Guerrilla war

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Author of Looking for the Light on the Hill: Modern Labor’s Challenges, Troy Bramston wrote an interesting article in The Australian today. Here’s an excerpt:

Labor’s wiser heads believe the Greens’ support has peaked and Brown’s departure will accelerate their decline. Labor research provides an insight into who votes Green and why, and suggests the bigger challenge may well be for the Greens to maintain voters rather than for Labor to win them.

The Greens’ support at elections and in polling measures 10 per cent to 12 per cent of the vote. (At the Queensland election it was 7.5 per cent.) About half of Greens voters are far-left activists or environmentalists. The rest are disillusioned with politics and include former Labor and Australian Democrats voters.

This explains Brown’s holier-than-thou rhetoric, presenting the Greens as an “alternative to the tired, cynical politics” of the established parties.

The Greens’ base vote is motivated almost entirely by environmentalism. For the base, they are a single-issue party. If environmental policy wanes in importance, so will Greens votes. This is why Christine Milne wants to broaden the party’s appeal to farmers and small business and is advocating non-environmental causes.

Some Greens voters want Labor to be more progressive on social issues and demonstrate conviction, boldness and leadership. This is why Milne says the Greens can influence the main parties. But there are more voters for Labor to win in the Centre who have fled to the Coalition.

Some Labor strategists believe the Greens’ strength is overstated. At the 2010 election, they received 11.8 per cent of the primary vote. Newspoll shows that support has not increased.

Much has been made of the Greens winning the NSW state seat of Balmain and the federal seat of Melbourne. But at the Victorian and Queensland elections, despite much hype, they failed to win a single seat. They lost votes in Queensland.

It’s interesting because it shows just how limited the thinking inside Labor is regarding the Greens political party.

Bramston goes through the various options being weighed up. For example, some “wise heads” are suggesting “the party to move leftward on policy and reinvigorate its community links”. Other Labor “wise heads” reckon “competent government in the progressive Labor tradition that appeals to mainstream values can win votes across the political spectrum” (they’re wrong). The final “wise head” proposal is “a third option: creating a permanent Labor-Green alliance to combat the conservatives”.

I’d like to use the analogy of guerrilla war to help Labor approach the Greens party.

This is a potentially controversial tack, mainly because of the roles it creates for Labor and the Greens party — that of warring enemies. However, I believe this is a fairly apt analogy.

The Greens party have made it clear that they see open-game against Labor in the inner cities. Likewise, Labor in those inner-city seats are prepared to fight back. There’s little likelihood in these contested areas that a “Labor-Green alliance” is on the cards.

For the purpose of this article, I’d like to carry forward the analogy of warfare for political contests. In this analogy, the contest between Labor and Liberals are standard warfare between standing armies. There is a ground war (the volunteers, door knocking, leafleting, etc) and aerial war (television and radio ads), and fundamentally it is a battle that takes place every three years between equally matched forces.

But what about the Greens party? They’re a small party, who face much larger foes. They can’t match Labor in the aerial war (running television ads) and in most electorates, they can’t match the ground war (staffing voting booths with volunteers). They cannot win a stand-up fight, so they’ve done with countless smaller forces do when battling a superior foe.

For the past decade, the Greens party have run a political guerrilla war.

Key elements of the Greens political strategy can be seen in guerrilla strategy (based on the classic Maoist, three-phase model used by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nugyen Giap).

PoliticalMilitary
Action among your people
Mobilisation of propaganda, motivational and organisational measures. The Greens party have been focusing primarily on agitating within their main support base: environmentalists and "issues/identity" voters. They haven't paid much attention to working people, small-business owners, farmers & regional voters, etc.
Organisation and preparation
Building cells, recruiting members, infiltrating organisations, creating front groups, spreading propaganda. The Greens party rely on numerous (independent) sympathetic groups, such as environmental groups and more recently, the same-sex marriage organisations. An area of their organising has been local government -- where a lot of people without environmental concerns have joined or become sympathetic due to local politics.
Action among enemy military
Subversion, proselytisation propaganda against enemy to encourage desertion, defection. In the lead up to the 2010 election, the Greens party have expanded their political actions. For example, they now have greater presence in unions. They have put great effort into communicating with former Labor activists. In fact, many activist in the Greens party now were former left-wing Labor members. Their issues/identity focus has also targeted people who care about issues like asylum seekers, same-sex marriage and so on.
Guerrilla warfare
Raids, sabotage, setting up parallel governments. At a parliamentary level, the Greens party have shown a willingness to conduct the political equivalent of raids and ambushes (e.g. tactical voting with the Liberal Party against Labor, an alliance with the Liberals in Tasmania under Christine Milne).
Action among enemy's people
Total propaganda effort to sow discontent, dissent amongst enemy population. The Greens party aren't quite here yet, but Bob Brown's saying that he's here to "replace the bastards" declares his intentions.
Conventional warfare
Regular formations and maneuver. The Greens party aren't here yet (and may never be), but it's their ultimate goal -- "replace the bastards".

By understanding the political conflict between the Greens party and Labor as a guerrilla conflict, we can start to understand why none of Labor’s past tactics have had any long term effectiveness. While Labor continues to win inner city seats, it has slowly started to lose one seat after another — Balmain, Melbourne and perhaps others.

A party that fights a guerrilla war fights over the long term. Set backs, like a low primary vote in Queensland or no major victories in the Victorian state election, are short-term setbacks. But with the guerrilla strategy, they’re not fighting a conventional war. They have no strongholds to lose, and so long as they keep their propaganda efforts up with their base, they’ll continue fighting.

Bramston’s “wise heads” make the point that Labor needs to focus on winning the political struggle against the Liberal party for the votes of people in the centre. This is so obvious as to be almost redundant — of course the conventional political war must continue. Labor’s enemy is the Liberal Party and conservatism. The majority of voters “up for grabs” are in the centre.

But Labor has hemorrhaged voters across the political spectrum — not just from the centre, but also from the left. Labor “wise heads” seem to be convinced they can ignore this bleeding and make it up from the centre (and continue to expect  preference flows from the Greens party).

What is more amazing still is that the “wise heads” believe that policies which advance “a pro-growth, pro-market agenda with social and environmental policies that reflect the values held by mainstream voters” will lead to electoral success. This is self-evidently wrong, and has been shown to be false over the last two decades. The “wise heads” advocating this losing, failed approach are fighting a futile struggle over fruitless terrain.

In my next post, I’ll suggest an alternative strategy for Labor to consider when facing the Greens political party. In the meantime, if you’re interested in getting an insight into the Greens party’s strategy documents, take a look at this presentation prepared by MakeBelieve on the Greens party’s 2010 election campaign.

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