Can Albo overcome the paradox of class?

Apr 6, 2024
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Boris Johnson did it, Donald Trump specialises in it, Peter Dutton is trying it.

All these conservatives whose economic policies serve the special interests of the highest income earners have based, or are trying to base, their political strategy on winning the votes of working class voters, particularly working class men, and even more specifically, white working class men.

Renowned US journalist, EJ Dionne, recently described it this way:

“It’s the paradox of Bidenism: The President sees himself as the champion of the working class but can’t rely on its support to win re-election. To prevail he’ll need a mountain of ballots from college-educated voters in metropolitan areas.

The flip side is the paradox of the Republican Party, which now depends on white working class votes, especially in small towns and the countryside. Yet its economic policies remain geared to the interests of high earners and investors, many of whom have fled the party.”

A similar pattern emerged in the UK election in 2019. The Conservative Party, under Boris Johnson’s leadership, wrested a large cohort of traditional Labour seats in the so-called ‘red wall’ into their column which contributed to the worst Labour result for a generation.

It is no secret that Peter Dutton seeks to follow the same path in Australia. He is targeting the outer suburban seats in the major cities to compensate for the loss of urban seats to Labor, Teals and Greens.

Why is this happening? Is it an irreversible trend?

Obviously, there is no single cause of a major realignment in political support. And despite their similarities, the societal composition, history, geography, electoral systems and economies of the USA, UK and Australia are sufficiently different to create different drivers of change.

But it does appear that there are some common elements.

EJ Dionne attributes the working class support for Trump to “… white racial backlash and the rise of new cultural and religious issues.”

And “Trump has bundled together all the resentments felt by voters experiencing both economic decline and cultural estrangement.”

Dionne also points to an interesting breakdown of the recent Quinnipiac poll. The top-line result was Biden 49 Trump 45. However, amongst voters with college degrees Biden led 60/34 whilst voters without a college degree favoured Trump 58/37.

An interesting explanation of the UK 2019 paradox is provided by The Economist in a recent issue. The argument they quote suggests:” …that a group of voters who should already have been swing voters (because they were close to the Tories on cultural issues like immigration) finally did swing. They left Labour when it ceased to offer them much…”

This same class paradox is the obvious basis for Peter Dutton’s strategy on behalf of the Australian coalition.

Rather than focusing on winning back the traditional Liberal seats lost in 2022, his strategy is focused on the outer metropolitan seats in the cities. This is clearly based on an assessment that the alienation of working class voters in the USA and UK is also happening here. There is no doubt some of the same factors are at play in Australia as issues like the Yes campaign for indigenous recognition was seen by many in these regions as a distraction from what they see as the appropriate primacy of cost of living issues.

This is similar to the argument I put forward in a recent article on the Hasluck Test for the Labor Party.

However, the early indications are that this strategy is not working, or at least not working yet. The recent Dunkley by-election was an opportunity to road test the strategy and it came up short.

Recent evidence from the UK suggests that the change is not irreversible.

The recent Economist article suggests the “classic ‘red wall’ voter is a white man aged between 55 and 64. In 2019, this kind of voter was more likely to vote Conservative than Labour. He is now twice as likely to back Labour.”

This analysis suggests that such voters have become swinging voters rather than part of an inevitable drift to the right side of politics.

It also suggests that there more factors than economic self-interest at play.

If the Australian Labor government can show genuine interest in the concerns of outer suburban voters, display the reasonable and competent government the Tories have so dramatically failed to do in the UK and have positive proposals for the future without promising to fix everything all at once they should be able to retain sufficient of these voters to retain the seats at risk.

Meanwhile, the coalition’s strategy of ignoring the interests of voters in the Teal seats is likely to guarantee most, if not all the “Teals” survive. They may even be joined by others either in the inner-city or regional seats similar to Indi.

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