30 November 2004

Stamping on Conroy

Never mind the policy, Latham prefers to fight
There were three policy proposals and 18 pieces of legislation on the shadow cabinet agenda. But Mark Latham was more intent on an Old West shootout with Stephen Conroy, his deputy Senate leader.

No sooner had yesterday's 10am meeting begun than the two men - half of Labor's 'leadership group' - restarted the internecine battle over Conroy's alleged 'jihad' against his boss.

The bitter fight over Conroy's alleged leaking against his leader was supposed to have been resolved on Sunday, when Conroy put out a statement of contrition and loyalty. Obviously not.

According to one witness, the Latham-Conroy interaction was 'like the gunfight at the OK Corral'. Another said the rest of the 17-member shadow cabinet watched in appalled silence like 'spectators at a tennis match' as the two argued.

The best way for opposition leaders to stamp their authority on the party is by winning elections. If that can't be done, life gets harder. The Latham campaign lost ground to the coalition. Finding out why that happened is a much higher priority than trying to stamp on heads. It is to be hoped we don't hear soon that the ALP leadership would walk over hot coals for Latham.

What's actually happening is a longterm decline in Labor support among aspirational voters.

The changing face of the ALP voter
From 1996 onwards, the industrial backbone of the ALP vote, as measured by our modeling, began to weaken, until, at the last election, the correlation - for male tradespersons - had lapsed into statistical insignificance, at plus 0.06, while female tradespersons was minus 0.08.

Skilled blue collar workers, such as electricians, carpenters, like open cut miners before them, have now been lost to the ALP, as their wages have increased, in a more competitive international economy.

On the flipside, in 1966, the correlation between the ALP two-party preferred vote and male and female clerks was 0.00 and plus 0.02 respectively - totally neutral. The latter, under the then census definitions, was a huge group, comprising one in three female workers and 11 per cent of the total workforce.

Over the intervening 38 years, this group’s links with the Liberals has weakened, along with sales staff; to the extent that the less skilled clerical and sales groups, such as sales assistants, keyboard operators, bar staff and carers, comprise the major electoral base for the ALP.

The images that we saw in the last week of the election campaign, of the tattooed Tasmanian timber workers - cheering a Liberal Prime Minister - were only the visible tip of the statistical iceberg.

Food for thought for the new ALP front bench … not to mention the ACTU.

Perhaps the ALP frontbench could devote its attentions to why its aspirational campaign inspired so few aspirational votes. perhaps they could also think abput their gift of a Victorian Senate seat to Family First.

Votes pinched by Family First
On the basis of the modelling, Black reaches this conclusion about the make-up of the Family First vote: "The first group was what you would have expected from a party founded by religious activists; middle income, professional, evangelical – and Liberal. But the second group, equal in size, was rusted on Labor voters – agnostic, blue-collar, lower income, single parents."

Black theorises that these were the voters who were the bottom-end losers in Labor's controversial tax and family policy. They couldn't bring themselves to vote for John Howard. But they weren't going to reward Latham, so they parked their vote with Family First.

Trouble is, those votes then found their way back to Howard via preferences. According to Black's calculations, they did so in sufficient numbers to deliver the Coalition three Labor-held seats (Bonner, Wakefield and Kingston) and the 39th Coalition senator in Queensland – which gave Howard his historic majority in both houses of parliament.

Says Black: "Sole parents earning up to $35,000 a year may not have believed in God or Family First. But they saw Labor's ladder of opportunity not as something to climb, but leading down to the cellar."

The point being it was Latham's ladder of opportunity and Latham's tax policy. And Conroy had nothing to do with either concept.

Howard's success in 2001 and 2004 is built on annexing former One Nation voters.The two major parties may not have offered that group much by way of effective policy, but Howard found ways (Tampa, the War) to make them feel good about themselves. I suspect Howard was not looking in his wildest dreams for a Labor tax policy that actively punished these voters (or could be represented that way) in pursuit of the exciting possibility of an aspirational vote that appears not to exist.

If Labor spends it's time fighting irrelevant battles on who runs the party they face losing another significant slab of the electorate. Perhaps a policy that addressed these people would be a good idea. Perhaps the ALP could even stun the country by talking about equity at the bottom. Or questioning whether an economic boom foudned on exploding personal debt, a ballooning trade deficit, and the end of affordable housing is entirely an unmixed blessing.