The Labor Party failed to understand the ‘aspirational’ voter


The numbers are a reminder of the sheer difficulty of winning power from opposition. In two-party terms, Labor received 6.5 million votes in 2007 but, so far, only 5.8 million this year, according to the latest count from the Australian Electoral Commission.

Shorten and his shadow cabinet misjudged the middle ground. This was a collective failure. To some extent the result was about tactics and some of it was about personal popularity, but much of it was about where Labor positioned itself on social and economic values.

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

The Coalition parties cannot claim an overwhelming victory. The latest count shows their two-party vote was 6.3 million, putting them about 400,000 ahead of Labor. The margin when Rudd won was about 650,000. It was more than 900,000 when Tony Abbott won in 2013.

But stories abound of voters swinging to the government in “battler” suburbs and towns that have been Labor strongholds. This column wrote last week of Riverwood in the electorate of Banks, where the swing to the Liberals at one booth was 11.8 per cent. More evidence of this pattern keeps emerging.

The gains for the Liberals in the Victorian electorate of Monash were strongest in some of the areas doing it hardest – like Moe, the regional town where the swings ranged up to 8.4 per cent at different booths. The swing in Newborough, another Labor area, was 8.5 per cent.

In Swan, in the southern suburbs of Perth, the blue-collar areas of Belmont East, Wycombe South and Queens Park swung to the Liberals by 5.9 per cent, 6.9 per cent and 4.4 per cent, as radio host Gareth Parker of 6PR wrote last Sunday. This was a seat Labor thought it could win.

Shorten and his shadow cabinet misjudged the middle ground.

Shorten and his shadow cabinet misjudged the middle ground.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The theory that “battlers” handed victory to Morrison is deeply contested. In The Guardian Australia this week, University of Sydney political science lecturer Shaun Ratcliff warned against generalisations. The headline on his analysis was: “It’s a myth that Aussie battlers handed the Coalition its election victory.”

Ratcliff argued, correctly, that conclusions about individual voters cannot be made from aggregate data. He drew on the Co-operative Australian Election Survey of 10,000 voters to reinforce the reality that those on lower incomes favour Labor.

Yet the evidence from the polling booths cannot be denied. The swing is not a myth – it is brutal reality. The lesson of May 18 is that actual ballot papers from polling booths matter more than surveys.

So the political battle of the next three years will be about claiming ownership of the “battlers” who changed their votes. Not just how to define them, but how to win them.

Labor supporters at the election night function for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in Melbourne.

Labor supporters at the election night function for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in Melbourne.Credit:Eddie Jim

Morrison calls these people the “quiet Australians” and used the phrase again on Tuesday to signal his ambitions. He told the Coalition party room he had his sights on Labor electorates to be won at the next election. He is said to have named Blair, Cowan, Dobell, Gilmore, Lingiari, Solomon and more. He also named Mayo and Warringah, where the Liberals want to dislodge independents.

The “quiet Australians” are like John Howard’s “battlers” in the sense that they are defined by the Prime Minister. Everyone appropriates the definition they prefer, which means a battler can be a tradie in a Hi-Lux for some and a worker on casual wages for others.

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“It’s not an exclusive definition. The battler is somebody who finds in life that they have to work hard for everything they get,” Howard said in 2004.

“Well, that could be anyone,” said radio host Leon Byner.

“Well, of course it could,” Howard replied. That was the point. He never measured these voters by their incomes and spoke instead about Australians who were “trying to better themselves” even if they were not on huge salaries.

Aspiration is key. Labor MPs, devastated by their defeat, admit their program did not appeal to aspirational voters. “They saw us as a risk,” said one on Thursday.

The government’s critics have seen everything through the prism of median incomes over the past few years, as if targeting voters by income decile would deliver victory for Labor.

The Coalition appealed to aspiration. It told voters they could get ahead under Morrison but would find it harder to gain and keep wealth under Shorten. It had a simple negative message: “The Bill you can’t afford.”

Liberals who handed out how-to-vote cards at polling booths believe the government held power because of this appeal to aspirational voters. They noticed the nods from workers in high-vis as they walked out of the early voting centres.

It was only a year ago that Tanya Plibersek told Sky News: “Honestly, this aspiration term, it mystifies me.” Labor has always been sceptical of the word and has always had allies willing to ridicule it as conservative voodoo, but it must now face the consequence of defeat. The first test will be the vote on the government’s $158 billion income tax cut.

Was Labor right to oppose a tax cut worth $5840 for a worker earning $140,000 a year? The full tax cut only arrives in 2024, and Labor rejected it as too far away to matter, but it may need to accept it got this wrong. At what income level does it accept a worker deserves a tax cut?

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It is not all about money. Labor and Liberal campaigners say social issues were a big factor in shifting voters to the Coalition, even at the low end of the income range. Morrison promised Australians he would “burn” for them, a messaged that resonated with evangelical Christians.

Australians from non-English backgrounds seemed to be comfortable with Morrison’s faith. Electorates like Reid, Chisholm, La Trobe and Banks shrugged off Shorten’s “top end of town” rhetoric and stayed with the Liberals.

It will take all sides some time to analyse the results from May 18. The temptation for some on the losing side is to claim the electorate was swindled. Stripped of its euphemisms, the argument is that people were not intelligent enough to vote Labor. How patronising can they get?

Voters knew what they wanted. Whether it was a tax cut, a commuter car-park or a sense that Christian values would be secured, they chose the side that reflected their beliefs and aspirations.

The proof of this will not be in the media commentary or academic papers. It will be in Labor’s own actions in the next three years when it changes its messages on tax, on faith, on aspiration.

Those who deny the lesson of May 18 are inviting Labor to make the same mistakes next time.

David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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