ANALYSIS: A popular theory among political commentators in this and other western democracies is that the weight of public opinion prefers a centrist approach to economic and social policy.
Nick Dyrenfurth, in a recent article in The Monthly entitled ‘Back to the people’ suggests that, counter to research conducted by the Australian Labor Party regarding issues of importance to its members; middle-Australia is not swayed by “progressive” idealism.
“Most centre-left parties are struggling to define themselves in a political climate defined by free-market economic globalisation, declining union density and technological disruption. Centre-right parties govern across most of Europe. British Labour is a basket case. Like its social democratic cousins, Labor increasingly relies on a highly-professionalised elite. “Progressive” catchphrases tend to stress equality, fairness, diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, which struggle to resonate emotionally with voters.”
“… Of the issues (Labor) members nominated for potential discussion with a shadow cabinet minister, the environment and climate change ranked first for 23 per cent of survey respondents. Next, on 16 per cent, came immigration and asylum seekers. The economy was seventh, attracting only 7 per cent. The budget interested just 5 per cent, and national security finished last with 1 per cent. Clearly, the priorities of Labor’s progressive, middle-class inner-city membership and of many MPs are completely at odds with the sensibilities and voting habits of the Australians who will decide the next election on the basis of the economy, the budget deficit, jobs, job security and wages, unauthorised immigration and national security.” (Emphasis added.)
Dyrenfurth’s plea to Labor is to eschew ‘middle-class inner-city’ progressive ideas and provide the electorate with ‘more vanilla’ in the belief that appealing to a moderate, centrist populous will deliver a chance at returning to government in 2016.
But ‘more vanilla’ is not necessarily the experience of western democracies around the world.
The popularity of Corbyn and Sanders in the UK and US and the elections of Trudeau in Canada and Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza Party in Greece, and even the success of the Scottish National Party in the recent UK, would appear to offer an alternative theory.
What appealed to UK Labor and the progressives amongst Canada’s voters, and is appealing to Democrats in the US, is strong leadership coupled with high idealism backed up with deliberately progressive rhetoric, if not actual policy.
The diminutive member for Islington North, Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, was universally written off by the UK Tories, the centrist Labour movement and the British press as being much too strongly rooted in his social-democratic roots to become a credible leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom.
Corbyn’s philosophy is firmly based around poverty and social inequality. He advocates the re-nationalization of the railways and public utilities and has championed unilateral nuclear disarmament, free university tuition and an unashamedly green agenda of significantly increased renewable energy targets and the phasing out of the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels.
An unabashed “socialist” in the traditional sense, Corbyn barely gained sufficient nominations from Labour MPs to secure a spot on the leadership ballot, but then rapidly rose to lead the polling for the leadership of the Party for the duration of the campaign and went on to achieve a resounding – some would say ‘landslide’ – victory securing nearly 60 per cent of first round voting.
After announcing his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in April 2015, Bernie Sanders has made consistent and occasionally remarkable in-roads into an apparently unassailable lead by US political royal and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
While at least as unlikely a candidate as his UK counterpart, the rise and rise of this self-confessed socialist, peace campaigner, former conscientious objector and avid critic of the moneyed classes in a notoriously pro-capitalist and conservative United States is remarkable.
In a February 2016 Huffington Post poll, Sanders’ is polling at 36.8 per cent in an aggregated poll of 29 polling organisations monitoring the 2016 National Democratic Primary. To be polling at nearly 37 per cent against an establishment candidate like Clinton (who is, admittedly, at 50.2 per cent) is nothing short of astonishing.
The net effect for Clinton has been a refocusing of her social justice rhetoric, with an increased emphasis on the very same policy positions that Sanders has been espousing. Following the struck match result in Iowa and the apparent 60 per cent to 40 per cent victory to Sanders in the New Hampshire Primary, income inequality and the minimum wage will inevitably feature in Clinton’s stump speeches in the lead up to the South Carolina primary, notwithstanding that she currently holds a pretty comfortable 63.2 per cent to 33.3 per cent lead according to the polls.
Justin Trudeau’s recent victory in Canada’s general elections delivered the largest-ever numerical increase in seats recorded for the Canadian Parliament. Trudeau took the Liberal Party of Canada from a lack-lustre third-position with 36 seats to a victory that saw the party secure nearly 40 per cent of the popular vote and 184 seats in a commanding mandate to form a comfortable majority government.
In the aftermath of the Paris tragedies of November 2015, Trudeau’s commentary was scrupulously measured and cautious, in stark contrast to comments by Hollande in France, Cameron in the UK or the more aggressive protagonists among Australia’s conservative political and media.
The 50/50 split by gender, reinforced by a multi-ethnic and multi-faith cabinet has led the 29th Canadian ministry to be dubbed one of the most diverse of any western democracy. Right out of the blocks, Trudeau’s ministry has begun work on shifting the taxation burden away from the middle class towards the rich, and significantly increasing the Syrian refugee intake to 25,000.
When questioned on the make-up of his cabinet, and in particular why there were 50 per cent women, Trudeau’s now famous reply was “because it’s 2015” – a statement clearly tilting at his progressive agenda.
While arguably more center-left than his UK and US brethren, Trudeau is a self-declared feminist, is resolutely pro-choice on abortion, supports the legalization of marijuana and is a champion of religious freedom.
Perhaps more pointedly, Trudeau’s foreign policy agenda revolves around peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and the reduction of Canadian troops in foreign (particularly Middle-Eastern) conflicts.
Trudeau is, by any measure, a long way from the hardline conservatism of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, and has been pejoratively labeled as: shaggy-haired; gaffe-prone; subject to depthless impetuosity; and, above all, a democratic-socialist in the bleeding-heart liberal mold.
The outstanding success of the Scottish National Party in the recent UK general elections (notwithstanding the re-election of a conservative government) has made the SNP the third-largest political party by membership and overall representation in the UK House of Commons.
The party’s success as a social democratic party is built on much the same basis as Trudeau’s Liberals in Canada and Corbyn’s platform with UK Labour – the environment, social justice, progressive taxation, affordable social housing and an intriguing anti-nuclear stance (Scotland has four nuclear power stations and two nuclear-capable military bases (Clyde and Neptune) which provide significant employment opportunities for Scottish workers).
A potential (although not predicted) coalition of SNP and UK Labour would cause significant headaches for the UK’s Tories at the next UK general elections in May 2020.
In Greece, Tsipras’ Syriza party has had a more checkered but nonetheless revealing history. In reaction to crippling austerity measurements that Syriza claim were being imposed by Germany, Tsipras came to power with a modest 36 per cent of the vote.
In the snap election of September 2015, Syriza was returned on much the same margin despite the failure of Tsipras’ coalition government to achieve the progressive policy outcomes that it had originally sought a mandate for.
On the other side of the political divide, the inexplicable rise of real estate tycoon and reality television personality, Donald Trump, as the front-runner for the Republican (GOP) Presidential Nominations also challenges the Dyrenfurth theory.
Trump (on 35.5 per cent) is comfortably ahead of his nearest rival, Ted Cruz (18.5 per cent), and is well ahead of the rest of the most ultra-conservative cadre of GOP candidates in United States history.
The increasing momentum of social-democratic movements and their counter-weights around the world makes a considered study of mass-appeal politics and policy in the Australian context a worthwhile exercise.
The rise and rise of Corbyn and Sanders from the left and Trump et al. from the right, suggests that more extreme policy, coupled with decisive leadership and populist policy is at least as likely a recipe for electoral success as the centrist line.
For the Australian Labor Party, rather than shying away from a progressive social democratic platform and strong, idealistic leadership, the strategists at Labor’s National Secretariat may need to offer an alternative to Dyrenfurth’s ‘more vanilla’ centrist mantra and give the electorate a real alternative to garner success at the ballot box in 2016.
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