the ALP. On the one hand, Labor surrenders the agency of progressive reform. Regardless of the actual distribution of responsibility within the alliance, The Greens are able to claim sole credit with left leaning voters for all progressive reforms initiated by the Government. In this way, a Red-Green governing alliance would deliver the inner cities to The Greens in perpetuity.

On the other hand, and more significantly, governing with The Greens adds to the degree of difficulty in Labor’s efforts to fight the conservatives for the middle ground of Australian politics. The Greens are not a moderating alliance partner of the style of the Australian Democrats. As they freely admit, The Greens role in an alliance with Labor is not to “Keep the Bastards Honest”, but instead to suck its host party dry. Under such an arrangement, Labor forfeits the power to set the political agenda and to choose the issues on which it engages the opposition. As a result, issues that are important to a minority of voters but risk alienating mainstream voters (eg ending mandatory detention of refugees) are permanently parked at the front of the political agenda, perpetually sapping Labor’s political capital. The inconsistent electoral objectives of Labor and The Greens and the competitive dynamics between the parties mean that any alliance can only ever be destructive to the broader progressive movement’s ability to secure government.

In this respect, it seems certain that the with the benefit of hindsight, the current Labor Government’s formalised alliance agreement with the Australian Greens will be seen as the greatest strategic mistake of the Gillard Government. While Paul Kelly was no doubt exaggerating when he stated that “the once great Labor Party passes into history with this deal”, the alliance model is clearly electorally unsustainable for the ALP in the long run.

The reality is that Labor has little to lose and much to gain from explicitly saying that it will have nothing to do with The Greens. Even the absence of preference swap deals with The Greens in the lower house is unlikely to have any significant effect on Labor’s electoral prospects. ABC elections expert Antony Green has analysed preference flow data from preceding elections and has found that assuming a Greens primary vote of 10%, Green how to vote directions are worth only 0.3% of the vote. Ultimately, securing Greens’ preferences should not be a major priority for Labor’s electoral strategists. Certainly, it should not be prioritised over efforts to win back the support of the larger block of voters who have left the party to support Tony Abbott’s Opposition. There is indisputably 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.

[i] Betts, K. (2004), “PEOPLE AND PARLIAMENTARIANS: THE GREAT DIVIDE”, People and Place, vol. 12, no. 2, 64.
[ii] Dyrenfurth, N. (2010), “All That's Left: What Labor Should Stand For”, UNSW Press.

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