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.

Like major political parties around the world, the Liberal Party has many fewer members than it used to have. Over the last forty years, the proportion of people telling pollsters that they are members of political parties has halved, to about 3%. Twice as many people are members of environmental groups as are members of all political parties combined (this is coming from the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 2005). Who wants to devote their lives to maintaining messy political compromises, when the purity of saving the forests beckons? In politics, boutiques are doing better than the old department stores.

According to the analysis in Political Parties in Transition, the Liberals are probably under a quarter of their peak membership. Most analysis suggests that Labor has even fewer members, but the left’s level of activism is higher, so they probably have more volunteer hours to draw on.

I suspect this trend is irreversible in our current context, whether the party wins in 2007 or loses – the ALP is not threatening enough to mobilise Liberal voters to political action beyond the ballot box every few years (Gough Whitlam prompted the Party’s largest membership surge since its founding). A loss, however, would make things worse, further lessening the incentives for being involved – contact with governing politicians, jobs with Ministers, winnable seat pre-selection opportunities, the general human tendency to want to be with the winners and avoid the losers. And this has flow-on effects in political tasks such as fundraising, staffing polling booths, and recruiting candidates. It is one of the reasons Oppositions find it hard to win.

On the other hand, there is less need for rank-and-file party members than was once the case. Campaigning has been professionalised; while door-knocking and letter-boxing by volunteer party members still go on, mass media campaigns and direct mail are far more important than what what volunteers do. The fact that the Queensland division of the Liberal Party, despite being for a long time the most dysfunctional Liberal division, can produce good federal results suggests that while a strong and united party base is desirable, it is not critical to acceptable election results, at least at the federal level.

The new campaigning methods are expensive, but there is now public funding of elections and while donations from rank-and-file members are helpful, particularly at the local level, the key to campaigns is the larger donors. Lifting the threshold for public disclosure on donations, which I supported, should help bring in more Liberal donors capable of making a difference (though Labor would probably try to repeal this if it won, depending on the effect on their own donations).

Another problem with declining party membership is that it makes stacking easier and therefore more likely. This is the problem Beazley mentions. John Hyde Page’s Education of a Young Liberal gives an insight into the consequences of that: people with any actual commitment to the party are driven out, and all the energy goes into the party’s civil war rather than winning government. For the most part, as in Victoria, these squabbles have little or no ideological content, and so do not affect policy, but it is also possible for groups with narrow agendas to take over. People claim this is happening in NSW – I would be interested to hear the views of any readers with insider knowledge (past media claims of ideological trends within the Liberal Party have been greatly exaggerated). I’m not sure however what net effect a federal election loss would have on this; in this regard one disadvantage of government is that it leaves many backbenchers and backbenchers’ staff with too little to do, and so they spend their time on internal party politicking.

One important difference, I think, between a post-2007 Opposition period and the 1983-96 Opposition period is the relative talent pools. How much of this talent is in the Parliament will of course depend on the election outcome; an Opposition with Malcolm Turnbull would be significantly different to one without him. But I think the average quality of Liberal MPs is higher now than it was in the 1980s, and the decade in government means that there is a large pool of people who have acquired high-level political and policy experience from working in Ministers’ offices, along with the more grassroots skills acquired in electorate offices. This is a base for repleneshing the Parliamentary party after defeat.

The Beazley/Abjorensen scenario is within the range of possible outcomes. But despite the many problems facing the Liberal Party as an organisation, I don’t think the party ceasing to function as an entity is inevitable or even likely, win or lose. There are still many thousands of people in each state who want to make it work, and as I will outline in a subsequent post, there is an electoral base that, though not without problems of its own, is far too big to ignore.

5 thoughts on “What happens to the Liberal Party if it loses? (Part 1)

  1. Interesting post as usual Andrew. It’s funny when you notice a new meme picking up strength and the ‘what will happen to the Libs if they lose the Federal Parliament’ meme is certainly picking up strength right now. It’s an interesting question, and I hope if the Libs lose they turn on Howard as they turned on Fraser – for they both egregiouisly wasted their party’s dominance in power – not something Hawke or Keating (or Thatcher or Reagan) did or Hewson would have had he won.

    At the same time, we’ve heard all that ‘the Libs are finished’ stuff before (in the 1980s and 90s) and it’s bollocks. Hotelling competition virtually ensures them a place at the table. And that fact is enough to keep the party together. The the Libs/NP to fall apart there would need to be rival right leaning parties to take over. Hard to see that happening. Ditto the ALP amongst the left leaning.

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  2. I think you’re right Nick.

    I remember my politics tutor saying in March 1993, after the GST election, that ‘Basically, the Liberal Party is stuffed’. Three years later they won government federally, and almost eleven years after that they are still there.

    Another thing, apart from Hotelling competition, that (I suspect) will likely keep them together is party subsidisation from government coffers. If party members know that a split might mean any new parties could fall below the x% (?) threshold required to gain substantial funding, they are likely to stay unified.

    I wonder if any of the meme-repeaters will subject their theories to the ultimate test, and bet some money on their predictions coming true?

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  3. I can still remember Paul Kelly saying if the liberals couldn’t win after such a recession they could never win!

    I suspect what will happen is that quite a few will retire. some immediately and some will take time to realise they have no fire in the belly.
    They will go through 3 or 4 Opposition leaders but will win after some time.
    Costello will attempt to be leader but will have no fire and no energy.
    Malcolm looks the one with both.

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  4. I think that political parties are broadly reflective of the scleorosis in the economy in general. Generous state funding ensures that political parties cannot die, even after there has been significant political realignment in the electorate at large. Just as in market economics when barriers to entry become too high and the consumer suffers from lack of competition, it is not unreasonable to suggest the same of the current political environment. The 1999 referendum showed the inner city Sydney seats now have more in common with north shore Liberal seats than they do with their country National/Liberal constituency. Yet there is no party that represents these three groups in one entity. It is not possible for this realignment to occur because of the funding available to both current political parties and sitting members.

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  5. Beazley’s concern for the Liberal Party is touching on two levels. Firstly, it explains why he wore accusations of not going hard enough against the Howard Government, which may dismay more pugnacious ALP supporters. Secondly, despite the far-reaching changes in Australian society since the 1940s (with repeated periods of Liberal opposition at state and federal level during that time), Beazley assumes that the contingencies of a highly particular period will automatically apply to the very different circumstances of a very different time.

    A prime example of this second point is the concept of a “brand” – the “Liberal Party” brand has a value in the political marketplace that would be hotly contested were that organisation to collapse. It would be particularly contested by those who aren’t particularly liberal. The concept of marketplace branding was dimly understood and practically unknown in the 1940s.

    I think that political parties are broadly reflective of the scleorosis in the economy in general.

    A less sclerotic economy does not lead to a markedly different party membership profile. The peak membership of Australian political parties was 1975-76: hardly a period of economic dynamism.

    Generous state funding ensures that political parties cannot die, even after there has been significant political realignment in the electorate at large.

    Pauline Hanson’s One Nation did not exist before the advent of public funding, and despite little change in this area it is almost defunct. A party that no-one wants to join, or stay in once its internal workings are displayed publicly, is done for – regardless of artifical life-support mechanisms. The DLP is further proof against this, and in about 18 months the Australian Democrats may provide still more.

    … the current political environment. The 1999 referendum showed the inner city Sydney seats now have more in common with north shore Liberal seats than they do with their country National/Liberal constituency.

    One highly unusual – indeed, unique – vote almost eight years ago, which featured no preferences and none of the countervailing issues present in general elections. It reflected political patterns unseen the state election earlier that year, not repeated in any of the four state and federal elections since, and which will not be apparent in either the state or federal election due this year. The Liberal Party had members working on both sides of that issue, despite its membership being broadly in favour of the outcome that prevailed.

    Try applying this “Hands Across The Harbour” analysis to any of the issues that affect citizens/voters/taxpayers in their everyday lives: education, health, taxation, any issue of state other than its ceremonial head: can’t be done. That may explain why …

    there is no party that represents these three groups in one entity.

    This leaves us with:

    It is not possible for this realignment to occur because of the funding available to both current political parties and sitting members.

    Sitting members do not have the iron grip that incumbents in the US Congress have on their seats, and even they – as seen last November – aren’t impregnable. The resources available to incumbent MPs in Australia makes dislodging them difficult, but (as stated above) by no means impossible.

    Further proof of this is that a party in opposition may promise to review public funding and MPs’ perks, but no party that wins government ever sets out to wreck the mechanisms that kept their opponents in.

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