Opinion: Why Can’t the Greens Gain Mass Appeal?

17 March 2018

It isn’t hard to imagine the federal seat of Batman becoming a Greens stronghold some time in the near future. Whatever the outcome tonight, the tide seems to be turning in Melbourne’s north. The signs have been pretty ominous for Labor for a while now. The Greens almost pipped low-quality incumbent David Feeney (whose resignation triggered the current by-election) to the post in the 2016 federal election. In my suburb of Northcote, Lidia Thorpe’s victory in the state by-election last year, achieved by an epic +11 per cent swing, was even more emphatic. If the Greens win tonight, it would cap off a pretty successful last few years, to say the least.

This marks a turn away from its staunch pro-Labor heritage, which used to ensure that seats like Batman were the party’s safest in the country. It is this heritage that my parents and many of our family friends are a part of. They are quintessential Old Batman—many from working-class, immigrant backgrounds, and fond of Labor candidate Ged Kearney because of her history of fighting industrial relations battles. Their current success in life, educationally, occupationally and financially, they owe in part to the age of social mobility ushered in by the Whitlam government. I myself do not have their enduring attachment to the Labor party; my status as a middle-class, environmentally conscious uni student places me firmly in the social milieu that is propelling the Greens towards victory in these parts of Melbourne. They’re support amongst people like me is strong. As such, I have a bit of insight into both Old and New Batman, in an election being billed as a clash of worlds.

Indeed, the key factor in the Greens’ glorious electoral march, according to election analysts and political scientists, is the area’s changing demographics. More specifically, suburbs like Northcote, Fairfield and Clifton Hill have gentrified hugely in recent decades, and show no signs of stopping. Because the Greens do so well amongst wealthy voters, this gentrification has naturally shown up on the electoral map. Indeed, the divide is pretty stark. The more working-class suburbs to the north of Bell Street (Reservoir, Coburg, Thomastown and the like) typically go red, and the southern part goes green. The ‘Bell Street Line’ is now a classic gag in the area. Alternative titles include the ‘Great Wall of Quinoa’ and the ‘Tofu Curtain’. In any case, the composition of the electorate is well demarcated; middle-class hipsters in the south, with a humbler north.

Why is it, however, that this divide is both economic and political? Some scholars argue that the seat has seen an influx of ‘postmaterialist’ voters: people financially comfortable enough to focus on the Greens’ bread-and-butter issues of environmental conservation, renewable energy and reform of our refugee policy, as opposed to more direct economic issues such as industrial relations policy. However, it’s not like the Greens’ economic platform would be any worse for low-income voters than Labor’s—in fact, they’re more ambitiously social-democratic than Labor. They strongly oppose cuts to penalty rates, favour big tax increases on high earners, and big funding increases to healthcare, among other things. They may not be the party of the unions, but nor are they an eco-friendly Liberal Party.

Why is it then, that the Greens are having to rely on a new, wealthier demographic to make a political impact in Batman? Indeed, why is it that, for a party so strongly in favour of wealth redistribution, only 24 per cent of their members identify as working-class—less even than the Liberals (32 per cent) and far less than Labor (46 per cent)? Is it not enough to be a party for the working-class, but not of it. To be enlightened and benevolent, the J.S. Mills and Bernard Shaws of 21st century political hackery? It doesn’t seem so.

For many Northcotians of my parents’ generation and social background it is very difficult to identify with the Greens. First and foremost, they are seen as a bourgeois party (on account of the apparent wealth of their campaigners and active membership); they’re privileged and therefore have little understanding of the lives of people less privileged. An extension of this is the sense that the party has something of a disdain for people of lower education and income levels, which they associate with the disdain they felt from wealthier people growing up. For one person I’ve spoken to, voting Greens would feel like a “betrayal”; adding that they “can’t trust them”. Another argues that the party has no desire to engage with working-class people because they’re fundamentally unable to stomach the possibility of encountering unpleasant, non-pc views. The Greens are often seen, in class terms, as akin to the Liberals—arrogant middle-class people with contempt for the Labor party and its working-class roots.

The theme of arrogance runs through criticism of the Greens. They appear to many as exclusive and moralistic—more interested in making themselves feel good than actually engaging with a broad range of Australians. Whether one agrees with this criticism or not, it certainly highlights the big role that intuition and emotional identification play in political affiliation. It is hard to overstate how powerful people’s deeply-entrenched attachments to political movements and parties are, especially in a country where a majority of people still say they’ve voted for the same party for their entire lives. Christos Tsiolkas, one of our most celebrated authors and someone (like so many in Batman historically) who grew up in a low-income immigrant family, documents this in one recent essay. He writes of just how powerful many voters’ “affirmation of a political party, the ALP, that took seriously their status as immigrants and as workers” was—including his parents.

My evidence is only anecdotal, and I certainly don’t claim to be representing the views of all northern Batman residents. However, it seems clear to me that many people’s image of Labor as the party of the working-class is deeply entrenched, and conversely the perception of the Greens as an exclusive, superior party is very real and quite potent. This, I posit, is part of why they struggle to do well outside their core demographic of educated professionals. As such, paradoxically, the apparent ascendency of the Greens in Batman and other parts of inner Melbourne may not be pointing to a real breakthrough for them (remember, they’ve still never surpassed their peak vote share of 11.8 per cent in the 2010 federal election). Instead, it could simply illuminate further what we already basically know—that they fail to really appeal to people outside the milieu of young, liberal professionals.

And as someone who is largely sympathetic to their philosophy, if not their tactics or collective demeanour, that’s concerning. I greatly appreciate the fact that they have increased the salience of environmental issues in our politics, but their inability to achieve mass appeal is frustrating. Almost all successful progressive reforms in Western history have come from parties which effectively balance ‘enlightened’ leadership with mass appeal, without simple populist pandering. And it is this formula which any ecological and/or social democratic force in Australia will have to strike to be able to do concrete good in the future.

You can check out the rest of our coverage of the Batman by-election here.

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