ALP should ride the poll bump and leave the Greens alone

Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, pictured at the ALP state conference in Queensland on Sunday, finally have something to smile about.

This week’s Newspoll and Age/Nielsen poll make interesting reading in the wake of last week’s debate over the relationship between the Labor and the Greens.

According to Newspoll, support for Labor has increased by 3% since the last survey, while the two-party preferred vote is now split 50/50. The Nielsen figures also show that Labor’s popularity has improved, although it is less marked than the Newspoll result, and the Coalition retains a 53/47 lead in the two-party preferred. Both polls also record an improvement in Prime Minister Gillard’s approval ratings.

While it is important not to read too much into one-off poll results, the trend over the past few months is heartening for Labor, particularly the gradual increase in its primary vote. It confirms a sense that the government has started to gain some much-needed political momentum. If the two-party preferred figures in this week’s Newspoll are accurate, it suggests the government has regained the ground it has lost since the 2010 election.

The recent poll results also call into question the claim that the Greens are in decline. Big swings away from the Greens in the NSW local council elections led to suggestions last week that the party had peaked in 2010, and that its popularity was waning. But the latest Newspoll puts support for the Greens at 12% while the Nielsen poll has it at 10%, which is a 1% drop since August.

As mentioned, these poll results should be taken with a grain of salt, but the trend does not suggest that there has been a collapse in the Greens’ support.

These poll results have interesting implications for the debate over the strategy Labor should adopt in dealing with the Greens. Some have suggested that the local council results vindicated the more critical approach towards the Greens a number of prominent figures within the ALP have taken in recent months.

Anthony Albanese, Joel Fitzgibbon, Mark Butler, and AWU Secretary Paul Howes, among others, have suggested that the ALP should continue to take the fight to the Greens, attacking their policies in order to protect inner-city electorates and to win back Labor supporters disgruntled by the relationship between the two parties at the federal level.

But it is unclear just how effective negative campaigning will be in protecting Labor-held inner-city electorates from the Greens. As a number of commentators have pointed out, the Greens have a significant support base; they are not purely dependent on a protest vote against the major parties.

Greens voters also tend to be concentrated among university educated voters who are generally less likely to be swayed by negative campaign tactics. For these reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that overall support for the Greens remains relatively steady in the polls, despite Labor’s more critical stance towards the party in recent times.

There is also some danger for Labor in adopting an overly negative approach to the Greens. For the first time in more than two years, the Gillard government has (relatively) clear air.

Until recently, media coverage of the government has focused heavily on the carbon tax, leadership instability, and the political scandals surrounding Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson. In the past two months, the political heat has gone out of these issues. The allegations surrounding Slipper and Thomson no longer dominate the news, and they have lost much of their political punch. The carbon tax and the associated compensation package have both come in without economic disaster, taking the heat out of this issue. And although speculation over the Labor leadership has continued, the idea that a takeover is imminent seems much less credible since Kevin Rudd’s unsuccessful challenge earlier in the year.

The past few months have also seen the negative focus shift onto the opposition. Tony Abbott has come under attack after his performance on the 7:30 Report, and the “wall punching” allegations raised in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay. As the government’s experiences over the past two years illustrate, it is very difficult to communicate an appealing message to voters when fighting off constant attacks and scandals, and this further enhances Labor’s cause.

In this context, it would be inadvisable for the government to focus too much attention on an aggressive campaign against the Greens.

At the moment, the Gillard government is free of many of the controversies that have dogged it over the last two years, and the Liberal-National opposition is on the back foot. This means that the government finally has the space it needs to focus on selling its policy reforms to the electorate.

Some of these reforms, particularly in the areas of disability insurance and dental health, are likely to be very appealing to Labor’s support base in working-class areas and inner-city electorates. Adopting a negative strategy against the Greens at this point is likely to distract attention from selling these reforms, and setting the policy agenda in the lead up to the next election.