After three years of being ahead in the opinion polls, the Australian Labor Party lost Saturday’s election that had been billed as “unlosable”. Much like David Cameron’s surprise victory over Ed Miliband in Britain’s 2015 general election, the ALP looked set to win but suffered a crushing defeat. It is one of the most spectacular results in Australia’s political history, which few predicted and nobody in Labor expected.
With more popular votes and more seats in the lower house, the Morrison government, which is formed of the Liberal Party and the National Party, will either have a small majority or be able to count on the support from a number of independent MPs.
Mohamad Ali once said thatt “You never get knocked out by a punch you see coming”. The ALP did not anticipate this result. Leaving aside the state of Victoria, where it picked up a couple of seats, Labor lost everywhere to everyone: to the Liberals, but also smaller parties and independents.
The Liberal Party held virtually all its marginal seats and won five from the ALP, mostly in Tasmania and New South Wales. Neither Western nor Southern Australia delivered the extra seats Labor needed to win.
But it was in Queensland where the election was ultimately lost. The primary popular vote for the ALP was a paltry 26 per cent. After counting all the votes (Australia has a preferential voting system, where voters score candidates in order of preference), the swing to the Liberals ended Labor’s hope of becoming the largest party and ultimately forming a government. A Labor activist summed up the mood in the party: “I have never drank so much and felt so sober”.
There are some stark lessons for the ALP and other social-democratic parties in Western countries. The first and most important is that the centre-left cannot win without cultivating working class support. Rather than staking its platform on workers and their jobs, Labor instead defended a position on climate change that appeals largely to middle-class voters.
In Queensland, for example, the party’s constructive ambiguity over the controversial Adani coalmine backfired. By attempting to be all things to all people, the party lost core working class voters. And what goes for rural seats in southern Queensland also applies to a host of suburban seats across the country.
Secondly, the centre-left needs a strong narrative that binds together economic and cultural concerns. Progressive themes such as climate change, equality and the inclusion of minorities are key in the battle against the Green Party and some independent candidates, but they do not deliver a popular or parliamentary majority. If it is to prevail against the Liberals, Labor also needs to speak to small-“c” conservative values of belonging to community and country.
This is even truer in the fight against the far-right populism of the One-Nation Party and the new United Australia Party led by Clive Palmer. Immediately after the results, Labor MPs and Senators have rushed to blame Palmer and his multi-million scare campaign for the party’s defeat. But in reality the ALP lacked a strong story that connected with people’s values – economic justice, but also social cohesion and stability in an age of upheaval.
Thirdly, Labor requires leadership that embodies the party’s purpose of defending both the labour interest and the national interest. Bill Shorten, who took over in 2013, was more of a party fixer than popular leader, and could never quite shake off his image as a trade union official.
His great merit was uniting Labor after an internal coup and counter-coup during the years of the former Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, which ended with the party’s ejection from power in 2013. Under Shorten, the ALP has developed a robust policy platform, but it has failed to win back working-class support and broaden its appeal to some of its other former core voters, such as Catholics who have migrated to the Liberals.
By contrast, Scott Morrison has not just held a divided Liberal and National Party together, but also successfully projected the image of a strong national leader. He dedicated his election victory to the “quiet Australians” who work hard and care for their families. While the message was populist in tone, it cut through the white noise of technocracy and social media.
After an ALP campaign focused on restoring the promise of a “fair go”, Morrison has parked the Liberals’ tanks firmly on Labor’s territory. In his victory speech he declared that, “We’re going to get back to work for the Australians that we know go to work every day, who face those struggles and trials every day. They’re looking for a fair go and they’re having a go, and they’re going to get a go from our Government”.
Hard work, family, community, and country are values shared by a majority in Australia. The challenge for Labor is balancing them with its progressive values of equality, diversity and redistributive justice. Without succeeding, it will struggle to recover its appeal among its traditional electoral base.
Now that Shorten has stepped down, the ALP will begin the process of electing a new leader. The party needs someone who can take the fight to Morrison and embody Labor’s original purpose: offering everyone a share of the good life.