What happens to the Liberal Party if it loses? (Part 2)

By the end of 2007, it is possible that the Liberal Party will be out of government throughout Australia. As I noted in part 1 of this post, this has led some people to forecast its demise as an organisation. Like political parties around the world, the long-term trend in Liberal membership is down. But unlike political parties in many other parts of the world, the major Australian political parties have retained large support bases, people who tell pollsters that they ‘generally think of themselves as’ Liberal, Labor, or whatever.

Quite surprisingly, given all that has occurred since, a larger proportion of the electorate generally thought of themselves as Liberals in 2004 than they had in 1967, the first time the question was asked and a year after the Coalition’s biggest ever share of the two-party preferred vote, at the 1966 federal election. 40% were Liberals in 1967, 41.5% in 2004. Because Country Party/National Party identifiers have shrunk from 7% to 3% of the electorate in that time the proportion of Coalition identifiers is down slightly, but the Liberal Party itself has held up very well (though fewer voters overall class themselves as ‘strongly’ preferring their party, with 29% of Liberals strong supporters in 1967 and 21% in 2004). Labor is down 5 percentage points, from 37% to 32%. There was a lot of talk in the 1990s about the rise of minor parties, but in reality the two major parties have proven to be highly durable.

Though Liberal-leaning voters cannot be taken for granted – more on that below – they are a good foundation on which to build towards a majority. While Liberal infighting may damage the party’s electoral prospects, the large Liberal support base shows why it is still an institution worth fighting over. Norman Abjorensen may be right that in theory there is scope for realignment in Australian politics, but in practice the voters aren’t likely to pay enough attention to make it work. The Liberal brand has value, independently of who its key figures at any given time are or what it stands for at any given election. Most people who have voted Liberal at recent state elections will vote Liberal no matter how unimpressive the party’s performance. The trick is in getting enough non-aligned voters and weak supporters of other parties to vote Liberal to secure victory.
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