The truth behind ‘Howard’s battlers’

Since the British ‘church and king’ mobs of the French revolutionary era, Disraeli’s 1880 election victory and Henry Maine’s discovery of the referendum conservatives have sought to present themselves as true representatives of the people vs. liberal elites. Conservative rhetoric has often been successful in annoying the left, but despite the hyperbole conservatives have sometimes identified something real.The post-1996 rhetoric of Howard’s battlers was a good example of this. This theme was anticipated by David Kemp whose 1978 Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia argued that class voting was in decline and that politics would increasingly revolve around a conflict between a minority knowledge elite and a conservative majority. In the embittered post-1975 atmosphere Kemp’s thesis attracted strong criticism from the intellectual left such as Bob Connell and Murray Goot in Meanjin in 1979. But then 13 years of Labor government followed and Kemp’s work was forgotten. However the Kemp thesis without acknowledgment thundered back after 1996 as ‘Howard’s battlers’. Peter Brent is strongly dismissive:

“Howard’s battlers” won favour because there was little else for storytellers to hang the big 1996 result on. No Tony Blair or Bob Hawke charisma. For nearly a decade and a half it has fuelled millions of words in academia and the media. But comparing voting patterns under Howard with the Hawke-Keating wins from 1983 to 1993 was shonky because that’s just the difference between being in government and opposition. If “Howard’s battlers” is to have any validity the comparison should be with previous Coalition wins. And we only have to go back to the last Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who the evidence suggests attracted if anything a greater proportion of “blue collar” support than Howard.

Let’s compare the pre-election Gallup poll of October 1980 and the 2001 Australian Election Survey (both accessed from ASSDA), the 1980 and 2001 elections were both narrow Coalition wins (and Labor polled about 2% worse at the 1980 election than in the Gallup poll). I have tried to match the occupation descriptions in the Gallup poll and the detailed coding in the AES to a single category of manual working class. This is somewhat arbitrary and it would be useful to analyse the Fraser era polls in more detail but its a start. In 1980 Labor polled 60% of the primary vote among manual workers compared to 29.8% for the Coalition with 7.5% for the Democrats. In 2001 Labor had 47% among manual workers with 3% for the Greens, 3.3% for the Democrats and 5.6% for One Nation and 37.5% for the Coalition. Brent criticises the focus on Lindsay as the supposed symbol of working-class conservatism:

Lindsay is not a “battler” seat. It is middle income, “aspirational”, young family. It’s a swinger, the sort that tends to go to the winner of elections. Lindsay was created in 1984, and since then has moved in tandem with neighbouring Macarthur.

But in 1987 Labor had 59% of the two-party vote in Linsday and in 2001 they had 44.5%, this is a much larger swing than that at the state level. There is a tendency on much of the left to deny the rightward shift of many working-class voters, this denial disempowers the left. and it renders the left powerless to respond to popular conservatism.

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