BOB MCMULLAN. Lessons for Labour from Labor

Dec 23, 2019

The crushing defeat of the British Labour Party was much worse than that suffered by the Australian Labour Party earlier in the year. However, there were some disturbing similarities and some common lessons to be learnt. The ALP is fortunate to have had the Emerson/Weatherill Review. The British Labour Party needs to do something similar.

The crushing defeat of the British Labour Party was much worse than that suffered by the Australian Labor Party earlier in the year.

However, there were some disturbing similarities and some common lessons to be learnt.

The ALP is fortunate to have had the Emerson/ Wetherill Review to forensically examine the causes of the unexpected loss and suggest some improvements.

The British Labour Party needs to do the same, but I am not sure they are capable of allowing such an objective and rigorous review in their current state of administrative and political malaise.

What were the common mistakes?

I don’t want to be unfair to the ALP or to Bill Shorten here. Bill did much better than Jeremy Corbyn. The Morrison government still has only a wafer thin majority, and is one by-election away from minority government. (This may explain their adamant defence of the indefensible Angus Taylor.)

The British Labour Party suffered a defeat of historic proportions and faces a minimum of 5 years in Opposition, with the probability of a decade in the wilderness.

However, there were some similarities which an objective analysis of the British result would highlight.

The Emerson/Wetherill review found that “Labor lost the election because of a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in liberal leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky and an unpopular leader.”

The second and third of these factors were present in spades in the UK election.

There is no doubt Brexit was a factor in the result. Labour was vulnerable here because of its failures in the campaign around the initial referendum and their failure to come to an agreement with Theresa May. Their final position on Brexit was an awkward compromise, which may have been the best option available in the circumstances but was difficult to explain and made the leader look weak. How could he be neutral about the biggest issue facing the country?

And the unpalatable truth is that Labour’s share of the vote fell in strong remain areas as well.

The failure of both parties’ policy presentation was not in the individual policies. Research in both cases shows a number of the policies were popular when taken in isolation. The problem was the number and extent of the policy offerings. The review in Australia found that “The sheer size, complexity and frequency of Labor’s policy announcements had the effect of crowding each other out in media coverage and made it difficult for local campaigns to communicate them to their voters”.

Further it found “Voter trust in politics globally and in Australia has collapsed, resulting in economically insecure, lower income voters treating all political promises with extreme scepticism while being highly receptive to negative campaigns”.

These two findings make the case for the fundamental requirement to set priorities. It is essential for political parties, particularly those of the left, to show that they are capable of choosing between competing priorities.

Reported candidate feedback reinforces the view that the British party had even bigger problems in this area. Individual policies seemed popular but the number and scale of them was frightening to voters and very difficult for candidates to communicate.

A former French PM, Pierre Mendes-France, said “gouvenir et choisir”. It remains the case: to be ready to govern one must be ready and able to choose. Voters are entitled to demand an indication of priorities rather than a mere wish list of everything a party would like to do.

Bill Shorten did not suffer from some of the image challenges of Jeremy Corbyn. No one could accuse him of tolerating anti-Semitism, for example.

But, nevertheless, the ANU survey found that he was the most unpopular major party leader since 1990.

Popularity is not everything but it does matter. Lord Ashcroft, in his very large post-election poll found that while Brexit was the main reason for a Conservative vote, economic management and who would be a better PM came a close second and third. Brexit cannot explain why 16% of 2017 Labour voters who also voted to remain declined to vote Labour in 2019. The poll suggests that voters’ main fear of a Labour government was the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.

Noted Corbyn supporter Owen Jones, in the Guardian, recently noted “Labour insiders would often bemoan …no serious attempt to turn around Corbyn’s woeful ratings”.

No political leader in the most recent election in either country was popular. All recorded nett negative approval ratings. But the relative popularity is revealing.

For Bill Shorten, the last five polls showed a nett -18.8% approval compared to Scott Morrison’s -2.4%.

In the UK the numbers for the last five polls were Corbyn -41.6 and Johnson-12.2.

To be less unpopular than Jeremy Corbyn is not much comfort but it does help explain the relatively stronger performance of the ALP.

The polling figures for Jeremy Corbyn were astonishingly bad in the lead-up to the election. Boris Johnson was unpopular, but he was an asset compared to the Labour leader.

Popularity is not everything. Recognition of strength or courage can be a political asset for an unpopular leader.

But the combination of unpopular leadership, an excessively cluttered policy agenda and confusion about Brexit was lethal for Labour.

The British Labour Party could do worse than inviting Jay Wetherill and Craig Emerson to give them some advice about the best way to conduct a post-election review.

Bob McMullan was National Secretary of the ALP from 1981 to 1988 and a Senator, MHR, Parliamentary Secretary and Cabinet Minister during the period 1988 to 2010.

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