DAVID SOLOMON. Whither Labor

Nov 11, 2019

Labor’s post-election post-mortem demonstrates conclusively that Scott Morrison’s victory was no miracle. It also shows why so many people thought it was.

We were all misled by the polls and the betting markets. Labor’s willingness to accept them at face value (despite evidence in their own polling that suggested the published polls could be wrong) helped it adopt strategies and tactics that were not fit for purpose. Victory was assumed, as a result of which the campaign failed to focus on winning votes.

These were among the findings of the review conducted by Dr Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill for the ALP’s national executive:

‘Finding 45: An industry-wide failure resulted in polling consistently overestimating the Labor vote and underestimating Coalition support. Labor struggled to process internal research that ran counter to its expected win.’

‘Finding 16: High expectations of a Labor victory led to little consideration being given to querying Labor’s strategy and policy agenda.’

‘Finding 18: High expectations of a Labor victory and a desire to secure a mandate for Labor’s program in government influenced Labor’s decision to announce a bold, expansive and highly detailed policy agenda comprising more than 250 costed policies.’

In the weeks leading up to the elections on 18 May, the published polls were giving Labor between 51 and 52 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. Over the previous two years there had been only one poll that put the two sides even, on 50 percent, while there were many polls that gave Labor 53 per cent of the vote and more. What Labor actually recorded was a two-party preferred vote of 48.47 per cent. This was 3 percent less that Newspoll predicted on election eve.

The polls were even less helpful in assessing Labor’s primary vote. The actual result was 33.3 percent, the lowest in 85 years. Yet most of the published polls had Labor at around 36 or 37 percent. Only one poll, Ipsos, occasionally recorded Labor at 33 percent, while Essential and Roy Morgan gave it 34 per cent in the weeks leading to the election.

Why were the polls so wrong? The review provides this comment:

‘All of the published polls persistently overstated support for Labor, in terms of both the primary vote and two-party preferred support. The final polls of the campaign all predicted a two-party preferred swing to Labor, when ultimately the opposite occurred. Polling agencies are re-evaluating their approach to address the shortcomings. The early advice is the failure to construct or weight polling samples to properly account for education levels explains much of the error.’

And of course, polls only report public opinion at the time of polling. They do not predict how people will vote on election day (other than those polls taken in the days immediately preceding the election).

But election campaigns can and do change voting intentions. Labor actually lost ground during the election period, most notably in Queensland, where the swing from the previous election was over four percent. We don’t know for certain when most of that occurred, but published polling suggests much of it happened during or shortly before the campaign period.

And the probability is that Clive Palmer’s extraordinary anti-Labor campaign – the report says he spent more than $8 million in the week before the election – would have done much of that damage to Labor.

But. Labor had its own polling. As the report says:

‘On the night before the election, Labor’s tracking poll had the two parties locked at 50 per cent each in the key battleground electorates. Labor’s 2016 two-party preferred vote in the seats the track was surveying was 48.7 per cent – suggesting a modest swing to Labor of just over 1 per cent. Labor was on a primary vote of 36 per cent, the Coalition was on 39 per cent. Importantly, Labor’s two-party preferred vote in the track did not exceed 50 per cent at any time in the final 12 days of the election campaign.’

Elsewhere it points out that ‘for seven of 32 reports Labor was behind and for 11 more nights Labor had a swing of less than 1 per cent – not enough to win the election.’

Leading to these findings:

‘Finding 47: The campaign track was persistently less optimistic than the published polling, but inaccuracies in the overall research program led Labor to believe it was slightly ahead when it was, in fact, behind.

‘Finding 48: Notwithstanding these inaccuracies, there were clear warning signs about Labor’s problems, with the research correctly identifying critical campaign weaknesses that were successfully exploited by the Coalition.’

The warning signs were ignored. Or in any event, they prompted no changes in campaigning strategy or tactics.

The headline conclusions from the Emerson/Weatherill review were:

‘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. No one of these shortcomings was decisive but in combination they explain the result.’

To which could be added, that Labor failed to appreciate that it was not a shoo-in, ignoring its own research.

And who is to blame? Essentially it comes down to the Leader, Bill Shorten, not just because he was unpopular, but because it was he who was responsible for how the party adopted a weak strategy and a cluttered policy agenda, and a campaign organisation that failed to respond to the Government’s (and Palmer’s) attacks on himself and Labor. And to the warnings from Labor’s own research that victory was not assured.

Yet he tells us expects Labor to keep him in Parliament for another 20 years?

David Solomon is a retired journalist and author.


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