It’s a measure of the development and maturity of a political party that a surprise victory can produce in one both a grudging respect and a sneaky wish that they’d been dudded. If David Feeney had lost in Batman last time around, about 70% of the ALP would have staged a street party, even if — or especially if — that one seat had cost them government. Thus it was that in speaking to a couple of Greens about the recent magnificent win in Prahran, I got the response “Yeah, yeah, fuck yeah, Prahran, shut up”.
They were joking, but the victory in Prahran vindicated a strategy that had been hotly debated within the Greens before the election campaign got well underway. Those who spruiked the strategy did so with some strong maths on their side; those who opposed it suggested it was too clever by half. It’s a fact that 80% of Greens votes come from the ALP, and the argument was that the best bet was to run a big campaign in the contiguous seats of Melbourne, Brunswick and Richmond, where there were strong Greens bases, and keep wearing away at the ALP bloc vote. Taking the 80% ALP-to-Green cycle, the Prahran move was a leapfrog, demanding that the Greens take a tranche of Liberal votes, given that the ALP vote was lower in that area. Through a massive and focused effort, that was achieved.
Personally, I was sceptical of the Prahran strategy. My belief was that Liberal votes were relatively rigid and that politics is cultural. The Greens are a moderate social democratic party with a social liberal dimension. There are a few Liberal voters in Prahran who really aren’t too far away from their policies, or those of the ALP, but would never for vote for the latter because unions, and — I thought– not cross to the Greens in sufficient numbers because the media constructed the Greens as a party apart, whose imminent demise is only averted by their national network, the global movement they’re part of, the unprecedented level of political organisation and tech expertise they can call on, and the millions of dollars in public funding they keep getting. But, as I said, I was wrong.
That does, however, strengthen my other argument that it is more useful for the Greens to see themselves as a party that represents a distinct class, the culture/knowledge/policy producer class, and less as a Left of the ALP towards which working and lower-middle-class people who have given up on the ALP will move. Nor are they a party that can, as some in it believe, appeal to a wide variety of classes on the basis of values and a correct message, making excess electoral energy based on rural areas largely wasted. Booth results will tell us more, but I’d presume that the new Prahran tranche of votes was solidly focused on the areas of Prahran where such new groups are gathered. But that class analysis doesn’t take away from the audacity and organisation that made the victory possible.
“With that continued asymmetry at the Left — a Greens party that is highly branded versus a Labor Party whose imperatives are now unclear — the Greens benefit, steadily eating into the soft complacency of Labor.”
The impact of the Prahran victory goes far beyond Victoria, since it shows that more audacious strategies can be applied across the board. In that respect, one major advantage that the Greens have stems from the current weakness at the centre of the ALP, which is really a crisis of the ALP Right. It’s noticeable that in Victoria, where the ALP Left played a greater role than it is usually permitted to do — and the campaign was filled with a grassroots energy, a tech/hard knowledge savvy, and a linked union campaign. The Right tend to prefer block-booking ads on networks they will get a job with after they lose power, and rorted mailshots. Elsewhere, anywhere the Right dominates, there’s a fatal complacency, even when Bill Shorten reminds himself to get shouty at regular intervals. There are good people in the Right, but they have allowed the most insular, pseudo-gangsterish elements to dominate, and the result has been a rotting from the head.
This has been exacerbated by the government’s poor polling, which has given the Right a chance to do what they do best, which is not do much at all. The chance of a smooth first-term chuck-out is dependent, however, on Tony Abbott’s continued tenure at the top. If someone moves against him during the summer while he’s doing triathlons rather than getting the numbers, true to form, then he’ll be gone as the year starts. Scott Morrison, coming from a non-economic portfolio, could repudiate the budget and promise to start again, let the re-inflating dirigible known as the Treasurer float out to sea, and draw kudos for his strong stand on boats. Done cleanly, it would somersault the two-party preferred polling in a flash, and the ALP would be left, as it has been for the last 18 years now, without a strong single message or approach to launch as a positive, save for whatever set of obsessions any given leader brings with him or her.
With that continued asymmetry at the Left — a Greens party that is highly branded versus a Labor Party whose imperatives are now unclear — the Greens benefit, steadily eating into the soft complacency of Labor. For a while from now on, it may be that we have a politics without landslides. The Queensland and NSW shellackings were the end of an old cycle. Should we be entering a period in which voters no longer project bigger hopes into one major party or t’other, then the steady accumulation of lower house seats will place the Greens in a position to be in either coalition or crucial support vote in more than one state at a time, possibly in conjunction with a similar role at the federal level.
Some people will scoff, but mostly Labor stalwarts out of deep defensiveness. The possibility is much closer than many hitherto realised. Of course, it will come all the faster if Labor pulls moves like Tim Pallas’ suggestion of cancelling Metro rail as soon as Labor gets in, or refloating East West Link lite for a second term. It’s pretty much as if Labor wants the Greens to take Brunswick and Richmond. Don’t these arrogant clowns ever learn? You can’t pull that slick contemptuous shit anymore, it just doesn’t work. But by all means try. There’s only one party that will benefit from it.