The Liberals and blue collar voters

How does your demographic theory work with the “battlers” phenomenon? Was it merely transitory?

– asks commenter Leon Di Stefano.

I don’t think anyone has quite worked out how to define ‘battler’ in an easily defensible way. Peter Brent wrote a paper (pdf) a few years ago showing that Labor had always held on to its traditional seats in low income areas. But people much further up the income scale may still think of themselves as ‘battling’. Even in the top 20% of income earners, the General Social Survey finds a small percentage of people who have been unable to pay bills on time.

But claims that blue collar workers have swung to the Coalition have been easier to test. In the Australian Election Survey, data collated (pdf) by Murray Goot and Ian Watson shows that the Liberals did do better among blue collar voters 1996-2004 than they did 1987-1993, picking up 5% on average (Labor lost twice that, with blue collar voters going to minor parties as well as the Liberals). But except for 1996 Labor still had more blue collar voters than the Liberals.

While there are some trends among blue collar workers that may make them more inclined to vote Liberal, such as increased self-employment, there is little reason to believe that overall they will be a reliable constituency for the Coalition. The improved average is due to strong support in 1996 and 2004; 1998 and 2001 were little different from the blue collar Liberal vote under Hawke and Keating.

Many commentators predicted that WorkChoices would send blue collar Liberal support tumbling. Another Ian Watson report, published earlier this month, suggests that for 2007 Liberal support among blue collar workers was indeed down, at least among male Newspoll respondents. For this group, Coalition support fell heavily in Victoria, Brisbane, NSW except for Sydney, Perth and Tasmania. It increased in the rest of WA and the rest of Queensland, perhaps reflecting the positive impact of the mining boom.

Even if this was a positive trend for the Coalition, census data shows that blue collar jobs are declining as a percentage of all employment.

We can say that blue collar voters are less rusted on to Labor than they used to be. But I would be very sceptical of claims of any significant permanent move to the Liberals. These are voters who have to be won over afresh each election.

13 thoughts on “The Liberals and blue collar voters

  1. “But I would be very sceptical of claims of any significant permanent move to the Liberals.”

    Of course. As they say in sports, form is temporary; class is permanent. In politics, class (struggle) is permanent. The working class, in particular the lumpenproletariat) will flirt with the Torys every now and again (read: Tampa), but the Tory class-based policies will inevitably alienate them (read: WorkChoices).


  2. Spiros – Though according to the AES, the Tampa election (’01) was *not* one of the elections in which blue collar workers swung to the Coalition. It was the lower-income white collar occupations (who signifcantly outnumber the blue collar workers) whose votes changed in 2001.


  3. That hardly invalidates my point about class.

    What’s blue collar anyway? John Hewson used to wear investment-banker striped shirts with blue collars. They looked hideous.


  4. ‘Blue collar’ means manual occupations such as labourers, machine workers, drivers and tradespersons. These are the groups traditionally described as ‘working class’, though as I noted in this post, class self-perception has never matched perfectly with objective measures.


  5. Andrew: “Even in the top 20% of income earners, the General Social Survey finds a small percentage of people who have been unable to pay bills on time.”

    I’m not surprised… Australian housing: On the severe side of ‘Severely Unaffordable’, says worldwide study, the 4th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

    Gotta love the free market, eh.


  6. Andrew @5: “‘Blue collar’ means manual occupations such as labourers, machine workers, drivers and tradespersons. These are the groups traditionally described as ‘working class’”

    A very shrinking group under that definition, and very “last century”. The Industrial Age has been and gone.

    The “lower-income white collar occupations” you mention in @3 are closer to the modern working class: call center operators, check-out operators, clerks, salesmen, etc. With modern managerial practices, they’re just as much under the thumb as any 1950s labourer was, and for the most part identifies themselves as such.


  7. It was only about 4% of the top 20%, so perhaps just a normal incidence of bad luck or bad management. Most people across all income groups pay their bills.

    I agree that the lower-income white collar occupations could reasonably be called the modern working class (I’ll check subjective perceptions), but politically they are different: in every election but one 1987-2004 more have voted Liberal than Labor, the reverse of the pattern for blue collar voters.


  8. I noticed this problem of designating who the deserving battlers were on the weekend when I heard Wayne Swan say this on the ABC:

    “In the past they’ve been left out and the tax cuts have gone to those at the top end,” he said.

    “But the focus of the tax cuts that begin from the Rudd Government on July 1 are people like hairdressers, mechanics, child care workers, teachers aides, tradies [sic] and labourers.”

    I knew someone who until recently employed 3 mechanics and paid them the award wage plus quite a lot of cash – which he did because “everyone does it” and he didn’t want his employees to go elsewhere. The mechanics also had use of the workshop on the weekends where they pursued their own various businesses – in total they earned a lot of money.
    One of my brothers has a business in which he employs “subbies” or as Wayne says ‘tradies’ – problem is that they’ve made so much money in the last 10 years they’re now semi-retired and living off their property investments. Try to get a ‘tradie’ to do anything in Perth!


  9. Pete – Among lower-income white collar occupations, in 2005 50% saw themselves as working class and 42% as middle class. Among blue collar occupations, 62% saw themselves as working class, and 29% as middle class.


  10. Andrew

    I think the takeaway from all this is not whether or not blue collar workers have switched to the Coalition. Rather, what is happening is a collapse of rusted-on voters for either party. We might say that the proportion of Useful Idiots is declining. This can only be a good thing.


  11. The definition of “battler” is the problem because the cliche has has been a well spun exaggeration – although one still based on a good chunk of fact.

    Most professional party pollsters in the western world (including Australia) use what we would call upper blue/lower white collar workers (or a derivative thereof) as the political demographic that we call “battlers” – where upper and lower are defined by income thresholds.

    If we want to look at how the “howard battlers” went this election, we need to look at the demographic that actually caused the moniker to be invented in the first place – upper blue/lower white.

    Not just blue – which is what tends to be looked at.


  12. Oh, and I better add that there’s actually a reason those two demographics are grouped together apart from sharing similar incomes and education levels – they also seem to share the same political buttons on the same issues that are opened to be pushed.

    Just why that is the case makes my mind boggle sometimes because there’s a fair bit of difference between the two when you really get into it. But that seems to be a pretty familiar thing in political campaigning – often the “why” isnt figured out until a fairly substantial period of time after the “how” has already been developed and deployed.


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