11 June 2011

The NSW Election and the ALP

This article was originally published at On Line Opinion on 31 March 2011.

A follow up article will discuss developments since the NSW election.

The NSW ALP has just received its anticipated thumping at the polls, creating a real Quo Vadis moment for both it and the ALP more generally.

This may well have been a ‘transformational election’ – where tribal voters irrevocably change allegiance.

The NSW ALP gamebook (copied in other states) was set out by Bruce Hawker from Hawker Britton in a Sydney Morning Herald article of 14 September 2006:

When state Labor governments began being re-elected from 1995, the public gave them qualified endorsement. In almost every instance they were elected with the bearest of margins and had to prove they were solid, conservative managers of the economy. When they did move it was usually to the centre on their traditionally weak areas, such as law and order and encouraging development. Premiers such as Bob Carr and Mike Rann were also able to woo the green vote with environmental measures the conservatives could never match, saddled as they are to the Nationals. This political dexterity effectively gave Labor's opponents nowhere to move. The result has been a long run of election wins, each one as good or better than the last. However, this clever positioning in the middle that has worked for the last 15 years has now run its race.

Demographer Bernard Salt has noted a social and economic division between those who live in the inner city and those who live on the city's edge:

…... I am suggesting that there is almost a regionalisation of wealth, income and culture based on urban geography.Battlers, migrants and assorted low-income earners who formerly lived in the inner city are now being flung out, as if by some centrifugal force, to the city's edge. What is left in the inner city is an odd coalescence of tribes - namely students, singles, couples, dinks, gays, expats, corporates, divorcees and, most important of all, the professional and entrepreneurial classes. And to this lot I might add the entertainment, information and media glitterati. As a general principle, none of this class would ever think of living more than 10km from the city centre.

The ALP voting coalition has hitherto consisted of self identifying members of the working class, people with English as a second language, income transfer recipients, public sector workers, the arts sector and progressive middle class professionals who are both secularist and internationalist in orientation.

However, the Greens message - guided by the so-called ‘four pillars’ (ecological sustainability, social equality and economic justice, grassroots democracy and peace and disarmament and nonviolence,) is apparently more amenable to a ‘progressive’ middle class constituency than one put out by a 50% union controlled cadre party designed to represent the ‘labour movement’, achieving progressive change primarily through improvements to working conditions and changes to the wages and salaries system.

Although the Greens failed to make their anticipated breakthrough win in the lower house they are the second most popular party in a number of Sydney electorates, they still won 10% of the vote and the clustered nature of its vote certainly requires the ALP to use a lot of ammunition in seats such as Marrickville and Balmain so Labor can remain competitive in these seats.

On the other side of the coin, the ‘lifestyle’ values of these voters, such as placing a premium on environmental issues, may not be necessarily shared by those in the outer suburbs and industrial regions more interested in more utilitarian issues that are part of living in suburbia – being able to run the car, keep the mortgage paid, and so forth.

The party of organised labour also faces the problem that the larger manufacturing operations employing thousands of unionised workers are being replaced by smaller less unionised service industries, breaking the nexus between worker and union and thus the broader ‘labour movement’.

Finally, in the land of the Macmansion and the self-employed tradie, ‘working class’ identity is being replaced by ‘aspirational’ ideals, creating an environment in which the centre-right message of financial prudence, self-help and independence is receptive.

And so it showed in Newcastle seats such as Charlestown (24.8% swing) and Campbelltown (20.5% swing) amongst others.

The Hunter and the Illawarra no longer have the industrial bases of times of yore, making it more receptive to the safe conservatism of Barry O’Farrell whilst the inner city is turning Green.

The glue that bound the ‘labour movement’ – a wish to express solidarity with the working class – has lost its power to bind, as ‘progressive’ voters become more interested in more abstract concerns such as ‘social justice’ and the erstwhile members of the working class no longer feel…..well…..working class.

This massive rejection of 26 March means the question of ‘what does Labor mean in the 21st century mean?’ will broadly resonate, with possible federal ramifications.

The Prime Minister attempted to set a new middle ground on which to establish the ALP In her Don Dunstan Foundation speech of 16 March 2011.

In the immediate context of arguing why its carbon reduction policies are important, she framed Labor as being between the coalition and the greens:

Neither of the extremes in Australian politics can deliver this reform (carbon reduction). The Coalition has surrendered itself to fear-mongering and denying the power of markets.The Greens are not a party of government and have no tradition of striking the balance required to deliver major reform.

She went on to say:

Like the economic transformation of the 1980s, this is a reform that can only be handled in the progressive Labor tradition…… In all of this, we draw strength from enduring Labor values - protecting jobs – always our first commitment; a sustainable environment for future generations – an environment with less carbon pollution; reform with equity, looking after those who need a helping hand; and accepting a scientific world - view in a community of reason.

For the sake of her party, this restatement of the ALP as the brokerage party of Australian politics had best resonate with sufficient numbers of electors.

Otherwise, it will face a slow descent into irrelevance, stuck between two world views based more on lifestyle than anything else, better reflecting the binary political divide of this century’s Australia than the labour/capital divide of the last.

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