Further NSW thoughts

In the end the NSW election went as the polls predicted. Any very large swing tends to be somewhat irregular perhaps because traditional patterns of voting are disrupted. Labor sympathisers made much of the Greens disappointing performance. There would have been a time when for a political force to the left of the ALP to poll over 10% of the vote in election after election would have been considered remarkable but expectations have raised and the press gallery is unsympathetic to the Greens. The Greens might however ask whether they contribute to this hostility struck by Latima Bourke’s comment that the federal Greens don’t brief reporters after party meetings. As one Green supporter has noted Greens are stuck in a frustrating political limbo where they come close but never close enough. However a party can survive despite failing to win lower house seats, the DLP’s vote held in the Senate right to its final collapse and its final demise was due to its voters shifting towards the Coalition but Labor has little to offer Green voters. The rise of the Greens has long term significance for the ALP because it reduces the talent pool for potential Labor MPs. Across much of the north shore of Sydney Labor is the third party it may be Liberal heartland but many Labor politicians have been recruited from this milieu. Trevor Cook declares:

Pre-select 40 or 50 good candidates as quickly as possible. Labor needs new candidates in the seats it lost, and in others, as soon as possible. It needs people on the ground, with connections to local communities, who are willing to do the hard grind of doorknocking every weekend, running local issue campaigns, representing voters with a grievance against the O’Farrell government etc.

How many of these with local community connections are Labor voters now?

When a party polls under 40% of the two-party vote it inevitably loses ‘heartland’ seats. But this election may represent a turning point for some regions. Labor never regained the rural vote it lost in 1988. The collapse in Labor’s Bathurst vote this time in part reflected particular local issues but Labor’s vote also collapsed in Broken Hill. In electoral politics regions can demonstrate a political inertia where they continue to vote for a party long ago the social base for that party has declined. Democrat support in the American South is the classic example. Eventually there comes a realigning election where electoral behaviour catches up with social reality. Will electorates such as Charlestown and Newcastle now become marginals that Labor has to fight to win? It goes the other way at the federal level Labor polls a majority in some north coast seats. Eventually state politics will catch up. Perhaps when Labor next wins government it do so by falling over the line in Charlestown and Lismore.

One point about Labor’s experience in goverment. Trevor Cook declares:

Another misunderstanding is the idea that Labor would have greater electoral appeal without unions. There is scant evidence for this idea. Unions provide significant resources, especially in campaigning personnel and they provide the ALP with a distinctive identity. The problem lies in relationships between the party organisation and the parliamentary party. Where the organisation tries to dominate the parliamentary leadership (blocking privatisation, engineering leadership coups) the electoral consequences are invariably disastrous. As galling as it might be for the egos of those in the organisation, the best option is always to support the parliamentary leadership team. Disunity never works, and the parliamentary leader is ultimately the person responsible for winning elections and governing. The party organisation has a lot of influence through pre-selections, but once those candidates have been pre-selected its role is, or should be, purely supportive.

In my book I discussed the Lang experiment in NSW as an attempt by a union-dominated party organisation to control the parliamentary party:

It was always possible that there might have emerged in Australia a workers’ party well to the left of where the Labor party ended up. The 30.8% Lang Labor polled in NSW in 1931 provides an illustration of its potential magnitude. But this was not a majority. The project of the industrial left was not achievable in a democracy. In 1939 the industrial union left again found itself in a position to dominate the NSW ALP having finally overthrown the Lang group, but it was the union dominated NSW party conference in 1939 that restored to caucus the right to elect its leader. Willis, who had parted company with Lang as early as 1933 condemned the decision.  Unions surrendered their power in the NSW ALP in 1939 because they knew that if they held it they would make the ALP unelectable, British trade unions followed a similar path in their acquiescence to Tony Blair. Here lies the eternal dilemma of forces to the left of the Labor mainstream from the 1920s to the present. The Greens feast on Labor’s left, but any prospect of Green political power will dependent on cooperation with a Labor party in government whose margin of electoral success will depend on voters that the Greens disdain.

Political success is to be found somewhere between Albert Willis and Trevor Cook.

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