Labor and its imaginary friends: why the party’s traditional core is not an election winner

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Crikey reproduced over the fold.

Labor’s poor performance in the by-election seat of Upper Hunter, held by the National Party since 1931 has provoked a new round of soul-searching about the party’s failure to maintain the support of its traditional ‘base’. Implicitly or explicitly, the ‘base’ is assumed to be typified by male manual workers, particularly those in rural and regional areas like Upper Hunter, or in industrial cities like Whyalla.

In historical terms, this makes sense. The Labor party was founded after the defeat of the shearer’s strike in 1891, and the party long drew much of its support from workers like shearers, canecutters and miners, as well as from urban factory workers, railway workers and so on. There is plenty of nostalgic appeal in recalling the struggles through the 19th and 20th centuries from which today’s Labor party emerged.

But nostalgia is not a reliable basis for political strategy, particularly not for progressive political strategy. Radical changes in the structure of the labour force, which were accelerated by the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era mean that it is no longer possible to win elections with a program appealing primarily to blue collar wage workers.

Many of the occupations and industries that formerly supplied Labor’s core support have disappeared, or been largely eliminated through automation. Canecutters are a distant memory. Wool remains an important industry, but a recent report found a total of 2874 shearers in the entire country. https://www.nswfarmers.org.au/NSWFA/Posts/The_Farmer/Business/Wool_prices_are_booming_so_why_is_there_a_shortage_of_shearers.aspx

The mining industry has grown strongly, but mining as an occupation has not. The Australian governments Job Outlook reports that there are currently 58400 people employed as drillers, shot firers and miners, about 0.5 per cent of the workforce. https://joboutlook.gov.au/occupations/shot-firers?occupationCode=712213 The mining sector employs many more people, directly and indirectly (perhaps as much as 5 per cent of the workforce), but this number includes lots of white collar workers, as well as transport workers and construction trades.

The end of industry protection eliminated the huge factories, employing thousands of workers, that most closely approximated our standard conception of the working class. A recent list of the top 100 manufacturers in Australia found only a handful with more than 10000 employees, and most of these were global companies reporting their entire workforce. No more than 20 manufacturing companies have more employees than the 7000 at the University of Queensland, where I work. https://www.aumanufacturing.com.au/ibisworld-releases-list-of-australias-top-100-manufacturers-by-revenue

Labour market reforms have also replaced wage employment with (notionally) independent contracting. This has further reduced the number of blue collar workers. The results can be seen in ABS statistics (6333.0, Form of employment by industry, occupation and educational qualification). Employees in the traditional blue collar occupations (technicians and trades workers, labourers, machinery operators and drivers) now account for about 23 per cent of all workers. That compares to 28 per cent for service workers, 22 per cent for professionals and 9 per cent for managers. Contractors and owners-operators (16 per cent) make up the rest. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/labour/earnings-and-work-hours/working-arrangements/latest-release

These national trends are mirrored at the local level, represented by electorates like Grey in SA, centred on Whyalla. As a recent article by David Crowe in the Nine papers observed, Grey was held by Labor for decades, but is now safely in the hands of the conservative party. https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/albanese-s-challenge-putting-the-labour-back-in-labor-20210528-p57vxv.html But this is not (primarily, at least) because Labor lost the working class voters of Whyalla. In fact, on a two-party preferred basis Labor won nearly every booth in Whyalla https://results.aec.gov.au/24310/Website/HouseDivisionPage-24310-183.htm.

The problem is that the closure of the Whyalla shipyards and the shrinking of the steel industry produced a sharp reduction in Whyalla’s population. As a result, the electorate of Grey has been expanded steadily, taking in more and more rural voters, and producing a safely conservative seat.

Not only does the call for a return to the blue collar base ignore the demographic realities, it focuses attention on the subset of blue collar workers least likely to support progressive political. In Australia and elsewhere, support for the left is stronger among women than men, among young people than among the old, among employees than among contractors and business owners and among urban rather than rural voters. (The Australian Election Study is a useful starting point https://australianelectionstudy.org/)

The relationship with education and income is trickier, because education is correlated with income. Holding education constant, higher income voters are more likely to be conservative, while holding income constant, higher education is associated with stronger support for the left. Mostly these effects work in opposite directions, with income predominating (at least until recently). But where they work together, the effects are strong. Voters with low education and high income (many small business owners, for example) are strongly conservative. By contrast, workers in professional occupations with relatively low pay and status support the left.

What does this say about the ‘aspirational’ blue-collar workers represented as the Labor base by Joel Fitzgibbon and others? They are implicitly cast as male breadwinners, typically of middle age and older, and in regional areas rather than the much-denounced ‘inner city’. They are either self-employed or work in the private sector. The word ‘aspirational’ is code for high incomes and a focus on less progressive taxes. In every respect, these characteristics are those associated with the conservative parties. Perhaps some of these voters retain a sentimental attachment to Labor, but making them the focus of electoral strategy is a fools errand.

Turning the question around, what kind of worker would represent the archetypal member of the Labor base? The analysis above suggests a young woman, in a stereotypically female public sector occupation, requiring post-school education, but with an income well below the average for full-time workers. The archetypal Labor voter, if a concrete example is needed, would be a Gen Z Enrolled Nurse working in a major city hospital.

This is not to suggest that Labor should abandon Fitzgibbon’s blue collar identity politics in favor of some other form of micro-targeting. Labor’s traditional policies of progressive income redistribution, and better public service provision, along with protection of the environment, have been highly successful in attracting support at the state level, and have come close to winning federally in the last two elections. There is no point in dumping them in pursuit of a non-existent ‘base’.

9 thoughts on “Labor and its imaginary friends: why the party’s traditional core is not an election winner

  1. I think the nurse example raises another point – a lot of workers who didn’t require university education a few decades ago now do. Nurses and teachers now hold university degrees, making some of Labor’s most staunchly supporting workers more highly educated than they used to be. There’s nothing particularly important going on there in political terms, but I think regressive forces in Labor like to use stats to make false claims about the “decline” of non-tertiary educated Labor voters.

  2. My family have been ALP supporters for generations. I guess that most of us were in that theoretical forty percent that always voted ALP. My great grandfather was Minister for Roads in Queensland in the early to mid1930s. My grandfather was the State member for Cairns during the war. The ALP voters back then were from all walks of ;life. But loyalty to any one party was another matter. My grandfather told the story of his post election returns to Cairns. He would arrive on the train from Brisbane to be meet by many people. To a man they would slap my grandfather on the back and reassure him that they voted for him. Yet my grandfather only ever won with the slimmest of margins. He said that if all the people that assured him they voted for him had actually done so, then he would have romped in every time. Party loyalty was suspect back then and it is suspect today. Too many supposedly firm ALP voters seem to drift away from the party. For some these people they only want to be “on a winner” and so vote for the popular candidate irregardless of party affiliations.
    This Australian bloody mindedness seems to dominate political discussions. Even elected ALP members seem to think that their loyalty has to be bought rather than earned. Forgetting all the hard work the party faithful put in to get them elected in the first place, they pursuit their own agenda. Loyalty to the leader seems to be something they only grudgingly give, If it is in their personal interests to do so, at that point in their legislative career.
    Some of this is the fault of power brokers inside the party. But much of it is the fault of laziness by supporters like the union movement. Once the staunch defenders of all things to do with the ALP, some union officials now only look to their own personal interests. Even some former union officials think its alright to put their personal interests ahead of party loyalty.
    The ALP is torn from within by ego driven members who seek only personal fame. The ALP’s loyal base is, as it was back in my grandfathers day, a shifting sand beach. When the political storms come into the picture, party loyalty is washed away.

  3. When discussing this topic, it’s instructive to look at which trade unions are affilliated to the ALP and which ones are not. Let’s look at the situation in one state.

    Here is a link listing the unions affiliated to the ALP in Victoria.
    https://viclabor.com.au/about/unions/

    Here is a link listing the unions affiliated to the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
    https://www.weareunion.org.au/affiliates

    What we find is that the following VTHC unions are not affiliated to the ALP in Victoria:

    Association of Hospital Pharmacists (AHP)
    Australian Education Union
    Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers (AIMPE)
    Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA)
    Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (ANMF)
    Civil Air Operations (CAOOAA)
    Flight Attendants Association of Australia (FAAA)
    Independent Education Union (IEU)
    Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA)
    Medical Scientists Association of Victoria (MSAV)
    National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)
    Professionals Australia (formerly APESMA)
    Professional Footballers Australia Inc. (PFA)
    The Police Association Victoria (TPAV)
    Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association (VAHPA)
    Victorian Psychologists Association Incorporated (VPA).

    A fairly similar picture would probably emerge from looking at other states.

    What this points to is that the structure of the ALP (based on a combination of individual membership and union affiliation) plus the mix of unions that are, and are not, affiliated to the ALP, means that what might be called the “traditional working class” is overrepresented in ALP decision-making and ALP thinking.

  4. Labor has long forgotten the art of prosecuting arguments and setting agendas. It is now more about my political career. Labor can be thankful for compulsory preferential voting in the House of Representatives. This means they can count on the bulk of Green preferences, all be it often given through gritted teeth, propping up their vote. In pursuit of the so called Labor base, Labor has concluded if you can’t beat em join em. It is sticking with its zero emissions by 2050 while some sections of the party openly support new coal and gas projects. Change is coming, and faster than many thought, which will see Labor in danger of becoming like many fossil fuel projects, just another stranded asset.

  5. In Australia and elsewhere, support for the left is stronger … among employees than among contractors and business owners …

    That’s one of the key points. Labor was founded to be a party of/for employees, rather than bosses and owners, and it still is. In general (obviously there are individual exceptions) bosses don’t vote Labor; the Coalition parties, not Labor, are the parties of/for bosses, not employees.

  6. Very good analysis.

    IFF (if and only if) people voted in their own enlightened self-interest and IFF all of the ALP’s platform was truly progressive, then the ALP would romp home every time.

    Presumably, these are the sort of vote percentages such an ALP should realistically get:

    (a) In the traditional blue collar occupations about 20% of the 23 per cent of these workers.
    (b) About 25 % of the 28 per cent who are service workers.
    (c) About 10 % of the 22 per cent professionals
    (d) About 4% of the 9 per cent for managers.
    (e) About 4% of the 16 per cent. contractors and owners-operators.

    That’s over 60% of the vote which ought to translate to massive Reps victories and solid control of both houses. If only people were educated and smart enough to vote in their own enlightened self-interest! If only Labor politicians were smart, ethical and not bought by corporate interest donationss just like conservative politicians. One real problem is that neither side of politics listens to, legislates or governs as the people wish. They listen to the owners of capital who make donations.

    We, the people, have gifted to rich capitalists massive tax breaks, corporate subsidies and the privilege of calling all the main decisions our government takes. Until this changes, nothing changes.

  7. Perhaps Labor is now looking at random white noise, and seeing a ‘V’ – votes.

    “Why do we see things that aren’t there?

    “A remarkable experiment to show how we find patterns in noise was done in 2003 by researchers from Quebec and Scotland. They showed images of random white noise to their study participants. But the participants were told that half of those images contained the letter “S” covered under noise. And sure enough, people saw letters where there weren’t any. 

    “Here’s the fun part. The researchers then took the images which the participants had identified as containing the letter “S” and overlaid them. And this overlay clearly showed an “S”. 

    “What is going on? Well, if you randomly scatter points on a screen, then every once in a while they will coincidentally look somewhat like an “S”. If you then selectively pick random distributions that look a particular way, and discard the others, you indeed find what you were looking for. This experiment shows that the brain is really good at finding patterns. But it’s extremely bad at calculating the probability that this pattern could have come about coincidentally.” 
    https://backreaction.blogspot.com/2021/06/why-do-we-see-things-that-arent-there.html

  8. remember the “efficiency dividend”?
    both big parties pushed “do more with less”.
    was that an S?

    there was an 1800 number advert (Federal) to find the closest vacc place.
    i thought one would go to an automated Q&A asking for a postcode.
    no.
    15-20 min wait punctuated every 30 seconds by “go online” to finally reach some one who asked for a postcode.

    the costthecostthecost.

  9. I remember the “efficiency” dividend”. It was used to push public service pay “rises” down below inflation; hence making them pay cuts in real terms. It was used to cut staff and give the public less service. It was used to make staff disillusioned and angry and to justify idiotic management decisions. It was used to make the public really angry at staff at times and/or give up on seeking help at all. It worked really well at all that.

    I went from a person who went the extra mile for people and the organization to Mr. Bitter and Twisted. I had to get out because I ended up hating the permanently angry man I had become. The place had become toxic. Of one stressed section I was sent to, I said to the good wife: “That place is going to give people heart attacks. I’m getting out (of the whole public service).”

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