Unpacking the federal election results and how to get the party back in a winning position
Labor folks got an early scare on election night in 2022. When the first results came in from Tasmania, they showed an alarming swing away from Labor, well at odds with what we would need to form a government. Then came the familiar refrain, “it’s just the small rural booths mate, it doesn't mean anything!”
As the count accelerated in NSW and Victoria, it became clear there was a swing away from the Coalition, and attention moved on from Tasmania. But just because you don't pay attention to something, doesn't mean it’s not there.
In the end, it turned out it wasn't just the small rural booths, mate. Despite the hard work of campaigners and volunteers, Labor suffered a 6.3% primary vote swing against it in Tasmania. We went backwards in all three target seats: 1.5% in Bass, 4.5% in Lyons, and 5% in Braddon. All of this in a political environment where Labor only suffered a 0.8% primary vote swing against it nationally.
Something unique happened. And if we want to start winning elections in Tasmania again, it’s important that we all try to unpack what that was. Business as usual won’t get it done.
It’s important to begin with some background about Tasmania’s political culture. While there are always complexities and overlaps, I believe there are three core macro-constituencies in Tasmania that Labor needs to win, and we are losing ground with each of them.
First, there is the predominantly white (but increasingly diversifying) traditional working class, likely to be men working in the industrial or resource sectors, or women in the service and care sectors. Second, the progressive middle class. These voters are likely to be tertiary educated men and women in the professions and business, who live in urban areas, and may be newer to Tasmania. Finally there is a third group that contains elements of each of these first two groups, but with a different flavour. These are the enviro focused voters coming from an environmental movement historically unique to Tasmania.
A winning coalition for Labor at state elections, and one sufficient to deliver victory in seats like Launceston based Bass or the Hobart seat of Clark, needs to be broad enough to straddle all three of these constituencies. At present, Labor loses more of these working class voters in each election (to Jacqui Lambie in particular, as well as One Nation and even the Liberals), while at the same time failing to offset these losses with gains from environment focused voters or the growing middle class professional constituency. A net loss.
One reason why Labor struggles to engage the full spectrum of the coalition is that it doesn't talk much about issues that these two growing constituencies care deeply about. By contrast Labor in NSW and Victoria talk about and organise around progressive issues - climate change, electric vehicles, representation and cultural issues. We spend a lot of time trying to win the votes of a constituency that seems to be increasingly attracted to minor parties and independents, but we aren't complimenting that with outreach to other key constituencies.
A prime example of why it is so important for Labor to appeal to all three groups is that our Hare Clark electoral system, with multi-member electorates, means more than one seat is up for grabs in each electorate at state elections. To maximise our vote in each of these large electorates we need to appeal to all three constituencies at once. We have to do this to win more than 1 seat out of 5 in Clark, for example. For Labor to win state elections in Tasmania, we need a unifying proposition that appeals to each of the three constituencies. Campaigns that pathologise or privilege one group over or pit critical constituencies against each other will not help the party activate the full scope of its potential voting coalition.
At the federal level, one significant factor in the 2022 results in Tasmania was the presence and power of Jacqui Lambie and her party. Lambie is a unique Tasmanian phenomenon, not present on the mainland. Lambie’s candidates pulled between 6-10% of the primary vote across Tasmania, doing even better than this in our target seats. Lambie voters are often working class former Labor voters who have drifted away from us over the last decade.
Now, Labor should absolutely campaign hard for working class communities, and seek their votes. This is the bedrock of our party, and is solidified through our enduring structural connection with the trade union movement. However, since the 1970s the Labor Party has been a coalition of the (rapidly diversifying) working class and middle class professionals. This is the basis of the success of everyone from Gough Whitlam, to Kevin Rudd, to Dan Andrews.
Indeed, there is no successful social democratic or centre-left party in a Westminster system that isn't built on this broad coalitional framework: the Liberal Party of Canada, New Zealand Labour, and the provincial arms of the Canadian New Democratic Party which have recently formed government in traditionally hostile territory.
It is not all dire. There are things Labor can do right now in Tasmania to put itself in a winning position.
First, Tasmanian Labor needs a full digital and technology rebuild to strengthen our ability to communicate in a new media environment. Right now in Tasmania, our communications strategy is largely based around briefing stories to traditional media and posting media releases online. We have no cohesive online presence across web and social media. Indeed most of our representatives don’t use social media effectively, if at all. We need to move in a digital first direction and invest in building our own audiences online, allowing us to have direct conversations with the community, bypassing the media intermediaries whose goals and values do not align with ours.
Second, we need to re-engage with our communities through the necessary work of organising. All political parties risk adopting an insular culture when they don’t prioritise consistent and structured engagement with voters outside the bubble. Labor should adopt a community organising approach modelled on the successful Community Action Network (CAN) rolled out by the Victorian branch of the party. Our party in Tasmania is clearly struggling to speak to the hopes and fears of all three of the major constituencies in the state. We need to invest the resources and time into having those conversations in a systematised and structured way. We also need to lean into our relationships with union affiliates to make sure we are engaging authentically with union members as part of any community organising approach.
Finally, to be able to invest in building the party infrastructure required to transform our party, it is clear that Tasmanian Labor needs additional resources. The Labor Party on the mainland often looks to Tasmania to bring home close elections. If that's the case then the party nationally needs to pony up outside of the 6 week election campaign. Tasmanian Labor needs additional resources in party office to hire ongoing staff to do the type of deep organising and campaigning (online and in the field) that is required to help us win elections. This will be pivotal to maintaining a federal majority as 2022 was likely the high water mark in Western Australia.
The challenges Labor has in Tasmania are not unique to our state. Working class voters moving towards minor parties and populist outsider candidates is a trend our sister parties across the world are also grappling with. The difference in Tasmania seems to be that we have not been able to offset these losses by broadening our coalition to include other growing constituencies. This is our challenge over the coming three years leading up to the next state and federal elections. It’s a challenge we must confront head-on.
Jack Milroy is member of the Battery Point branch of the Labor Party and a political consultant who has worked extensively with unions, advocacy organisations and social democratic parties in Australia and overseas. He is the Managing Director of Defiance, a consultancy that helps progressives raise money and build power online. Tasmanian Labor was a client of Defiance during the federal campaign.