Labor & the future

Where to now?

Sol Encel

This essay is prompted by my experience as a member of two committees of inquiry into the electoral prospects of the Labor Party, and the underlying factors which account for its series of defeats between 1975 and 1983, and again since 1996.

As we all know, Labor's loss in 2004 was one of its very worst defeats. Labor had also performed badly in 2001, and two review committees were appointed to examine the reasons - a national review chaired by Bob Hawke, and a NSW review chaired by Neville Wran. There have been no similar reviews since the 2004 election, perhaps because the shock was too great. However, such a report would probably reach the same conclusions as the national review of 2002, which described the challenge for Labor in the following words:

"The 2001 election saw only 37.8 per cent of voters casting a first preference vote for Labor, lower than in any of the big defeats of 1975, 1977 and 1996 and the lowest primary vote for the party since 1906. The decline in the primary vote has increased Labor's dependence on being the second choice of minor party voters.

This is partly attributable to the decline in 'party identification', experienced in comparable democracies elsewhere, and is evidence of what has been called a pattern of 'partisan de-alignment'... attributed to rising educational levels, more accessible political information, and dissatisfaction with politics and the democratic process. This trend is most concentrated among the young.

The 2001 Australian Election Survey showed that major party identification in this country - those who indicate that they identify with one of the major parties - reached a low of 77 per cent in 2001. Australia's major political parties can no longer rely on a large base of loyal electors: support must be gained and carefully maintained, and no one can be taken for granted. For Labor, this invites some serious consideration of the best strategies to maintain a support base from which to reach out to swinging voters.

Many submissions received by the Committee of Review argued that the ALP is failing to differentiate itself sufficiently from the Coalition. Some suggested Labor had lost touch with its traditional blue-collar base, while others argued not enough was done to win the support of the 'aspirational'