Labor signs away its left

Saturday, 30 October 2010 

Gillard and Brown happily sign the Labor left's death warrant

Well at least the independents made the right choice. Labor’s vote since forming government has drifted down, meaning that they won’t be in any hurry to go to the polls even if they hadn’t agreed not to anyway, and so cementing the type of “stability” of this Parliament that the independents wanted.

Something unusual is happening. Labor is not getting the boost that usually comes to parties after being endorsed in an election. It’s primary vote is falling now beyond the levels that party bosses usually use to justify dumping first term Prime Ministers.

The reasons for this are being mis-read by some in the press. In discussing the government’s handling of the MDB scheme, Paul Kelly talks of the Gillard government caught between powerful forces on which it formed minority government; the rural and the Greens. He even had this tick off for the rest of the press:

Yet much of the nation’s political conversation does misunderstand these forces precisely because Australia’s media lacks the professionalism to report on grassroots conservatism, the flaws in climate change and environmental policy agendas and the legitimacy of people complaining about the burden of sacrifice.

But despite his professionalism, Kelly is still refusing to see what can no longer be ignored, that rural independents have snatched heartland seats away from the Nationals by not sharing these “grassroot” issues at all. If anything both Windsor and Oakeshott have long regarded Labor as soft on issues like climate change.

Peter Hartcher paints a similar picture of Labor’s dilemma, if rather less pompously, but more emphasising the other end of the spectrum. He points out that the rise of the Greens marks the emergence of a new progressive party on the Australian political scene that is eating votes away from Labor.

Yet in reality we are not seeing the rise of “powerful new forces” on the Australian political scene. As usual, the press has trouble seeing the most important development, namely the decay of the old “powerful forces” of the major parties, than anything enduring emerging in its place.

While some think we are seeing the dawn of a new voice for the regions, we’re not really. The current, briefly held power of the independents hardly matches the influence the Country/National party had on Coalition, and hence, Australian federal politics for a good part of the last century. A couple of seats either way and the independents would have no voice at all. When they do it has helped that while they have no trouble articulating what they want, the Labor party is inarticulate on what it wants.

As we see for the meetings around the MDB, and even with the recent protest meeting against a detention centre at Woodside, the reaction says more about the government and the media than the extent of support at the ground level. Invariably, such meetings are called “grassroots”, which used to be a term used on the left to legitimise activity outside its traditional institutions. As the left’s problems spread to the right, “grassroots” is a description used to strike terror into the established parties, and awe into the media, none of whom really have a clue what is happening outside the two party political system on which they rely.

The rise of the Greens is also not what it seems. The latest Nielsen was odd because it showed rising support for the Greens, but generally not for issues which would have supported them. Support for climate change action, while nowhere near the vote killer the press have portrayed in the past, is getting more mixed and sensitive to how the question is posed.

The problem for Labor is less that the Greens pose a direct threat than they are tapping into increasing dissatisfaction of existing supporters with Labor. Mumble has noted how Greens preferences appear to be shifting much more strongly to Labor since the election, indicating that the Labor alliance with the Greens has flushed out Liberal-leaning Green voters.

But the alliance has also had an important impact the other way. It has helped to legitimise the Greens and removed what had been an important Labor criticism of the Greens even as recently as the last election, namely that they are impractical and incapable of providing policies suitable for government. It is likely that this legitimising of the Greens has removed an important barrier to shifting a first preference from Labor to the Greens.

In effect the Greens are now taking over the role historically played by the Labor left (with a lot of similar policies), but instead of automatically transferring the votes into one ultimately for the Labor leadership, are now taking the same vote on a circuitous route to Labor – but only provided the Greens come third. In seats where the old Labor left would have gotten significant support, this vote is dropping out of Labor’s hands altogether.

Labor’s pact with the Greens, like its willingness to accommodate to the independents, comes from the internal momentum built up with the decline of Rudd’s popularity and his dumping. The need to vindicate the June coup meant Labor had far less room to negotiate on whether it could return to power. For now, though, the price Labor is paying is not so harsh for the leadership, since if it means sacrificing the left, with Lindsay Tanner being the highest profile so far, then so be it. The irony is that when the left finally gets one of its own to the leadership of the party, it neatly signifies its own demise.

Doug Cameron has tried to stop the rot, effectively asking for permission for the Labor left to mouth off publicly about its policies without necessarily being able to get them effected in government, but it is probably too late. A change in the attitude to Labor, rather than the policies themselves, is why the old left argument of “work for change within” is no longer working.

Does this make much difference for Labor? Even when preferences don’t make their way back to Labor, the Greens elected are still supporting Labor in Parliament. But in politics, organisation is all. The Labor leadership does not have the same control over the Greens as it did over the Labor left. From the other direction, Greens have a lesser interest in supporting Labor than the Labor left did. There is a tension now between supporting Labor and keeping the Coalition out, or undermining Labor and getting bigger at its expense. That tension could quite possibly work its way through the Greens leadership if Labor’s decay becomes more evident.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 30 October 2010.

Filed under Media analysis, State of the parties

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19 responses to “Labor signs away its left”

  1. Mr Denmore on 30th October 2010 11:17 am

    So where is the centrist vote coalescing, then, Shrike? It seems the Coalition under Abbott is mutating into the Tea Party, a populist, xenophobic, racist rump. Labor is spinning around in circles, not really standing for anything.

    Where is the party of Fraser and McPhee and Georgiou. Who represents the ‘wets’ as a force, assuming they still are one?

  2. fred on 30th October 2010 11:37 am

    “Doug Cameron has tried to stop the rot, effectively asking for permission for the Labor left to mouth off publicly about its policies without necessarily being able to get them effected in government, but it is probably too late.”
    To the degree that it is accurate this is a totally damning comment on the empty rhetoric and cynical disregard for progressive policy that has caused a large chunk of the disenchantment with the ALP as a whole.
    Gone are the days when mumbled platitudes about progressive policy will appease ALP progressives.
    More is required than mere mumblings in the dark.
    According to this comment Doug Cameron has both a problem with cognative dissonance and with the role of a so-called Labor Left existing in reality.

  3. Andrew Elder on 30th October 2010 3:06 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. The Labor Party is Tasmania worked hard to get over itself and realise that it does not own the left-of-centre vote any more. The mindset of Labor in the rest of the country has to change, and it won’t be easy let alone pretty.

    There are opportunities for the Libs in all this, as I’ve said elsewhere. State Libs are probably smart enough to pick it, Feds aren’t. Labor should spring back quickly provided they give up the idea that they must be the only party of the left.

    Greens have smart players and, combined with political clout, can force Labor into a smaller space than it is used to. You tell me how hard it will be for Labor to accept heir new circumstances, and I’ll tell you how fast they can bounce back from their umbrage at having to share power.

  4. Thomas Paine on 30th October 2010 5:47 pm

    It doesn’t help that Gillard is proving to be no leader and dimensionless. She came to power, grabbed power for its own sake, and its shows, she has no plan, no vision. Surprisingly for the working class woman’s background she doesn’t connect or understand the public. On the other hand Rudd always could.

    Her impatience and greed will have 1. denied Labor another 3 year term, 2. trashed the Labor primary vote.

    Gillard is actually harming Labor’s primary and will herself need to be knifed mid-term if Labor is to avoid a rout.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 30th October 2010 6:58 pm

    Interesting points. I think Labor’s ability to manage the Greens depends on what else they are representing in society. In Tasmania, where Labor has been trying to straddle the gap between environmentalists and their still reasonably strong business/union ties, the Greens being a separate entity has some use.

    I think less so at the Federal level. There I think the key issue was the international one of climate change, and Rudd’s grasp at it to give Labor an agenda, and his subsequent loss of it. I think Greens support has been much more driven by anti-political mood that arose out of the ETS debacle and a broader dissatisfaction with the major parties.

    I also think it’s important to emphasise the other factor for federal Labor – the internal momentum after the June coup. Gillard and her backers had to win government. Gillard was prepared to saw off Labor’s left arm to get it.

  6. Wood Duck on 1st November 2010 8:42 am

    If, as Thomas Paine suggests, Gillard will be gone by mid-term, then who replaces her? The talk of Shorten being the next Labor leader seems to have died down. So, will it be Swan or Smith?

    I would favour Smith to front for Labor in an out and out “beauty contest” between himself and Turnbull. If this happens, it would really take the “style over substance” approach to national politics to a new level.

  7. emgee05 on 1st November 2010 2:12 pm

    As Thomas Paine says, the prospect of Gillard continuing as PM till the next election seems doubtful. I am not impressed by her policies either – Regional Processing centre, Citizens Assembly, Cash for Clunkers. Her attempts at international diplomacy are woeful. With Shorten out of his depth, I hope the ALP brings back Rudd. He is more than capable. He had a dynamism about him.

  8. DM on 1st November 2010 5:59 pm

    The ALP is simply going down the road that all other centre-left parties in the world today seem to be going. If you look at Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Germany and almost any other western democracy you will find that the Left is in a politically fractured state. This is the state of the Left after the ‘Third Way’ phase or period, and the most intriguing question is what will the centre-left parties of the past reinvent themselves into? If they are condemned to be ‘centrist’, then what does centrism in this day and age look like? What does it stand for, and what does it not stand for? All these questions need to be answered before a centre-left party will be able to govern in its own right again.

    Also, as I can see some are already starting to see the downfall of Gillard as PM, but before you get carried away with predicting the future please consider that at this stage in Rudd’s primeministership most were full of predictions of how he had the next two mandates almost guaranteed!

  9. The Piping Shrike on 1st November 2010 11:09 pm

    I don’t think this is just a case of the left being nobbled as a force in the party. You could say that happened in Hawke’s day.

    What was unusual about Rudd’s time was the return of the left in leading positions in Cabinet, but only because they were something else. The left, including Gillard, were Rudd’s biggest allies in over-riding the power of the faction bosses (which included being the biggest supporters of Rudd’s international climate change agenda).

    The end of that alliance is now seeing things move on again, and the rise of the Greens as an external force to the Labor party, which Rudd’s agenda helped to legitimise. They are unlikely to reproduce the old Labor left. Being outside they have more of an interest in being anti- the old two-party political system and, in a way, against politics generally.

  10. Craig Lawton on 3rd November 2010 10:25 am

    Interested in your thoughts on the banks and whether this could become an issue that the parties could define themselves by in a similar manner to the way climate change was. Banking regulation has a fresh international agenda after all!

  11. James on 3rd November 2010 1:46 pm

    It will be interesting to see how much the Greens’ primary vote increases. Part of their charm is that they haven’t been in government, so they don’t get the blame when things go wrong. Right now they can pretty much promise the world.

  12. Lentern on 3rd November 2010 6:04 pm

    I think we should reserve judgement on the greens until labor returns to opposition. Although the greens steadily grew during the Howard years they have grown sharply I think since 2007 because in opposition labor can create a bit of hope with progressive platitudes and rhetoric. In government when it didn’t deliver leftish policies it the greens soared.

    I know that’s all very hunchish kind of stuff so I’m not making a predicting as such, more saying I wouldn’t be surprised if the greens start to go back down after the coalition wins government. But I wouldn’t be shocked either way.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 3rd November 2010 7:25 pm

    The rise of the Greens was evident even before Labor back tracked on the ETS. I think what has happened is that Rudd’s climate change agenda legitimised the Greens and made them look more mainstream. In a way, Gillard’s alliance is continuing that.

  14. James on 4th November 2010 8:31 am

    It’s ironic that Rudd’s climate change agenda legitimised the Greens, considering they voted it down in the Senate. If they had supported it, the legislation would have passed when the two Liberal senators crossed the floor.

  15. Lentern on 4th November 2010 2:20 pm

    Yes the rise was on before the ETS, then it all but hit a plateau in 2007 before their polling starting to shoot up again. Part of it may have been the popularity of Rudd but given that popularity didn’t subside for a long time after the greens started growing again I suspect was losing the vague, idealistic optimism of opposition

  16. The Piping Shrike on 4th November 2010 5:38 pm

    I agree with that. The abandonment of the ETS helped the Greens, but Rudd had to legitimise the agenda before making it good for the Greens to abandon it. If y’know what I mean! (I actually thought before Rudd came in that he would suck all the oxygen from the Greens, didn’t think it through).

  17. Riccardo on 4th November 2010 6:06 pm

    They probably won’t use the term Coalition (already taken) but the idea of a Labor Green cohabitation is already fait accompli, and apart from a little bit of mischief making from the Libs, seems to have been accepted.

    Victoria may well get the same hung parliament arrangement as everyone else – Tas, SA, WA, Fed, ACT. ALP will be lucky in NSW to be defeated, so their rightists can claim they didn’t need the Greens but will be in opposition on their own.

    or maybe we get the Tas claim of “Greens Opposition” that Peg Putt was running.

  18. Riccardo on 4th November 2010 6:07 pm

    And I think people forget that the Greens aspire to become the official opposition, they are happy to seek that as a form of legitimacy. It wouldn’t matter to them if ALP and Libs formed a combined majority government to keep them out – it would then make them the official opposition which is more than they are now.

  19. The Piping Shrike on 4th November 2010 8:20 pm

    They would love a Grand Coalition!

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