Labor has headaches, but Liberals have the real brand problem

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By: Dr Nick Dyrenfurth

The middle-class base of the Coalition has become more socially progressive and less religious over time, and a change is needed to win over young voters.

Shortly before the historic re-election of Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government for a third term, an overseas centenary anniversary passed with little local comment.

At the mid-November 1922 British general election, although victory went to the Conservatives, for the first time Labour surpassed the divided Liberal Party, reducing the latter to third-party status. The Tories dominated British politics for the next four decades, yet this realignment led to Labour becoming their main electoral rival.

These events were later chronicled in George Dangerfield’s influential 1935 book, The Strange Death of Liberal England. In its pages, Dangerfield argued that the Liberals had ceased to be a party of government owing to “four great rebellions” before World War I: the Tories’ opposition the Parliament Act 1911 (removing the House of Lords’ ability to veto money and other public bills; the threat of civil war in Ireland; the rise of the suffragette movement; and a more militant trade unionism).

A century on, are we witnessing the strange death of Australian liberal conservatism? It is improbable that the Liberals will cease to exist or become a third party (and indeed the Nationals performed well at this year’s federal and Victorian ballots).

Nonetheless, the various iterations of the Coalition find themselves in very poor health indeed – organisationally, campaign-wise and ideologically. A brand problem in other words. The Coalition holds power in Tasmania and NSW. In the latter case, it is a good chance to lose power to the Chris Minns’ led Labor Party at the March 2022 election.

One reason for the loss of federal government, highlighted by the latest Australian Electoral Study and federal Labor’s review released yesterday, was data showing Morrison to be the least popular major party leader since it began in 1987. Any Victorian review will draw a similar conclusion, sheeting home blame to Matthew Guy.

Both major parties have major headaches, which go beyond one leader or one campaign. At the May federal election, the majors’ primary vote collapsed to historic lows. In previously safe blue-ribbon seats – historically producing Liberal leaders – the Liberals were assailed by both Labor and teal independents.

Primary concerns

Some commentators suggest that neither party can boast a reliable base of safe seats. As the AES survey showed, only 37 per cent of voters have always voted for the same party. This is the lowest figure on record and the culmination of a long-term trend.

Although economic woes and ongoing geopolitical tensions will test the Albanese Labor government in the next two years, it has performed strongly since its election. None of this is to argue that Labor does not have electoral headaches of its own. Yes, Albanese’s victory was historic – in 121 years, Labor had won national government at an election on just five previous occasions.

However, Labor received its lowest primary vote since 1934. It lost ground in outer-suburban and peri-urban seats, a trend replicated at the Victorian election. It too must address the concerns of younger voters attracted to the siren song of the Greens or outer-suburban and regional denizens to right-wing minor parties.

“It is reasonable to expect that the Coalition will target Labor-held outer-suburban and regional electorates,” Labor’s review noted, which demanded “demonstrable improvements for communities in areas of long-standing support for Labor”. That is a tacit admission that working-class communities have in part been neglected.

However, the real challenge lies with the non-Labor side of politics. It is facing a demographic ticking time bomb. For only the second election in our history, more women voted for Labor than the Coalition. Younger Australians are fleeing in droves to the left, Labor, Greens and teals. The Liberal share of voters aged under 25 is heading below 20 per cent. Anyone thinking that these voters will revert to Toryism as they grow older, as did their predecessors historically, are kidding themselves.

Why? The middle-class base of the Coalition has become more socially progressive and less religious over time, a process which has accelerated in recent years. This is not to argue that the Coalition needs to become ‘Labor-lite’ on every social or cultural issue or matters fiscal, a pejorative accusation by some right-of-centre pundits. But it needs to formulate a 21st century blend of small ‘c’ conservatism and liberalism which projects a broad, unifying electoral appeal, moving back to the political centre.

The real challenge lies with the non-Labor side of politics. It is facing a demographic ticking time bomb.

This will entail overturning Liberal shibboleths. One, is the over-reliance on the declining Boomer vote of asset-rich voters. As precariously employed younger people locked into no real wage growth for well over a decade and locked out of home ownership and are forced to rent for longer, often permanently, their politics shifts to the left and is staying left. The centre-right has nothing to offer these voters, either in terms of home ownership or the problems of rental stress and insecure tenure. If young people have nothing to conserve – such as owning a house – why would they vote conservative?

As a by-product, the Liberals must end their ideological opposition to superannuation, especially industry funds, which looks likely to play a major role in boosting the supply of affordable, secure housing in line with the federal government’s ambitious Housing Accord. Superannuation is a form of thrift, one of the core values of Menzian liberalism.

The same can be said of Medicare. It is a communitarian, popular and arguably conservative institution whose universality has been shockingly eroded. Ditto climate change policy. The Liberals need to stop framing it as an inherently radical agenda, but compatible with conservatism, and an economic and job-creation opportunity.

Ultimately, housing, health and climate are material issues – barbecue stoppers along with cost-of-living pressures, wages and secure work. Only when the Coalition has something meaningful to say on these matters will it be able to recover its parlous position. Otherwise, it faces the predictable decline of liberal conservatism.

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