The perils of playing political footsie: The Greens, preferences & the Victorian Election

by · November 16, 2010

Me in today’s The Drum Unleashed on the ABC website, where I look at the collapse of the Greens’ strategy to secure Liberal Party preferences in some key inner-Melbourne seats. Just why is a Left party playing these games?

Since 2006 the ALP has hammered the fact the Greens are willing to do deals with the Liberals, a line specifically designed to stop traditional Labor supporters from crossing the Rubicon into Greens territory. As the wealth statistics above suggest, class remains a powerful social fact in modern Australia even if it has faded from official discourse. Yet for the ALP, crude class rhetoric about the Greens backing the Tories can help it hold onto its base, even if for purely negative reasons. This ties in with repeated (and unfounded) claims that the Greens represent a privileged, middle-class constituency, indifferent to the needs of working families. Despite the Greens’ protests that voters are smarter than this, or that there really is no difference between Liberal and Labor, the fact remains that they are in a battle for the left wing of Labor’s constituency, where class still holds real meaning.

And:

Hence state candidate for Melbourne, Brian Walters [pictured above], can admit amazement the Liberals would risk the election over ideology, yet in the same breath say he thinks “there is a certain logic in the grand conservative Coalition that we are now seeing between Labor and Liberal.” And then, not wanting to cruel potential deals next time, he can add, “How much that holds in the future we will see”. His mixed messages reflect a growing divergence between the kinds of voters and active members the Greens are attracting. The latter, like Walters, tend to be more conservative and seek rapid access to political power through moderation and deal making. Unsurprisingly, Electrical Trades Union leader Dean Mighell has pulled his union’s support away from the Victorian Greens after having backed Bandt to the hilt.

Discussion11 Comments

  1. Stewart J says:

    Well, there is no reason for a Left party NOT to play these games if attaining power (as limited as it is) is its raison d'etre. If the Greens now perceive that they are in a position to have an influence on government policy (note Gillard and de Bruyn on gay marriage…) then it makes sense to maximise that influence. That, at least, is the rational choice argument. If you mean "why is a left party considering pandering to its ideological and class enemies by doing deals to do over another 'left' party" then perhaps you have a point. That though requires you to consider the ALP as a left party (or at least centrist), and not as class collaborationist with the ruling class. As we have seen over nearly 30 years of neoliberalism in Australia, the ALP is at its parliamentary level a capitalist party, even if many of its members, supporters and electors wish to consider it still a party of the working class.But this also presupposes that the Greens are a Left party. There are element, sure, of left social welfarism, but the party is still overwhelmingly middle class, and supported by such, even if some of that support is "new" middle class (people potentially from a working class background who have an education and a professional position, probably living in inner urban areas ;) – yeah, that includes me too!).The problem is perhaps thinking that you can secure both ALP and Liberal preferences. That is how it may pan out sometimes, but I think the Liberal Party argument that they needed to maintain their own base is probably truer than most explanations. if the Libs, like other parties, have lost many of their members over the years, it is likely that only the most hard-core are left. That then implies a likely harder line towards negotiating with your supposed class enemies – something the Republicans are experiencing with the Tea Party.

  2. Marc says:

    Tad's point, I think, is that while Labor is patently "class collaborationist" as you put it, for the Greens to adopt the same pragmatism (of which the dubious preference deals with the right are simply a different example) is to abandon the basis of a stronger claim to allegiance from working class organisations.Put more baldly – if Union's are revolting against Labor's incapacity to run a consistent working class line, they are unlikely to revolt in favour of another organisation that equally fails to hold to the class line.I think this is a crux issue for the Greens – and goes to the heart of the party's attempt to position itself as a left party that is "above class". This attitude is always the precursor in left formations to rightward slide, of which we have seen ample evidence from Brown et al.If the Australian Greens want to be more than simply a rerun of the German abomination – where the "left" party ends up substantially to the right of the leftward moving working class forces aligned to Die Linke – it needs to adopt a more consistent position on this stuff. Apologetics for the machine politicians who are increasingly ruling the roost inside the party are unhelpful: the Greens face a choice of strategic alternatives, between which preserving a false consensus is simply concession to the right wing one.If the Greens take the principled road and build a more working class constituency, it allows for a more durable reconstruction of a left force in Australian politics. The short term possibilities suggested by Liberal preferences are more than outweighed by the cost to that project. There is also significant evidence to suggest that hunting such preferences costs the Greens in primaries. So it would be wrong to suggest that this is a simplistic pragmatism vs principle argument – on the one hand we have a principled pragmatism of the left, and on the other a conventional machine pragmatism of the right.Simplistic electoral arithmetic is no substitute for politics – and is helping to kill the Greens as a left party.

  3. Dr_Tad says:

    I am in broad agreement with Marc here.Stewart, your characterisation of the ALP acknowledges but glides over the vital point: The Labor Party is a political expression of working class organisation, although one that is indirect and distorted by being the party of the trade union officialdom, whose interests are different from those of their members.Workers' consciousness is mostly reformist, reflecting both opposition to the effects of capitalism and a belief that change is only possible within the system. Therefore, even when they are involved in mass struggles and moving rapidly to the Left, workers tend to look to reformist organisations (by their nature "class collaborationist") to represent their interests politically. That is why, despite its best efforts, the ALP does not have the same character as the Liberal or National Parties and in that sense is *objectively* a party of the Left.Preferencing the Liberals merely risks the Greens cutting themselves out of the opportunity for dialogue with working class ALP supporters over better and more progressive political representation. It seems very radical to write the ALP off as being as bad as the Liberals, as many Greens do, but it misses the issue of how to wrest the ALP's core constituency away from it.

  4. Ben Courtice says:

    Tad, your characterisation of the ALP acknowledges but glides over the vital point: The Labor Party is a political expression of… the ruling class' agents inside the working class! Including (but not exclusively) those who have captured the leadership of the union movement.(I am aware of the IST analysis of trade union officialdom, should you wish to quote that, but don't agree with that theory myself);)

  5. Ben Courtice says:

    So to call the ALP "objectively" a party of the left seems pretty nonsensical to me. Although I broadly agree with your final paragraph. But of leftists sometimes forget, many workers vote Liberal too; there is nothing wrong with taking votes off the Liberal party, even if Labor voters are a more likely source of support in general.

  6. Dr_Tad says:

    Ben, the ALP is indeed an expression of bourgeois hegemony, an agent of bourgeois rule inside the workers' movement. In that sense so is the Australian Greens. But, like, so what?The ALP and the Greens also operate as political representatives of partial (reformist) subaltern groupings, so we are stuck with them as part of our movement. That's just a fact we should deal with and get over trying to fudge the question.Sure many workers vote Liberal, but that is despite their reformist consciousness, not because of it. It represents a vote for an openly capitalist party, which doesn't even pretend to be an agent inside the workers' movement or progressive social movements. To obscure that important difference leaves us disarmed in the debates we have about the way forward for our side.

  7. Boris Kelly says:

    1,458,998 people voted for the Greens at the fed election. Party membership is obviously a much smaller number. Getup! now has over 400,000 members many of whom I suspect are Greens voters despite the strong link between the organisation and the NSW ALP. Issue driven political activism is a powerful force which moves the debate refreshingly outside inter party dynamics. In my opinion, the most effective politician currently in the public eye is Tony Windsor who manages to be of the political culture but not in it. By that I mean he presents an acute, objective awareness of the machinations of political process and the role of the mass media in it and in doing so he appears highly credible. He is able to play the system on an issue by issue basis and maintain the tone of an independent mind and representative. I think this style appeals to many people when in it is adopted by someone intelligently competent. Xenophon has a similar style. Steve Fielding is another matter.My point is that although the macro scenarios you are exploring are of value, I think voters are much more inclined to issue politics than I've ever known and this has a profound effect on questions of strategy. On the whole, both major parties are suffering organisational decline in resources and membership. The Greens are burgeoning but, again, they have built their current position on the back of specific issues as opposed to a unified ideological stance. The real problem for the Left, in my opinion, is that so many working class voters let down by the ALP since the 1983 Accord have nowhere to go. The ALP Left is jaundiced and impotent. The Greens have not yet understood how to engage with voters outside the inner city ghettos (notwithstanding some gains in regional areas). The Liberals have occupied critical strategic ground opened up by Hanson and as a result many traditional working class voters have moved to the Right. There is, in fact, no Left left.

  8. Ben Courtice says:

    I think I agree with you in the point of the debate, Tad, if not every detail of how we reach that point. We are indeed stuck with Greens and ALP in the movement. But (as I think you understand already) the reformism of the Greens is one that is a danger to the hegemony of the ruling class at present, even if it also carries the seeds of a rightward evolution along the lines of the Realo-led German Greens. The reformism of the ALP, on the other hand, has always sought to maintain the status quo first and foremost. Boris: Tony Windsor is indeed a good politician in the sense of interacting with his constituency. That is more a measure of how out-of-touch the major parties are. I get the impression that the Greens MPs I have had most contact with (Colleen Hartland, Adam Bandt) are also pretty good at doing that. Issue politics are important. I'm in the Socialist Alliance and we have put some effort into trying to write credible issue-based policy, which is driven by the same dynamic you identify. Of course the socialist left (outside the ALP) has 2 local councillors and that's it electorally, so your statement that "There is, in fact, no Left left" is sadly true enough still.

  9. Dr_Tad says:

    Ben, I think your characterisation of Labor is incorrect when you say: "The reformism of the ALP [...] has always sought to maintain the status quo first and foremost."Ruling class hegemony would be very weak if its elements sought merely to preserve the status quo. The incorporation of elements of subaltern resistance into a broader hegemonic project is essential to maintaining bourgeois rule. The rise of the ALP, and at times its actions (even in government, such as in the Lang interregnum) have scared the ruling class and it has sought a mixture of attack and incorporation to neuter these partial challenges. A similar process of carrot and stick is being employed with the Greens.Of course when it comes to situations where the Greens are objectively acting as a Left opposition to the ALP it is incumbent on us to take sides, and to do so forcefully. But there is nothing permanent about such alignments, and the ALP's institutional links to the union movement give it potentially more stability than the Greens possess.

  10. Dr_Tad says:

    Boris, thanks for your viewpoint, which I think is a very important one in this discussion. In one sense I think you're right about there being a revival of issue-based politics and campaigns, something that I would date to the early 2000s (if not a little before).But I think this development has come in a wider context of a revival of anti-systemic critiques, as well as movements around issues that then take on a wider significance, leading to questioning of society as a whole. I think the rise of the Greens can only be understood through such an analysis, because unlike during periods like the late 1970s and 80s where objectively many more people were involved in issue activism to the Left of the ALP, there has also been the emergence of a broad, cross-issue Left party this time.Understood this way, the Greens is a parliamentary/reformist expression of political generalisation, through which impulses to go beyond single issues are channelled. While the Greens run some of the same "anti-political" lines that Windsor and Xenophon do, they also spruik a whole of society critique (and are accused of doing just that by their enemies on the Right).The Greens represent both a positive project (a general Left political pole of attaction) and a negative project (the corralling of grassroots activism that goes beyond single issues into a reformist frame). They also, as you point out, actively or passively block the emergence of a clearer class-based political perspective.

  11. Stewart J says:

    Hmmm, I'm not so sure about the corralling of grassroots activism by the Greens, Tad. From my perspective the Greens, as an off-shoot of 60's new social movements, did have the opportunity to do just that at one point. However, the leap to parliamentary reformism has cut them off from much of their old activist base. Yes, the new issues-based activism of the 90s-00s is a challenge they have tried to tap into, but they are responding more to it than actually corralling it. Bang's idea of expert citizens and everyday makers fits the relationship better to my mind. The danger for the Greens (amongst the many!) is that the distance between action and rhetoric may become too wide, leaving them stuck as simple reformers with no avenue for expressing or acting on that whole-of-society critique.