On the face of it, triangulation appears to be an attractive strategy for any party that has spent years in the political wilderness. The process, predominantly pursued by social-democratic parties after the triumph of neoliberalism from the late-1970s onwards, involves adopting softer versions of a political opposition’s ideology, values, and policy platforms. This has proven a vote winner in key elections in the past – think Bill Clinton in 1992, following years of presidential domination by Reagan-Bush Republicans, or Tony Blair in 1997, following the total political superiority of the Conservative party from Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. Closer to home, the 1983 election of Bob Hawke in Australia involved a decent measure of triangulation.
So why not triangulate in every election? These elections represented significant watershed moments that involved historic landslide victories and produced iconic governments. Not only that, but these elections represented a springboard-like departure from decades-long stints in opposition for parties of the Left.
But there is a dark side to triangulation. Not only is it a short-sighted strategy, it ultimately proves so corrosive that it is dangerous for any political party to embark upon. Writer George Monbiot goes as far to say that triangulation “like yeast in a barrel of beer, […] generate[s] the toxic conditions that eventually kills [political parties that employ it]”.
How so? Well, in pursuing triangulation, a political party sheds its traditional values and becomes a pale imitation of the vision they were attempting to provide an alternative to. Short term electoral gains may be made at the expense of governments that have worn out their welcome — if these governments continue to be ineffectual in opposition, as the Liberal Party so often was in the Hawke-Keating years, these gains may be sustained for some time.
But ultimately, triangulation condemns any political party that attempts it to a disastrous decline not in the ever-ephemeral and sought after swing voters, but in the core of their base. In order to understand this, we have to remember that what really matters in politics is not policy, but values and narratives. Elections may ultimately be decided by swing voters, but this modus operandi is only enabled by the fact that a majority of the voting public are rusted on to voting patterns they have maintained for as long as a lifetime, if not generations.
Intrinsic to this loyalty are the values of political parties and the narratives that they construct. Triangulation throws the old values and narratives out the window, replacing them with a watered-down, “pick me” version of the status quo maintained by their opposition, usually an ageing conservative government. Whilst triangulation may win landslide elections by recruiting traditional voters from the other side who are sick of as many as two decades of stale government, it ultimately alienates the traditional core of a political party. They no longer see their values reflected in the party they have always voted for.
This is a far more dangerous and far longer-term voting dynamic than swing voters. It played out quite clearly in the 2019 Australian election. One of the key problems highlighted in Labor’s 2019 campaign was a perception that the party was caught between two bases – the so-called “inner-city” types, who generally clamour for decisive climate action, and more regional, traditionally blue-collar voters, who allegedly are more apprehensive. The ALP attempted to hedge their bets, defending the export of some types of coal and failing to rule out new coal projects. This failed to woo regional voters – a misperception that Labor was joined at the hip with the Greens was a factor in torpedoing the Party’s chances in the regional electorates that they aimed to win, particularly in Queensland. All the while, climate-conscious Labor voters continued to be alienated by a party who were seemingly ill-equipped to tackle global warming. In this case triangulatory policies not only hurt Labor’s long term prospects, but actually failed to secure even a victory in the short term.
However, the ALP’s conclusions were troubling. Instead of recognising the need for a coherent set of progressive values and visionary narratives, the report advocated that the Labor Party cease any “divisive rhetoric, including references to ‘the big end of town’ […] [and focus on] drawing upon and expanding on its past economic reforms”. Regardless of outcomes of Hawke-Keating neoliberalisation, a continuation of economic policy that attempts to mirror what is apparently the ideology of the LNP will not win votes.
Instead, it involves the dilution of Labor values, the caving-in of the Labor narrative, and ultimately the alienation of core supporters, both in apparently safe city seats (where the Greens are gaining ground), and the regional seats that the Party is more worried about (where voters are perhaps more likely to switch to less progressive alternatives).
A better alternative to triangulation involves longer term vision: a more appropriate strategy, as raised by Monbiot, would be to articulate core principles around which coherent narratives can be formed.
Rather than attempting to mirror the government, opposition parties should advertise their status as a viable alternative with a genuinely different vision. Only this can prevent the rot visible in most democracies around the globe and begin to end the social democratic crisis.
Fortunately, there has been some improvement: the ALP platform for the upcoming election involves genuine differentiation on a number of key issues, including a federal ICAC, education, aged care, health, and the environment. However, there remains in play small-target, triangulation adjacent strategies – such as an inhumane refugee policy or the dumping of franking credit reform. That may well be enough to win this election against a decade old, scandal-ridden Coalition government but whether such strategies will remain an obstacle to party longevity and relevance is yet to be seen.
But one thing is for sure: any party that engages in triangulation is condemning itself to a long, painful decline into perpetual opposition.