“The purpose of wedge politics is to define and limit the political space within which Labor must operate” – Andrew Norton
Paul Keating has often said that in federal politics a general rule of thumb is the ALP have a structural primary vote of 38% and the Coalition have a structural primary vote of 43%. The “structural vote” is the amount of the electorate that can be relied upon to support either of the political parties at an election.
If the ALP consistently goes above a 38% primary vote and the Coalition goes below a 43% primary vote in the national polling, you can say the ALP are winning the “middle ground”. If the Coalition’s primary vote consistently goes above 43% and the ALP’s primary vote goes below 38%, you can say that the ALP are losing their “base” vote.
Right now, the federal ALP’s primary vote is consistently below 38% (well below 38%) which we can take to mean that they are losing their base vote.
With that in mind, what I’m going to address in this post is the subject of winning.
Winning federally to the ALP is anything over a 40% primary vote. You could make the excuse that the ALP could win federally with a primary vote of 38% or 39% backed up with preferences from the Greens and other minor parties but any victory from that position is always a very narrow one. The ALP have only won two federal elections on a primary vote below 40%: 1990 and 2010 and both were won by the skin of their teeth.
A 40% primary vote for the federal ALP goes a long way to securing victory.
That’s the simple part. The hard part for the ALP (for some anyway) is what winning entails.
If your structural vote is 38% and you need a primary vote of over 40% to secure victory, you need to face a few realities.
Firstly, it’s very difficult for the ALP to win with a defensive, passive, risk avoidance strategy. In the current situation of the hung parliament, that is especially true.
Politics is meant to be a contest of ideas. What the ALP have done over the past three years or so has been to abandon the ideas contest in favour of talking about processes. For example, the carbon price has never been explained or spelled out in terms of addressing dangerous climate change: the greatest moral challenge of our time, transitioning the economy into the modern world or making the future safe and secure for our children and their children. Far from it!
All we’ve had is the mechanics and the process of the policy: the price will be $23 per tonne, it will be imposed on the 500 biggest polluting businesses, households will be compensated in order to deal with the rise in electricity prices etc etc etc. This is not the language of victory!
There isn’t even any talk about how an issue like climate change invalidates half of the Liberal Party’s ideology of “let her rip” free market fundamentalism and what that should mean to people in relation to what they value in their lives. It’s just been boring lines that mean nothing to nobody.
Put simply, the ALP have failed to engage the Coalition ideologically, let alone define the Coalition’s positions on issues or limit the political space in which the Coalition operate within.
Take compulsory superannuation. The idea that the ALP have created a $1.5 Trillion financial services industry in Australia is something that would emotionally trigger many people inclined to support the Liberal Party. “Wealth creation” and “saving money” are ideas that attract many people to support the Liberal Party yet it was the ALP who created and built the industry in Australia from the ground up and it was the Liberal Party who opposed it every step of the way.
What’s more, an issue like compulsory superannuation goes straight to the psychological jugular in relation to why the Coalition exist politically. Do the Coalition oppose the idea of every person in Australia being responsible for their own retirement or do they support the idea of having an extremely large cohort of elderly people depending on the government pension after they retire from the workforce? Do the Coalition oppose the idea of every person in Australia being a financial capitalist? On this policy, the conventional framing on the economy has the potential to be completely reversed but the opportunity always seems to be missed by the ALP as they’re simply not in that head-space.
Consider the mechanics of the Coalition’s Paid Parental Leave scheme. Tony Abbott has known since the time he became leader of the Liberal Party that one of the big personal issues running against him has always been that women don’t approve of him and he tried to neutralise it by offering a ridiculously generous parental leave scheme.
When pressed on the issue in April last year on the John Laws radio program, he conceded the word game by calling it a tax, yet the ALP didn’t capitalise on the key point: the ideology, not the policy. This is a policy Abbott talks about that offends people in the business community and yet the ALP can’t score points on it because they are too timid or simply uninterested in targeting that sort of constituency. “They aren’t “Labour rusted ons” so why bother” tends to be the misguided rationale. In this particular case it’s not the word “tax” in and of itself that was the issue but the emotional values and the associations behind the use of the word (not the word, but “the use of the word”).
It’s the same deal with the Coalition’s Direct Action policy. Professor Ross Garnaut gifted the ALP a line in February 2010 in relation to it being akin to “Soviet Union style resource allocation” yet the ALP only figured it out last month: 3 years after the fact! … 3 years too late!
The ALP don’t seem to grasp the potential for dividing the Coalition at an ideological level. It’s just processes all the way down to them.
There is no understanding of the values or the emotional triggers underlying the policies and how to influence them so that they make a significant difference in the ALP’s favour.
The Coalition by contrast appear to “get it” (at the present moment). They aren’t afraid to go after the ALP’s working class constituency because they understand the misery it’s causing the ALP psychologically and how that translates into the rest of the national conversation. They know that if they get the ALP trying to salvage their structural vote (38%), that translates into people on the far left splintering off to the Greens and the Coalition being able to claim more of the middle ground (anything above 43%) for themselves.
What the ALP need to do instead of thinking in terms of merely “winning the next election,” is focus on destroying the Coalition’s ideology forever. That sort of mindset has a few implications. For a start it means thinking on a huge scale and being big picture focused. It also means being secure about issues like industrial relations. What the ALP failed to do after 2007 was destroy the Coalition on the issue once and for all. Instead what they’ve done is attempt to create a contest where one didn’t need to exist in order to appeal to a rapidly declining constituency.
Another implication is that the ALP would need to create a foundation and a narrative that transcends and includes the Coalition’s ideology, in effect making them a redundant political force. This is true right now, but the ALP never spell it out both because they don’t seem to know how, or worse, they deliberately would prefer not to do it for internal organisational reasons.
Instead of going on about things like “Labor values” and such and such is a “Labor policy” they need to talk in terms of the country and spelling out the big picture in a persuasive way so that the community can digest it.
I could go on a very long tangent but I’ll try to land the plane.
Winning the psychological game from the progressive “side” of politics requires having your act together psychologically. That means organisation, energy, belief and thinking on a very big scale. The real reason why people vote for the ALP is to get the big things done and to make the economic and societal transitions necessary for the country to preserve and prosper from the future.
Australian’s have very high expectations in relation to how their governments perform and when those expectations aren’t met, it is often greeted with mass disapproval. The way to overcome it is with repeated psychological victories and playing in order to win rather than accepting noble defeat.
You can’t exceed the people’s expectations or win by adopting the Charlie Sheen approach to victory: mindlessly posting updates on twitter with hashtags that reflect various psychotic states of delusion …
While the thinking and the actions of the federal ALP remain small, internal and process driven and generally treating politics like a football game or a crude television show such as The West Wing (just the thought of that show makes me want to vomit), you can expect their primary vote to remain well below 38%.