Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Democrats in the SMH

It all started with an article by Laura Chipp. It is fair to describe this as a basically predictable "establishment" Democrat post-election justification and wishful future thinking.

The letter from Andrew Elder of Eastwood in today’s SMH has some interesting responses to the piece, some of which I agree with. (Elder also wrote about it in his blog - but I can't understand the gormless writing style. He comes across as obnoxious, but some of his observations are reasonable).

In the end the Democrats went to the election not standing for anything. "Bring Back Balance" isn't a campaign theme - it gives no indication of how you intend to act, especially when you know the biggest brand issue is the number of people who believe (wrongly) that the Democrats sold them out on workplace reform in 1996 and the GST in 1999.

Contrast that with the description of GetUp! also in today's SMH. I think it is a mistake to over-read the numbers involved in GetUp! It is not the vocal end of a larger group - this is the entire group of people concerned about these kind of social justice, civil rights, indigenous, refugee and democratic process issues. They are by definition "activists" because holding the views they do is already an "active" position - they have thought for themselves and resisted the mainstream view. Politically the "cartel parties" will mostly represent the "mainstream" view - that's what you do to get a majority of votes. And that mainstream view becomes self-reinforcing because the masses (a good Marxist term) get their biases reconfirmed for them by their political leaders. Howard was the master of that, sometimes described as the dog-whistle.

But GetUp! continue to kid themselves that they have influence. Sure they may get audiences with their local member about what they have discussed - but so will the local Right to Life group. Sure they generate some petitions and letter writing campaigns - but so do the Catholic lobby groups who want everything censored. And it remains my belief that their contribution on election day was negative for progressive causes...all they did was harass voters with their rating of parties on the issues they regarded as important. I saw wavering voters decide to vote Liberal after their GetUp! confrontation but no one do the reverse.

What those flocking to GetUp! meetings (and those enamoured by ideas like the Third Voice Alliance) need to do is to realise that what counts is getting votes for your cause. So campaigning without a candidate to support is pointless - as is some vague line like "Vote for Change". (I should note that the US system of primaries makes this slightly different - there external vote gathering groups can help).

On the flip side those who do have a plan to get candidates elected need to focus on all the work needed between elections. GetUp!'s constant campaigning works. The Democrats got seduced into thinking it was just up to the elected representatives to keep the party in the public consciousness, and didn't do anywhere near enough between election street level campaigning. And what they did wasn't capitalised on - signatures on petitions did not become a database of "fellow travellers". And they also fell for the trap of letting policy be something defined by the parliamentary representatives - as the GetUp! meetings showed people like the chance to do policy work. (It should be noted that the messy clash between the parliamentary and organisational wings of the party in the Lees/Stott-Despoja explosion can be identified as the source of this problem - a problem that will be resolved now on 1 July 2008).

Finally, many Democrats - Laura Chipp included - are now suggesting a role for the Democrats in local Government elections. This is especially tempting in NSW where the timing (September 2008) gives us something to do before the 2010 Federal Election (not getting a State election till 2011) (I personally discount the likelihood of a double dissolution - the Liberals would be insane to give Rudd a trigger). If the Democrats are serious about this then there is alot of policy, infrastructure and campaigning work to do now.

It is an interesting challenge - I hope there are people ready to take it on.

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