June 10, 2017

UK election diary: Lessons for Australia

By Sam Dastyari
UK election diary: Lessons for Australia

Sam Dastyari bumps into Boris Johnson on the campaign trail

Three takeaways from London, and an encounter with Boris Johnson

“I met Boris Johnson at a laundromat a day before the election,” I tell my friends. He is now likely to be the next leader of British Conservatives. From trawling for votes outside a laundromat to the next leader of your political party. Politics is a fast business. 

Of course there are no guarantees that Theresa May won’t survive. But she is now in in the “death zone”. The term refers to mountain climbing when you reach an altitude (usually 7000 metres) where your body is physically dying. You can survive the “death zone” (it would be impossible to climb Everest if you couldn’t). But there is only so long that it is safe to be there. That’s where the British PM now finds herself. Not because she won’t form government, but because she was expected to romp it in.

The election is over. Technically Theresa won. Jeremy lost. But this is 2017 and facts are becoming irrelevant. The entire Corbyn campaign is in shock that they got so close. The polls predicted their doom, the pundits said they didn’t stand a chance.

Expectations matter. Theresa May and the Conservatives didn’t meet them while Jeremy Corbyn and Labour exceeded them. That is all that will be remembered in a few weeks. Almost everything else you read about the elections is, actually, going to be bullshit.

And a lot will be written. Most of it will miss the point. “Oh but Labour didn’t win,” they will say. And they will be right. Labour lost. But a week ago, when I arrived in London, Labour was looking at an electoral wipeout and they not only survived it, they improved on their position. “Theresa ran a shit campaign,” they will say. And they will be right. It was the equivalent of Malcolm Turnbull’s “Jobs and Growth” campaign with even less energy. Coincidently by the same people – Crosby Textor, who ran Malcolm’s.

There are lessons here for Australia and in particular the left of politics. But because we are lazy we won’t take the right ones. We will take the superficial ones, a few campaign slogans and lines, without looking at the underlying issues. Here are three takeaways from London we should learn from.

1. Everybody hates politics and the political establishment. Corbyn was a rejection of the status quo. He was a progressive rejection, but a rejection nonetheless. And while I’m far more sympathetic to Jeremy’s policy positions than Trump’s, thematically both were saying something similar. “The system is broken. You are being left out. Upend the card table and see what happens.” The difference being, of course, that Jeremy’s solution didn’t involve building a wall and banning Muslims (yay).

2. British Labour have a better ground campaign than we do in Australia. We are still wasting all our money on television. They are investing in people.

3. You can’t be about “nothing”. Theresa stood for nothing. Jeremy stood by his values. In the battle between nothing and something, something will always do well.

“You know we still lost,” my friends remind me again. Which is true. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way. And Boris?

Well we had been back on the campaign trail following the campaign “suspension”. There is no such things as “suspending a campaign”, by the way. It is something the media has decided needs to be done at times of national emergency, and the politicians have decided to go along with. But at a campaign level it isn’t a real thing. Campaigns are long, arduous, multi-year endeavours; “not campaigning” for a day or two, doesn’t actually mean anything beyond the gesture. But following the horrific terror attacks in London, Prime Minister Theresa May had decided we would all be “suspending the campaign” and so we found ourselves in a campaign limbo.

It would perhaps have been a good time to do important things, like the laundry, which I didn’t do until the campaign had “restarted” and, in doing so, bumped into Boris Johnson at the laundromat.

It was Boris who came to me. He had a pack of cameras with him and seeing a youngish man carrying a laundry basket (me), he quickly concluded that it would be good for photos. I sympathise. It’s hard to find that “in touch” shot when you are surrounded by cameras, and you don’t have too many opportunities to get it right.

“Oh you are from Australia?” he asks after hearing my accent.

I don’t want to make a scene, and there are cameras around. “So how is the election looking?” I ask.

“Oh very well,” he tells me. “Very well. We are going to have a smashing result.”

And with the confidence of someone speaking to a visitor from one of the colonies he adds, “None of the chaos you have in Australian politics.”

Chaos? Oh please. It’s only just beginning....

Sam Dastyari

Sam Dastyari is a former federal Labor senator.


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