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.