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.
There is little doubt that this task is getting harder. The problem for the Liberals, as I argued in a pessimistic post after the 2004 election, is that while large their support base is ageing. Looking at the 2004 Australian Elelection Survey by generations, among those born up to the end of WWII 48% identify with the Liberals, among the baby boomers (to 1963) 40% identify with the Liberals, among Generation X (to 1979) 37% identify with the Liberals, and among Generation Y (1980-) 34% identify with the Liberals (though Y was a small sample). Labor has a similar problem, but it can get support via Green preferences in the younger groups.
This doesn’t mean that the Liberals can’t win, but it does mean that they find it more difficult to win over younger than older voters. In the 2004 AES, the proportion of people in the WWII and before generations who voted Liberal was nearly the same as the proportion who identified with the Liberals. But for the baby boomers, 3% more voted Liberal than identified with the Liberals, among Gen X 9% more voted Liberal than identified with the Liberals, and among Gen Y 6% more voted Liberal than identified with the Liberals. But the Newspoll two-party preferred results suggest that in 2004 among the 18-34 year olds the Coalition was getting low to mid 40s, mid 40s among the 35-49 year olds, and mid 50s in the 50 years and over group. They are crucial to Liberal victories. No wonder the Howard government is spending so much on health.
The Liberals main electoral targets are the 16% of so of people who say they do not identify with any party and soft supporters of the other parties. The Howard government has, so far, been successful in attracting their support, but state Liberal oppositions have failed to do so. Partly this is probably due to mummy party/daddy party considerations, with the federal sphere playing better to Liberal strengths in economic management, defence and immigration. But incumbency is important in providing opportunities to communicate with the people who aren’t that interested in politics and, if things are going ok, becoming the ‘safer’ alternative. But once an election is lost it is hard to regain those people’s attention and restore their confidence.
So an election defeat in 2007 would be very bad news for Liberals, compounding the problems caused by demographic trends. Yet even if the current relatively weak Liberal support in younger groups persists as they age, on current trends they will still have the largest support base of any party, with left-leaning voters split between the ALP and the Greens and a quarter of voters unaligned. Their base is probably enough to keep the Liberals in the game if they can make themselves look like reasonably competent alternatives to Labor governments that have stuffed up. In the 1980s and early 1990s people were writing the Liberals off, but in the mid-1990s Keating’s failures and Howard’s political discipline brought them back for at least eleven years. It’s happened before, and it can happen again.