Political Class Gets It Wrong Again

The members of the political class control communications and campaigns on both sides of politics. Unless they reform to minimise their isolation and arrogance, they will drive further voter disillusion.

The NY Times’ David Brooks  raised this recently. He suggested four metaphors for political campaigns: seduction, talent contest, tradesman’s pitch, and warfare. The hard, negative campaigns in the  Romney-Obama contest clearly follow the warfare metaphor.

He doesn’t say outright so I will: relying on the warfare metaphor for a campaign is something only a truly isolated political class would do. It represents a fight over winning, not a contest over governing.

This martial-, gangland-style of campaigning apparently makes the people in the campaigns feel hardheaded, professional and Machiavellian. But it’s not clear that it’s actually the best way to win an election. That’s because the style is based on a series of dubious assumptions: that the harshest language is the most persuasive to voters; that what feels good to you as a competitive combatant will also look most attractive to detached onlookers; that over the duration of a six-month campaign, daily combat will continue to look compelling rather than cumulatively revolting […]

In a warfare-style campaign, the electorate is an irrelevant bystander. The bombs thrown are via media, so the voter can see them. But the campaign and candidates ignore voters’ interests, and don’t open real debates that shape the electorate’s future.

It’s almost as if two boxers are fighting in the back room of a private club, and the winner expects walk out the club’s front door as Pope. The contest is disconnected from the responsibility.

This is the opposite of leadership. Voters can only see it as a squalid fight for the chance to divide the spoils of government. Pair this with deliberate avoidance of any honest talk on hard policy issues and you have the essence of voter disillusion.

In Australia, as Joe Hildebrand  agrees, we have an isolated, quasi-dynastic political class  that has driven the failure of NSW and Federal Labor. It is no surprise that their approach is closer to warfare than any other. Particularly the way Treasurer Swan has been copying the Obama class playbook. Or in Anna Bligh’s hail-Mary smear in the Queensland election.

But as a Liberal I’m not complacent. Long term membership and engagement in any political party can drive tribalism, dominating personal loyalties and an increasingly insular viewpoint.

Combine that with smart class pretensions and the ego-enhancement of being an insider, and all the elements  are there for the emergence of the Liberal equivalent of a Labor-style political class.

The appalling salaries offered to staffers don’t help. It leads to a reliance on inexperienced youth schooled in internal party politics and smart-arsery. The offices of PMs Rudd and Gillard have shown the risk that poses. Coalition Ministers across the country run similar risks because of similar hires.

This emergence of more staffers-since-youth encourages the narrowness in outlook and experience that is the heart of the problem.

While the Liberals have far more opportunity for mid- and late-career professionals to enter Parliament – consider Mark Speakman SC, or Graham Annesley in the NSW election last year – the reality is that an increasing number of Liberal MPs are ex-staffers or insiders. Not at Labor levels, though, by any stretch.

The Centre-Right has one saving flaw: it doesn’t have the massive pool of political class recruits that Labor does. There is no equivalent of the union movement, NGO advocacy or academic research bodies to train and warehouse lifelong members of the Left political class.

Because of this, as we have seen in NSW, Queensland and now federally, the ALP is further advanced in maximising the destructive – and self-destructive – power of its political class.

But Coalition parties aren’t immune, and have to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes.  There are structural incentives for more lifelong political insiders to emerge on the Centre-Right. Mid-career recruits are present but rare. The increased Liberal engagement with local councils has reinforced a staffer-councillor-MP path to a political career. The role of factional groupings encourages an internal party focus and the recruitment of fellow-travellers.

Any political party that wants to stay relevant and connected to the voters has to take this seriously. The way the ALP’s political class has driven its implosion makes that very clear.

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