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Who’s losing their base?

21 Aug 2014

When “Howard’s battlers” defected from Labor in 1996, political commentators shifted their focus to Sydney’s western suburbs. But what if the whole idea was founded on a misreading of the data?

The spectre of a major political party “losing its base” is popular in political commentary. It’s usually applied to the Labor Party, but in recent weeks, with the Abbott government remaining stubbornly behind in opinion polls, it has been wielded against the Coalition.

One version appeared after the Howard government was elected in 1996. The existence of “Howard’s battlers,” a group of working-class people attracted by the Liberal leader’s social conservatism and repelled by Labor’s preoccupation with inner-urban elites, became an article of faith. Part of Labor’s base seemed to have shifted to the conservatives.

The analysis was mostly built on a pea-and-thimble trick: comparing voting patterns at elections won by the Coalition with those won under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It’s hardly surprising that the Coalition won many seats in 1996 that Labor had held between 1983 and 1993: this is the very definition of winning power. A meaningful comparison would have looked to an earlier period of Labor opposition, for example under the Fraser government…

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