What happens to the Liberal Party if it loses? (Part 1)

In the last week, the prophets of Liberal doom have been out making their predictions. Kim Beazley – who knows all too well what happens inside parties when they lose elections – was first:

If Mr Howard lost, “there is a serious question mark over the future of the Liberal Party”. Labor would win the NSW election in March and Mr Howard would remain the only governing Liberal. “After some years of Labor state governments, Liberal oppositions are still struggling to get a third of the seats in state parliaments.”

Mr Beazley noted the state Liberal branches were already in poor shape and if Mr Howard lost the election, the Liberals would not govern anywhere. “They lose the election, they lose Howard and people are going to question the survivability of the Liberal Party,” he said. “They haven’t got much of an organisation. They are very vulnerable to being out of office and all sorts of lunatics and crazies can take over the Liberal Party, and they will.”

On Friday, Norman Abjorensen gave hope to Age readers:

It is by no means inconceivable that the party that under John Howard has so dominated the political stage for more than a decade and through four election wins could simply fall apart in the event of a loss at this year’s federal election.

How could this happen? Just as the former Soviet Union simply collapsed because there was nothing holding it together, so too will the Liberal Party if it loses the only asset it has – federal office. The party, as a whole, is in a parlous state; the state branches are weak and demoralised, and true power resides in the federal secretariat in Canberra and the Prime Minister’s office.

He went on to draw parallels with implosions of non-Labor forces prior to the modern Liberal Party’s formation in the mid-1940s, and suggests a possible re-alignment in Australian politics in the Liberal Party’s wake.

Though the detail changes, this is an argument that has been around since the 1980s, and has three inter-related components: philosophy, organisation, and electoral base. These are hard to separate entirely: what the party stands for affects who votes for it, who its activists will be, and whether there is any common purpose keeping it together and focused. On the other hand, parties seeking office need to work within the electoral status quo, which means adapting to the views voters hold, even if these are not favoured by activists. In this post, I will focus on organisational issues.
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