May 19, 2015

Labor’s British blues

By Nick Dyrenfurth
Labor’s British blues
It is not alarmist to think that Australian Labor is sleepwalking to electoral disaster

On 7 May, the British people delivered a devastating verdict on Ed Miliband’s Labour Party: simply unelectable. Needless to say, Australians should be wary of glib “lessons” drawn from an election conducted thousands of kilometres away, in a country with vastly different geographic voting patterns and which uses a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Yet Tony Abbott’s government might well take heart. The Conservative Party’s surprise victory was achieved despite an unpopular austerity program. Britain’s economic recovery remains uneven. Inequality was, rightfully, a major theme of Miliband’s campaign. Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne endured low approval ratings early in their term in office, and there had been calls for Cameron to be replaced by Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. But despite opinion polling that consistently pointed to a hung parliament, the Tories now enjoy a comfortable majority in the Commons. “Tough it out” is the message Abbott and company will hear. Among those inclined to accept the self-serving mythology of Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who orchestrated the Tory campaign, his services will be in high demand at home.

Granted, any Coalition MP who thinks the British Tories have discovered the elixir of permanent electoral success is mistaken. Parallels drawn between Cameron’s credentials as a “conviction politician” and those of John Howard or Abbott are trite. Cameron’s victory may be a Pyrrhic one: his Conservative majority obscures the fact that the two secessionist parties are the real winners of this election. The Scottish National Party achieved a near clean sweep of Scotland, almost solely at Labour’s expense. The UK Independence Party won 12.6% of the overall vote, even if it claimed only a single seat. The prospect of Scotland seceding from the UK and the UK withdrawing from the European Union will dominate the next parliament.

What can Australian Labor learn from its kindred party’s horror-show election?

While Labour was always unlikely to win back government in one go, the party failed to regain the trust of the electorate. There is a sense that many Labourites believed the voters got it wrong in 2010, when they judged the party deficient on the big-ticket issues of fiscal management and immigration. These issues were either ignored, or it was outright denied that they were key source of voter dissatisfaction. Hence the Tories smashed Labour on economic management, while UKIP managed to finish in second place in many working-class electorates whose voters were alarmed by the impact of mass immigration.

This is why British Labour failed, not because it picked the wrong Miliband (Ed over David) as its parliamentary leader in 2010, who then failed to connect with the voting public. And instead of winning voters from the Tories by engaging on these issues, Labour implemented a disastrous “35% strategy” (that being the fraction of the voting public Miliband hoped to win over). Miliband’s conventional tax-and-spend agenda aimed to hold up the party’s working-class northern base. This, along with targeting disaffected middle-class Liberal Democrat voters and ethnic blocs, was meant to guarantee a slim majority.

Its failure serves as a reminder that to win office Labor needs to win over Coalition voters. It cannot merely play to the concerns of so-called “true believers” or pander unnecessarily to the preoccupations of inner-city, increasingly Green-leaning voters. Many readers will regard this as anathema, but it’s true.

This tendency is echoed by elements within the ALP who have failed to grasp that the electorate believes that the Rudd–Gillard governments got it badly wrong on asylum-seekers and, while giving it credit for steering the nation through the tumult of the global financial crisis, judges that it spent far too much money during its term in office. The party’s July national conference is unlikely to assist. A voter glancing at the agenda might think that the nations’ big issues are a binding vote on gay marriage, asylum seekers, Israel–Palestine and party reform. On 7 September 2013 the party enjoyed its lowest primary vote in a century; this is scarcely the message it should send swinging voters.

Instead, Labor must pick a mainstream theme that plays to the party’s traditional strengths and stick with it. Again, the example of Miliband’s Labour is instructive. Miliband initially flirted with the “Blue Labour” program, which addressed the failures of the Blair–Brown New Labour era head-on. Its champion, Maurice Glasman, was ennobled amid much fanfare. Yet Miliband eventually drifted from theme to theme, adopting “responsible capitalism” in 2011 before taking up the wonkish “pre-distribution” concept a year later. Next up was the Disraeli-inspired “One Nation Labour” mantra, a big-tent strategy that seemed to re-engage with the pro-business, pro-worker agenda at the heart of Blue Labour. But that too fell by the wayside, in favour of a vacuous election motto: “Vote Labour to make Britain better off”. Official party coffee mugs pronounced: “Controls On Immigration: I’m Voting Labour”. No one bought it for a second. All the while, Miliband had little to say about reducing the budget deficit or dealing with the legitimate concerns that many Britons have around immigration (that a poorly planned mass program can damage both immigrant and host populations).

Australian Labor has by contrast stuck to a theme of fairness, promised to protect institutions such as Medicare, and targeted Abbott’s litany of broken promises. Bill Shorten has held together a badly fractured party. But as a means of getting Labor back onto the treasury benches, such a strategy will only carry it so far. Voters know that Labor’s commitment to Medicare is unshakeable. They get that Shorten is no wild-eyed extremist and will, in all likelihood, lead a more consensus-based government than Abbott.

But that will not be enough. A motto of “Australia will be fairer” cannot suffice. Fairness cannot of itself fix the structural budget deficit, develop a consensual pro-worker, pro-business economy where people actually make things and hold down stable, well-paid jobs, or address issues as diverse as an ageing population, terrorism and climate change. 

It is not alarmist to think that Labor is sleepwalking to electoral disaster. If an election were held today, the party’s base would likely hold up. But because it hasn’t explained to the public that the structural budget deficit is the handiwork of Peter Costello’s 2007 election tax cuts, which the Rudd government unwisely legislated for in office, and cannot bring itself to acknowledge the community view that Labor overspent during the GFC, it is at risk of being belted on the issue that will ultimately decide the next election: economic management.

Shorten’s budget-in-reply speech is unlikely to assuage voter concerns around Labor’s ability to manage money. Several of the policy ideas floated in the speech played to Labor’s existing strengths in science and innovation, research and higher education, and stand in stark contrast to the Abbott’s shoddy government record in these areas. The 5% small business tax reduction is a no-brainer. But will these offerings win over the Coalition voters needed to win office? It would be foolhardy for Shorten and his shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, to unveil budget savings measures which the government could acquire free of charge, but Labor’s avoidance of debt-and-deficit politics is the highest of high-risk strategies.

Whatever one thinks of the brutal nature of Australia’s offshore immigration program and the untenable situation on Nauru and Manus Island, the boats have stopped. Any drift from the bipartisan position on unauthorised immigration would be electoral suicide. And yet this is precisely what some within the party are urging. They need to read and re-read Robert Manne’s take on this vexed issue. I did and ultimately changed my mind.

Most importantly, Bill Shorten needs to be himself again, rather than the bloke who currently appears on our television screens. The man I got to know. The man who, as I discovered researching the history of the union he once led, is spoken of in hallowed terms by ordinary members who don’t owe him their preselection or any particular favour. They like him. It might seem preposterous to outside observers, but they are drawn to his charisma. He has it in spades. More fundamentally, they like him because he likes them, understands their basic concerns and spoke to them in plain English. Solving the striking disjuncture between Shorten’s private and public personas should be priority number one.   

David Cameron offered the British people a simple narrative: I’ve taken tough decisions to remedy Labour’s mistakes. Things are getting better. “Red Ed” Miliband hasn’t learnt from Labour’s mistakes. He is a risk to our recovery. The polls inexorably tightened. The Tories won and deservedly so. Can the Australian Labor Party avoid the same fate?

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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