Realignment – or not

With the continuing fracas over Britain’s prospective departure from the European Union (yes, don’t worry, it’s still going), there’s been considerable discussion about a realignment in British politics – the possibility that the major parties will either split or reorient themselves to a quite different support base.

For example, Stephen Davies, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, argued last month that this is one of those occasions on which “New divisions appear and old ones become irrelevant.” As he put it:

A new aligning issue is appearing. This has been brought to a head by the catalytic question of Brexit but is about a much wider range of issues. We may describe this as nationalism versus globalist cosmopolitanism. It is a division about identity and the relations between the political order of the nation state and the increasingly globalised economy.

I think there’s considerable truth in this, but I think Davies and others overstate its novelty. It seems to me that a large part of this realignment has already happened: that the additional movement required to make the Conservatives a primarily nativist party and Labour a primarily cosmopolitan party is relatively small.

Be that as it may, what particularly interests me at the moment is how much of this applies to Australia. We have no Brexit here, of course, but otherwise we have most of the same pressures that apply to the British political system.

Yet in Australia, almost no-one is talking about realignment – perhaps because that train has already left. Perhaps most of our realignment is in the past.

Last week, someone was talking about realignment, or at least about how to avoid it. At a very interesting function (which I attended as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies), former Treasurer Peter Costello spoke about the federal budget, and more generally about the current predicament of the Liberal Party.

Costello’s argument was that the Liberals have gone astray by focusing on issues that divide them (he mentioned climate change, the republic and same-sex marriage) rather than on their common ground, which he interpreted as such free-market policies as lower taxes, deregulation and reduced spending.

Now it’s certainly true that the issues that have occupied the Liberals have been internally divisive. And that may account for their failure to pursue anything that could be taken to resemble a free market agenda – although one might also think that failure goes back a good deal longer than their recent troubles.

But an obvious response is that a political party doesn’t get a free choice as to what the salient issues are. The idea that climate change, for example, is prominent in the public debate only because the Liberal Party decided to put it there, is hard to sustain.

And if the nature of the issues that define people’s political alignment changes, and it turns out that the new fault line runs down the middle of what used to be a reasonably united party, then there’s not a great deal that it can do about it. On one interpretation, that’s the problem that the Liberal Party now has.

I think there’s a deeper problem, though, which is that the agreement about economic policy that Costello points to was always illusory. Even when there was a consensus about the pursuit of “smaller government” (and that consensus was rarer than he suggests), there was a fundamental disagreement about what the party was trying to achieve.

Take, for example, the Abbott government’s first budget, in 2014. It was sold as an attempt to address the “debt and deficit” crisis, and most of the party’s economic liberals accepted it in those terms – as indeed Costello did last week.

But to anyone who looked carefully, it was always clear that the party’s conservatives had no interest in addressing debt or deficits for their own sake. For them, cuts in government spending were a means for attacking their tribal enemies: welfare recipients, the ABC, renewable energy, and so on.

Much larger areas of expenditure that did not engage their tribal hatreds (such as the defence boondoggles) emerged unscathed. It was no surprise that the debt crisis subsequently disappeared from the government’s rhetoric when it no longer seemed politically useful.

So Costello’s call for unity around economic issues is even less viable than it might seem. Instead of a plan to return to a common if obsolete platform, it amounts to trying to go back to papering over cracks that were already there, and getting deeper.

If realignment is really under way, a fake consensus on economic policy is not going to stop it.

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