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What stops Labor moving further to the left?
Guest post by Wheel Reinventor
This post is about how political parties lead political opinion more than they follow it. The evidence for this is pretty sound in my view. I see it in superannuation policy, where the Labor Party has transformed privatised retirement and a higher retirement age into a left-wing policy stance.
A lot of folks on the left get frustrated with Labor for not being more boldly progressive. Labor-sympathetic folks will then defend Labor for having to work within the constraints set by the voting public.
If Labor did move further left, the theory goes, they’d be punished at the ballot box next election. Australia is quite a conservative country, and voters are wary of radical change.
“If the electorate is so progressive, why don’t the Greens get more votes?”
The Greens only get a fraction of Labor’s vote. Clearly, if Labor moved further left, their vote count would drop similarly - a disaster which would hand power to the Liberals - a disaster for anybody hoping to achieve progressive change.
In fact, it’s not so simple. While this is the way that many, even most, people think about how the process of politics and policy formation, it relies on a theory of causality that is exactly backwards from reality.
Swimming the causality river
The underlying assumption built into the above views is that voters, generally speaking, start off with a set of views that political parties represent as best as possible.
Because a majority is needed to govern, parties will either seek representation from the left half or right half - thus the formation in most countries of two major parties, one more left-leaning, one more right-leaning.
Or, more succinctly:
Voters views —> Party views
In other words, the party’s platform is downstream of voters views.
But really, the reality is much closer to:
Party views —> Voter views
To think about the basic dynamic, let’s consider a single issue as an example.
A concrete example: Compulsory bicycle helmets
Australia is one of the few countries in the world with mandatory bicycle helmet laws, and the very first to introduce them on a national basis, in the early 90s.
But how did these laws come about?
Did voters views suddenly change, and thus force political parties to change their policies in order to avoid losing votes? No.
In fact, the change started with lobbying from the RACS (Royal Australasian College of Surgeons). That resulted in a finding by a parliamentary committee (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Road Safety) that helmets should be made compulsory.
Then, as this page on helmet law history recounts:
The government responded with a campaign to promote helmet wearing. In Victoria, the RACS did likewise, even putting a case for compulsory wearing to the Premier in 1982. Helmet manufacturers started advertising bicycle helmets that became their most profitable product. By the end of the 1980s about 30% of cyclists wore helmets.
In other words, political change started with the Government and the Premier - the political parties. The political parties then promoted their view, aided by manufacturers, whose advertising became much more effective by being legitimized by the view the government had previously formed.
Then, and only then, did a serious proportion of the public adopt pro-helmet views such that they wore helmets themselves.
As we can see, the upstream of opinion-forming is lobby groups, manufacturers, and political party insiders. Only once they have built consensus and promulgated their views, do the general public enter the scene.
Even from here, political parties, lobby groups, other figures of authority, and the law itself play the key role in establishing the “conventional wisdom”. Even schools play a role in teaching the law as the correct position.
Most people don’t think about compulsory helmet laws in detail. Ask most people and they’ll say “it’s the law for a reason”, “my parents/schoolteachers always told me to wear one”, and the like.
Why do voters think so differently about car helmets?
It becomes clear what drives this opinion-forming process when you ask a typical person about compulsory helmets in cars vs on bikes. Even though helmet wearing also has safety benefits for car passengers, just as it does for bike passengers, most people will consider the notion of enforcing compulsory helmet usage in a car to be an absolute lunatic fringe idea.
(Note that this is not a cute rhetorical point or troll arg for me. One of my family members suffered full loss of eyesight in one eye in a car accident, and it’s highly likely that wearing a helmet could have prevented this or at least improved the outcome).
The inconvenience is similar, the upsides are similar, but the public reaction is totally different - because one has been legitimized upstream by political parties, media, manufacturers, expert lobby groups, and other sources of authority, and the other hasn’t.
What do politicians think about compulsory bicycle helmets?
Most politicians don’t seem to care about this issue much - I’m not aware of any elected representative make a single public statement on the topic, ever.
If compulsory bicycle helmets are to ever to be repealed, it would start with the same process. Individual lobbying by interest groups, publicly stated support by elected representatives and their party leadership, and coverage of “the helmet debate” in the media is where it would start.
Again, public opinion would form downstream of this. Think of typical views people might form if they were swayed: “Oh yeah, I guess having to go find my helmet discourages me from biking to the shops”, “it’s much easier to run a bikeshare scheme without compulsory helmets”, “discouraging helmets does create health harm by discouraging cycling”, “most bike rider deaths are caused by larger vehicles, and helmets don’t protect much from those”.
All of these views would not only be formed largely from seeing them discussed in the media, but the social acceptability of expressing them would be enabled by political coverage. Whereas, at the moment, due to lack of advocacy from authority figures, these views are seen as irresponsible, or at best unorthodox, and thus not taken very seriously.
Most people have very malleable views
People with strong, firm, fixed policy views, people who think a lot about politics and policy, and people whose views map cleanly onto a left-right spectrum are rare.
This is true even among political insiders and MPs!
Consider a career politician who rose up from Young Libs/Labor/Greens and through the ranks. While they might have some intuitions or principles that made them join that first organization or campaign, rising the ranks requires a commitment to the party position, more than to policy in the abstract.
To the extent that this chooses people based on their policy views, it selects those whose views already closely match that of the party, but also those who are generally pragmatists and compromisers over those with very firm/fixed/principled views, and loyalists with a football team mentality over those who might be more self-critical.
Here again, views come downstream of consensus. The status quo is self-reinforcing.
The party consensus selects consensus-building MPs who re-enforce the consensus with themselves and with the wider public.
Public opinion as self-fulfilling prophecy
This effect is super-charged in Australia with a giant consent-manufacturing scheme called “the voting system”.
The predominant effect of single-member preferential voting is to cement the status quo. This happens by focusing electoral resources on a few swing seats (thus cementing the status quo in already safe seats) and, through preference flow, literally redirecting votes away from minor parties towards major ones.
Not only does this give minor parties like the Greens fewer parliamentary votes than they are entitled to, it gives them less media coverage, with fewer resources and fewer spokespeople - and thus less votes next time around.
So saying “if the Greens views were popular with the electorate, why don’t they win more seats?” has it backwards. The correct answer is “the Greens don’t win more seats, thus their views are less popular with the electorate”.
Other democratic institutions also play a big part. The constitution and Australia’s many layers of government slow down change mechanically, but worse, provide a chilling effect to talking about change in the first place.
Consider issue X
A party might think “X would require changing the constitution, or requires difficult agreement between state and federal, so it’s too hard. We won’t tackle X, at least this term.”
The party then stops talking about X. Then the media stops talking about X (it’s no longer salient).
Then, X runs some opinion polling. “Turns out the public don’t care about X. Awareness is very low of X among swing voters, they actually have a negative view of changing X”.
Then a conventional wisdom builds. “X is unpopular. X is electoral poison. Changing X is an extreme position.”
Wow, don’t those X skeptics look smart, astute, and realistic, compared to the naive dreamers who think X has a hope of ever being changed?
Once again, the self-fulfilling prophecy has come true.
Challenging the prophecy
So is this an emperor’s new clothes situation? Do we only need to dismiss the prophecy and usher in a progressive utopia? No - self-fulfilling prophecies are real, and they are powerful.
But the fundamental challenge is convincing those in power - political parties, media, lobby groups. Politics is a game of insiders, and the voting public are downstream.
Labor has agency. Labor can choose what to prioritize, what to neglect, which classes of people to focus on, what language to use, which past achievements and heroes to lionize and which to forget. These, in turn, play a big role in determining the views of the electorate. Not the only role, but a key one.
Instead of “Labor can’t move left because of the voters”, it’s much closer to the truth to say “the voters can’t move left because of Labor”.
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