There’s no real disagreement about where the crucial seats are in Victoria’s state election. Government will be decided by the results in a dozen or so marginals, almost all located in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs or in the provincial cities.

For the government, that makes it clear where most of its resources will be concentrated. But, for the ALP, things are not so simple: it will again divert considerable money and attention to the inner city, where the Liberals are no threat but where it needs to work to hold its seats against the Greens.

Four inner-city seats are in play, nestled north of the Yarra in Labor’s traditional heartland: Melbourne, Richmond, Brunswick and Northcote. The Greens finished second in all four last time; if they’d had Liberal preferences (as they had in previous elections) they would have won the first three and come within about a thousand votes in Northcote.

Liberal preferences look to be out of reach; former Liberal premier Ted Baillieu is seen to have found much-needed traction in 2010 when he decided to follow the News Corp playbook and paint the Greens as the enemy. Tony Abbott followed suit in last year’s federal election. But that failed to thwart the Greens — Adam Bandt held his federal seat of Melbourne regardless, with a relatively comfortable 55.3% after preferences.

If you spend some time in the inner city, it’s not hard to see how he did it. The Greens still campaign in the old-fashioned way, with doorknocking, local networking and building support among community groups. Labor has largely forsaken such grassroots techniques in favor of direct mail, preference deals and TV advertising.

A tale of two trivia nights will illustrate what I mean. Last week I went to one for the local ALP in Northcote; it was a good night (and we won!), but you’d hardly have known there was an election on. No speeches, no sign-up sheets for Saturday morning campaign stalls, no rallying the troops.

Contrast that with another night a month earlier, for a North Carlton community group. It wasn’t a political event, but there were plenty of Greens in evidence — donating prizes, being acknowledged, working the crowd, generally playing the sort of local politics that Labor once excelled at. (And winning at trivia too, with a bunch of Greens beating my table.) The ALP was nowhere to be seen.

A pragmatic approach would seem to dictate that Labor should just write off the inner city and let the Greens have their two or three seats in return for an agreement that would lock them into supporting Labor elsewhere — in other words, aim for the sort of relationship that the Liberals have with the National Party. Then it could concentrate on the seats it actually needs to win government.

Yet for all its fabled ruthlessness, the modern ALP seems unable to contemplate such a deal. The inner city is where disproportionate numbers of its officials and strategists live; they are emotionally connected to it in a way they can never be to Frankston or Ringwood.

Their determination to wage a life-and-death struggle with the Greens seems to only increase as their position on the ground deteriorates.

That struggle may well go Labor’s way for now — Melbourne is the only one of the four that the Greens seem confident about (the redistribution has reduced Labor’s margin there to 4.7%), and Labor’s stand against the East West Link may recover it some ground. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory if it results in the ALP again taking its eye off the ball in the outer suburbs.

And in the longer term, Labor’s strategists acknowledge that demographic change is constantly working against it. The traditional working class is being priced out of Fitzroy and Brunswick, replaced more and more by the intelligentsia whose natural home is the Greens. Even Liberal preferences won’t stop them forever.

* Charles Richardson was a member of the Liberal Party from 1978 to 1996 and worked in the Kennett government.

Peter Fray

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