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Labor’s perception problem

Election victories in Britain and Canada show the Labor Party where more work is needed, writes Peter Brent

Peter Brent 6 November 2015 1204 words

Inflated expectations: a Labour campaign event at Hornsey Town Hall in north London on 16 April this year. Labour Party/Flickr

Voters in Britain gave election watchers a shock in May. Not because David Cameron survived as prime minister – despite the post-election rewrites, a Labour victory hadn’t been widely expected. No, the jolt came because the Conservatives won an absolute majority in the House of Commons. The almost universal expectation, fed by the polls, was that one of the major parties would wind up leading a minority government.

Why were the polls so wrong? Perhaps it was the “shy Tory” effect – the possibility that respondents were bashful about admitting to pollsters that they intended voting Conservative. Or perhaps it came down to the wrong assumptions about which groups would turn out to vote in Britain’s non-compulsory system.

Canada’s election result, four months later, can also be called a surprise – but only if you tuned out in the last few weeks of the campaign. By that point, it was becoming clear that a Liberal government was the most probable outcome. When the lengthy campaign had begun back in early August, though, the Libs looked like they would repeat their dreadful performance of four years earlier.

Days before the issue of the writs, Reuters reflected the commentators’ consensus about the man who had been Canada’s Liberal leader for a few months shy of two years. “Justin Trudeau, the man who was supposed to lead Canada’s Liberals out of the political wilderness,” it said, “has instead sunk to third place just months from an election, with some in his party complaining he is missing in action.” For good measure, the article dismissed him as “a former teacher and one-time snowboard instructor.”

In the first third of the campaign, the centre-left New Democratic Party led in the polls. Then the Conservative government hit the front. But the Liberals surged in the final fortnight, and by the time Canadians were casting their votes Trudeau was favoured to become prime minister. In the process the ex–snowboard instructor had gone from “lightweight” to “charismatic.” Now the question was whether the Liberals would govern in their own right; and the answer came in the affirmative.

Dragging lessons from overseas into Australian elections is fraught at the best of times. We might want to see the defeated Stephen Harper as a pin-up example of what happens when a prime minister becomes arrogant and strays too far from the ideological centre. But he did have a few wins under his belt, unlike, say, our own recently defeated Queensland premier, Campbell Newman. The fact is that Harper’s was a nine-year-old government asking for another term, which is difficult in most democracies most of the time.

The better fit for us is with Britain, for the simple reason that its election involved a Labour Party attempt to return to office after a single term in opposition.

First, a cautionary note. We should always be wary of the accepted “reasons” for election results. They might work as a story, especially for journalists, but they tend to be glib and they are partly shaped by the winner. In Britain’s case, the misleading polls created extra demand for a big explanation.

Leaving aside the fact that governments, particularly centre-right ones, usually achieve second terms, the UK result is widely attributed to two factors. Many voters feared that a minority Labour government would be too reliant on support from the Scottish National Party; and many were worried that the Labour opposition had become so enamoured with the easy-peasy politics of opposing austerity measures that it didn’t care much about the state of government finances.

Canada provides a clear contrast. The Liberals promised to run small deficits for five years to pay for infrastructure and boost the economy, currently in recession. Politically, such an election approach would be unthinkable for a Labo(u)r opposition in either Britain or Australia.

To a large extent, the difference is due to the interplay of recent electoral and international economic cycles. Central government budgets in all three countries moved from deficit after the early 1990s recession to surplus by the late 1990s. In Australia, the crossover from red to black happened under a Coalition government, in Britain under Labour and in Canada under the Liberals.

The Howard government had made a huge deal about its surpluses, making them key markers of economic competence in the eyes of many Australians. From the point of view of its legacy, that government was fortunate to lose office when it did; one more term and deficits would have returned.

Britain returned to deficit in 2002 and remained there, blowing out drastically after the 2008 global financial crisis. This is the big deficit the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats inherited when they took office in 2010. In Canada, it was the Conservatives who oversaw the GFC-induced spillage of red ink. This year Canada returned to a small surplus (which is still a long way off in the other two countries).

In Australia, Labor took office in late 2007 and suffered the indignity of presiding over the turning of the Howard government’s hard-won surpluses into deficits. An ostentatiously presented stimulus package and lacklustre political skills sealed the deal: most Australians, perhaps including most Labor voters, remain convinced that excessive Labor spending was responsible for the budget downturn. (They’re wrong: the revenue collapse alone was enough to drive the budget deep into deficit.)

Voters around the developed world have also noted the fiscal crisis in Europe, and particularly the alleged risk of following Greece into deep trouble by allowing fiscal imbalance to get out of control.

Canada’s Conservatives tried hard to play the deficit card. Leading up to this year’s campaign, the Harper government passed a gimmick called the “Federal Balanced Budget Act,” which threatened cabinet ministers and senior public servants with pay cuts in the event of deficits (with some exceptions, such as in a recession).

Trudeau promised to repeal that legislation. The argument that “our opponents can’t be trusted with money,” used commonly by conservative parties in Australia and Britain, couldn’t gain great traction when it was applied to the Canadian Liberals because their record in government couldn’t be held up as evidence. When the Liberals last left office the budget was comfortably in surplus.

In Australia, by contrast, perceptions of fiscal mismanagement were a major force behind the Coalition’s win in 2013 and remain a dead weight on the opposition. At least until September’s change of prime minister, Labor seemed content to wallow in the good vibes from opposing unpopular spending cuts, oblivious to the impression its behaviour has on voters – the impression that Labor doesn’t seem to think the deficit matters – which will linger when they next decide how to vote.

Of course, Labor now finds itself in a wholly different landscape. Faced with Malcolm Turnbull, it’s back to the drawing board. Perhaps Labor’s declaration that this will make them a better opposition will become a reality. •

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