Monday, May 27, 2019

Without decent policies, Labor would get fewer votes, not more

The main reason so many voters have given up on politics and politicians is their belief that modern pollies care more about advancing their careers than advancing the wellbeing of the nation.

So, were Labor to decide that it lost the election – which dodgy polling encouraged it and everyone else to believe it was sure to win - because it made itself a "big target" by having lots of policies to fix things, rather than "small target" with few policies of any consequence, it would risk confirming voters’ suspicions that it cared more about getting back to power than improving voters’ lives.

Not a great way to garner votes. Particularly because, for reasons I’ll get to, the small-target strategy works better for the party of the business establishment and the status quo than for the party representing those who think the status quo needs reforming.

When you decide that having too many policies was the main reason you lost, it’s only human nature to flip to the opposite extreme of having none. Human, but not smart.

Economics teaches that success in life comes from seeking out the best “trade-off” between conflicting but equally desirable objectives. It involves using your brain to nut out the best answer, not turning it off.

As political scientist Rod Tiffen has reminded us, the no-brain response after elections is that “everything the winning party did is treated as a stroke of genius, and all the loser’s moves were foolish”.

If Labor wants to draw the right conclusions about the various reasons for its failure it will need to put a lot more mental effort into answering the eternal policy question: “what works and what doesn’t?”.

One obvious possibility is that Labor lost partly because it “did a Hillary Clinton,” focusing on the well-educated, socially progressive (and often public-sector employed) section of the party’s base and forgetting about the less educated, less progressive section in outer suburbs and the regions.

Labor’s had the tricky job of straddling these two, very different parts of its heartland for decades. When John Howard perfected the technique of “wedging” your political opponent, the original application involved driving a wedge between the well-educated and the blue-collar parts of Labor’s base. The classic case is the treatment of asylum seekers.

The no-brain response would be for Labor to “go back to” its blue-collar base. Labor can’t win without both ends. But it certainly needs to put a lot more effort into satisfying both ends. What can it do to help the regions than isn’t too blatantly wasteful? How can it look after victims of the inevitable shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy?

With every summer getting hotter, it’s not surprising the Greens had a good election. And the best explanation for the swing to Labor or independents in many well-heeled Liberal electorates is Liberal voters’ growing recognition that we need a government that’s genuine about combating global warming.

It’s quite possible this is of less concern to the blue-collar end of Labor’s heartland, particularly if it can be (falsely) convinced the immediate cost to household budgets would be high. But for Labor to tone-down its climate policy would risk it getting an even lower primary vote as more of its progressive base shifted to the Greens and, in the case of the Senate, didn’t flow back.

Labor needs reminding that life wasn’t meant to be easy for reformist parties. The party of the business establishment and the status quo always starts with a built-in advantage. They’re the people who surely must be better at running the economy and who stand for minimal change – the thing we all fear.

That’s why the Libs can get elected with no policy other than blocking the rise of all those Labor trouble-makers, and why Labor gets elected only by making the case for change. Why vote for a Labor status quo when you can vote for the original and best?

One of the Libs’ most effective lines was “Labor can’t manage money so they’ll come after yours.” Labor’s eternal vulnerability on the money question is why it would be folly for it to lay most of the blame for its failure at the feet of its one money man who does command the respect of econocrats, economists and business people, Chris Bowen. All the people who wanted to win votes by promising to spend big on education and health, scapegoating the poor blighter who had to find ways to pay for it all.

Similarly, when Labor relegates to a junior role a highly regarded former economics professor, Andrew Leigh, simply because he’s not a member of any faction, it reinforces voters’ suspicion that Labor members put their own careers ahead of the country’s good governance.