Liberal Defectors

This evening, while attending a vaguely lefty fundraiser I ran into an old opponent from student politics. Given the location I was interested if his politics had changed and gently tried to ask about this. He said he had “moved further to the left than anyone would have imagined” and that while he considered himself a swinging voter “there is no way I could vote for the abomination that is the federal Liberal Party at the moment.”

I’m interested in this because when I was in student politics it was generally assumed that some of us would take the path worn by figures such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, or more recently in Australia by McGuinness and Windshuttle, from left-wing radicalism over to the hard right. Indeed we used to joke, with a certain barb to the discussion, about who were the most likely defectors. Revolutionaries suggested that reformists were half way there already, while moderates responded that it was the most dogmatic who seemed to switch most easily*.

In the time since then many, many of the people I knew have undergone a shift in their politics. Anarchists have become socialists. Socialists have become social democrats. Social democrats, Greens. Indeed there are representatives of all sorts of left backgrounds amongst the Greens. Some, once filled with passion and commitment have become apathetic or despairing. Most, as the man I spoke to tonight put it, have mellowed somewhat.

Yet I only know of two who might be described as having changed sides^. Moreover, one of these, a Labor figure who joined the Liberals didn’t spend all that long in the party, and now is now apparently a frequent attender at Labor Right events. Presumably there are others. I’m not all that likely to run into right-wingers of my generation, so unless they feel the need to send me a message advertising their apostasy I wouldn’t know, but it is interesting that no one else seems to be aware of examples either.

On the other hand, this evening’s encounter brought to seven the number of people active in the Liberal Club during my time at university who have since given strong indications they no longer even vote for the party for which they were once footsoldiers. This is without counting one individual who left the Liberals for a minor party even further to the right. Nor am I counting two people who attended university at the same time as me and were active in the Young Liberals off campus but did not cross my path at the time because they avoided student politics.

Since I have not seen most of these people for some time it is possible the Party has won a few back, but in most cases it seems unlikely. The reasons for their change of heart are varied. One got very sick and decided that a properly funded universal health scheme was rather important, and maybe the logic could be extended to other services the party wished to savage. Another told me he still agree with the majority of Liberal Party policies (at least more than Labor or the Greens on those topics) but could not vote for them because he regarded the environmental crisis as the most important issue in the election. It’s probably no coincidence that three of the seven now apparently identify as queer.

I doubt the hierarchy of the Party, about to add control of every state government to its federal victory, will lose too much sleep over the loss of these votes. It matters hardly at all how these few people vote. On the other hand, I think it matters a lot that they are no longer in the Party. If, as this article claims, almost 90% of the Liberal Party membership is over 60 then members in their 40s are worth their weight in gold. The seven I am thinking of make up a pretty substantial proportion of the active membership who overlapped with me. You’re always going to lose some foot soldiers as mortgages and families leave little time for political involvement, losing them because they now think you’re a bunch of dangerous bigots is probably worse.

* Paul Norton has written an excellent piece on the phenomenon of the way those who were once so certain of their left-wing views now hold diametrically opposite opinions without apparently any acknowledgement that they may not be as all knowing as they think.

^I do not include amongst those who have changed sides someone who, after voting Green or progressive micro-party gives their preferences to the Liberals because they have direct personal experience of the behaviour of the ALP candidate in their electorate. There are a few of these, particularly in Northcote.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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2 Responses to Liberal Defectors

  1. Geoff Robinson says:

    Interesting, has something to do with demise of ‘socialism’ as an imaginable project, consider someone like former Young Lib high flyer Saul Eslake

  2. Yes, I think that there are a bunch of things going on here, but the ending of socialism as a threat is a big part of it. Two of the people were mainly in the Liberals because of their anti-Soviet views. Once the wall came down that ceased to be an issue.

    However, I think the bigger effect was indirect. While there was a Soviet threat the right had genuine intellectuals in its ranks, so even people who were not particularly driven by such international issues felt like they had kindred spirits. Once that was lost the tendency to dumbing down took over and people who value intellect started to feel increasingly out of place, which of course becomes a vicious circle. There are still some smart people hanging on among the younger members, but they’re getting increasingly few and far between.

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