The message conveyed in yesterday’s Essential Report polling on Labor’s brand was bad enough, but a closer look at the numbers shows it’s even worse than it looks. Labor, it appears, is losing middle Australia.
The demographics where Labor is most on the nose in terms of the values and characteristics voters attribute to it are over 35s and middle and higher-income earners. Higher-income earners are not Labor’s home base of course, and like over-65s their views on Labor aren’t as important as those of middle Australia, which is the battleground on which the major parties fight.
A few examples: does Labor keep its promises? Just 17% of 35-44s agree, the lowest of any age group. 28% of people earning $52-83,000 pa agree, compared to 28% of lower income earners.
Does it understand the problems facing Australia? 35% of 35 to 44-year-olds agree, the second lowest after over 65s, and far below the 47% of 25 to 34-year-olds who agree. 39% of middle-income earners agree, compared to 47% of lower income earners. What about the very raison d’être of the ALP, that it looks after the interests of working people? Just 35% of 35 to 44-year-olds agree, compared to 44% of 25 to 34-year-olds and 41% of 18-24s, and 41% of middle-income earners against 46% for lower income earners. That’s supposed to be Labor’s core business.
Now, these are raw numbers, so we shouldn’t learn to heavily on individual results — we’re dealing with sample sizes of a couple of hundred. But there’s a consistent pattern. Some of the results suggest a simple dislike of Labor and a willingness to agree to anything negative about it. The ALP is hardly an “extreme” party and yet 43% of middle-income earners think that of Labor. There are also some sentiments that appear universal.
“Will do anything to win votes” scores highly across all demographics, although, again, very high among middle-income earners. But other indicators are also revealing. “Clear about what they stand for” sees Labor score weakest among 35-44s (23%), and weak with middle income earners — 34% — although that’s not as bad as 18-24s — 27%. “Has a vision for the future” is again poorest among 35 to 44 -year-olds — 36% — and only slightly better among middle-income earners — 45%.
These are the demographics that Labor desperately pitched to last year, with its anti-immigration rhetoric, the hard line against asylum seekers and increases to Family Tax Benefit payments. If it worked well enough to narrowly stave off defeat in August, it’s not working anymore — middle-income Australians, voters with kids and mortgages — have turned against Labor.
There are only two, faint comforts for Labor. One is that the Coalition had worse — in some cases much worse — numbers on such attributes in 2009 and 2010, and has now pulled them back to the extent that they lead Labor on nearly all indicators (lead on positive ones, trail on negative ones). Sentiment can be reversed, without necessarily dumping leaders (the previous Essential question was in March 2010, when Tony Abbott had been settled into the job for some months), though the Coalition has the luxury of not governing, enabling it to shape sentiment purely by the way it presents itself, whereas Labor is marked by voters both on presentation and on action.
And even though the Coalition leads on most indicators, it partly does so because of the big advantage it has amongst older voters, who almost reflexively back whatever is positive about the Coalition. In middle Australia, the parties are more evenly-matched on many indicators, although Labor still generally trails.
This is toxic stuff for Labor, and means that even if they got the act together on selling a reform agenda tomorrow, it would be to a hostile audience that believes whatever they say is simply designed to win votes. This means, for example, that efforts to sell a carbon price by saying “millions will be better off” will be less effective because they simply won’t be believed.
Indeed, the whole focus group strategy of governing by feeding back to voters what they want to hear is likely to simply make people even more sceptical of Labor — and make efforts to sell complex reforms all the more difficult.
And that’s before you even begin to address the long-term task of turning around the fact that nearly three-quarters of Australians simply think Labor doesn’t really know what it stands for.
That problem isn’t a media confection or Press Gallery game, it’s the hollow core of so many in senior positions in the ALP becoming apparent.