The devastation of the Queensland election will leave many Labor supporters wondering what is happening. It only seems like yesterday that Labor held all governments and the Coalition did not win a single state or territory election for a decade. Today, the only majority Labor Government left is South Australia, there is no guarantee of victory in the territories and Labor’s primary vote seems stagnant in the high 20s/low 30s.
A recent Fabians event in Canberra examined voting trends in Australia over the past decades and its implications for the ALP with Professor Ian McAllister. Professor McAllister runs the Australian Election Study and used data from the studies to identify voting trends. Notably, the talk examined some of the voting groups that swung against Labor since the high point of 2007.
In 2010, the previous edge Labor had with ethnic voters disappeared and double digit swings from Labor were recorded amongst government employees and union members but most stark was Labor’s youth vote. Between the 2007 and 2010 elections, there was a shift of 18% of 18-24 year olds from Labor. This should sound alarm bells for Labor and its MPs. It is a growing problem as there is an increasing trend of minor party or non-party identification by each generation. It was 37% for Generation Y in 2007 compared to 27% for Generation X and 20% for the Baby Boomers. Given trends over the past decades, this is likely to have increased.
What makes this more dangerous for Labor is, as Professor McAllister noted for the first time, the Greens had a high vote retention rate. They retained 55% of their vote from the previous election whereas they had not before. In contrast, the Australian Democrats had a churn of 60% of their vote at each election.
There are massive implications as it creates a base from which the Greens vote can grow, primarily at Labor’s expense, chipping away and slowly growing, particularly if a large portion of this Generation Y’s vote is won and kept.
Why has this happened? In part because of the decline of historical social bases but it doesn’t explain why Labor’s primary vote held up as it did until it was in Federal Government. During a Howard era, Labor at least maintained its monopoly as “the left-wing of the possible.” It was the alternative where pragmatic opponents rallied to.
When it formed government and disappointed its base on a range of issues, most notably refugees, marriage equality, climate change and quite timid changes to industrial relations laws, and allowed the Greens to seemingly exert influence, it lost this mantle and any sense that it was committed to values or ideals. In the pursuit of an idealised centre, it took its base for granted.
Labor’s current problem is best summed up by Sheri Berman who noted in the Primacy of Politics that:
It is possible to win elections without proclaiming any commitment to ideology or a desire to change the world. But over time, the parties that do so become dead men walking, losing momentum, enthusiasm, and the ability to weather difficulties.
This is the challenge that Labor like many other social democratic parties must now confront. How successfully it can is yet to be seen.