Last Sunday was the launch of the ALP’s Victorian state election campaign, held in Geelong. I wasn’t up for the long trek, so instead I went to an event closer to home — the launch of the local Liberal campaign in Niddrie, in Melbourne’s north-western suburbs.
Niddrie is held by Labor on a margin of 4.5%, so it’s an unlikely but not utterly impossible target for the Liberals. Their candidate is a local, Rebecca Gauci Maurici, who got an impressive swing of 9.3% last time in neighbouring Essendon. Judging from the mood on Sunday there’s a lot of enthusiasm and hard work on the ground, if not much interest from head office.
The curse of modern politics is the relentless focus on the short term.
For political parties, especially in an election (like this one) expected to be close, there is enormous pressure to just concentrate resources on the seats necessary for victory. Sitting members, even in safe seats, sometimes have enough clout to get some sent their way, but seats that are seen as safe for the opposing party get almost nothing.
A successful party, however, depends on building its brand over the longer term, including in areas that might not offer any immediate reward. A tightly focused marginal seat strategy can win an election, but at the cost of hastening the decay and demoralisation of the party elsewhere.
With rare exceptions, Melbourne’s north and west has been safe Labor territory for decades. The Liberal presence has ranged from slight to non-existent; in 2008, the Kemp review found that the seat of Kororoit, for example, had no party members at all.
That of course reflected the class basis of our party system. The Liberal Party existed to advance the interests of the middle class, and middle-class voters mostly stayed south of the Yarra. No doubt class is still important (although many people, in politics and out, are in denial about this), but much less so than it once was. And as the salience of class has weakened, the Liberal Party has experienced a modest revival in traditional working-class areas.
In the 19 urban seats north and west of the Yarra (leaving aside the four inner-city ones where the contest is Labor v Greens), the Liberals in 2010 scored an average swing of 6.9% (compared to 6% statewide).
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That included such impressive numbers as 10.9% in Thomastown, 11.3% in Broadmeadows and 12.5% in Williamstown.
It wasn’t enough to win any seats, but several were close, and the Liberals picked up an extra Legislative Council seat in each of the two regions covering the area — giving the government, most unexpectedly, control of the upper house.
However, there’s a downside to this trend. If class interest can no longer be relied on as a common denominator, a party needs some other reason for being, some other internal glue to hold it together.
Increasingly, the Liberal Party has supplied that need with a conservative ideology. Where once it was socially homogeneous but ideologically diverse, the party has become more socially inclusive but at the price of an increasing ideological conformity. Ideology to some extent takes the place of class.
It may not be a bad thing for party membership to be driven by ideas rather than social status, but it’s meant that the Liberal Party has had to deal with an influx of ideological warriors who are out of step with its traditional ethos. That’s the trend that gave the party Geoff Shaw and helped to bring down Ted Baillieu.
And the trend can be especially noticeable in working-class areas — epitomised by the presence on Sunday of Bernie Finn, head of the party’s ticket in Western Metropolitan region, and former federal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella, who launched the Niddrie campaign. Mirabella (who, as regular readers might remember, is a personal friend) stressed, rightly, the importance of ideas in politics and of having people who stand up for what they believe in. But the Liberal Party probably needs to take more care in working out just what it believes and what ideas it’s promoting.
* Charles Richardson was a member of the Liberal Party from 1978 to 1996 and worked in the Kennett government.