If parties continue to make swinging voters their sole priority, then more voters will become swinging voters.
In recent years, reform of the ALP has focussed a lot on primaries and direct election of the leader, and providing more opportunity for party members to participate in grassroots election campaigning. While making the party more participatory is a good thing, there is also a glaring omission from these development: policy discussion and values.
Of course in theory primaries and leader ballots should involve policy discussion, but in practice they tend to focus more on deciding who’s most likely to help us win: to appeal to marginal seat voters, to communicate well on TV, to play well with others in the caucus. And in theory grassroots campaigning should also involve policy discussion, but in practice campaigns are still focus-grouped for maximum appeal to swinging voters in marginal seats.
Into this context comes a series of electoral challenges by the Greens, in “safe” Labor seats and in the Senate. Labor members respond to these challenges by mocking and insulting Green voters, or by demanding they choose Labor and change the party from within.
We are essentially telling Greens voters ‘we might change, but you first.’
The recent vote on mandatory data retention provides a better perspective on the problem. Once the debate was over and the vote won, leaked stories emerged of how hard left wing members of caucus had fought against it.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlum didn’t have the opportunity to argue inside the Labor caucus and lose, but he did argue strongly and publicly for his position, representing the views of a large number of voters (including a large number of Labor voters). He still lost, but a widely held view was strongly articulated for the public record when it otherwise wouldn’t have been.
Demanding that the left vote for insider voices within caucus is both uninspiring and ignorant of what progressive voters actually want. We don’t just want to win a few votes against the right, we want to get our issues on the table and hear them publicly expressed in our parliaments.
We want to shift the entire debate, and if Labor won’t do it (because Western Sydney) then left wing voters will look elsewhere. If parties continue to make swinging voters their sole priority, then more voters will become swinging voters.
Voting for data retention out of fear of being wedged on national security is an acknowledgement that we lack confidence to defend our ideas in public. By limiting opportunities for debate, and trying to hide what exists of it behind closed doors, the vicious circle continues: marginal seat voters will continue to reject ideas that we’re too afraid to defend.
Building left wing numbers within the party is not enough if the culture doesn’t also encourage genuine, productive debate. The left will never be able to win change by numbers alone, we need open, continual policy debate aimed at changing minds within the party and outside it. Winning back votes from the Greens requires us to provide a positive alternative, not admonishments that it’s their fault we can’t change.
Former Western Australia Nationals leader Brendan Grylls argues: “Our supporters don't expect us to win every battle, but they do expect us to get a blood nose trying.” Until Labor remembers this we will keep losing voters, and seats, to the Greens.