Why Labor lost

It’s always nice to see evidence that supports your prior beliefs, which is why it’s important to avoid confirmation bias (seeking out confirming evidence, while ignoring or discounting the other kind). Since this ANU study of voters’ choices in the leadup to the May election is, AFAICT the only one to be published so far, I can cite it without fear of this bias.

I’m not usually keen on the excuse that “we lost because we didn’t get our message across”, but in relation to the last election, I said this before the election. Commenting at the halfway point, I said

The first half of the 2019 election campaign was the worst I’ve ever seen, especially relative to the possibility for real debate. Both sides ran continuous attack ads focusing on the opposing leader, playing into the gladiatorial model favoured by the Press Gallery. Labor, in particular, seemed to have forgotten it had any policy offer.

As the past tense indicates, when I wrote this I thought things had changed. For a day or two, Labor ran ads talking up its positive policies and focusing on the whole frontbench rather than Shorten alone. But that stopped almost as soon as it started and it was back to the fact that Morrison only cared about “the big end of town”. Apart from the clunky and dated rhetoric, we already knew that. By contrast, even as a close follower of politics I didn’t know Labor had an excellent dental policy until Tanya Plibersek mentioned it after the election.

The ANU study backs this up, first by saying that lots of people changed their minds at the last minute, which isn’t consistent with deepseated hostility to Labor policy, and second by saying that the big negative was reactions to Shorten, presumably driven in part by the Liberals’ negative campaigning.

The crucial point here is that, by playing the gladiatiorial leadership game, Labor was setting itself up to lose. Campaigning on policy would have reinforced the point, obvious since the election, that the coalition didn’t have any.

26 thoughts on “Why Labor lost

  1. I am starting to think that if they had used any strategy at all other than the one the did they would have won. Which is strange because the internal ‘value proposition’ of Shorten was that he was a winner.

  2. But for Palmer, they would have done better even if only to the status quo of the Turnbull election?

    And really, what was the idiot public thinking of, putting the LNP back in at all?

  3. From what I’m hearing activity in the construction sector virtually stopped in the lead up to the election with the phones ringing literally the day after.

    IMO it’s not the policies that were the problem it was the associated uncertainty – the alp did not seem to be totally in control of the consequences and the flippant comment by Bowen “If you don’t like our policies, don’t vote for us” was advice that was well received.

    By comparison, there was no policy uncertainty with the LNP therefore no stress with voting for BAU.

  4. “the big negative was reactions to Shorten, presumably driven in part by the Liberals’ negative campaigning”

    “The crucial point here is that, by playing the gladiatiorial leadership game, Labor was setting itself up to lose.”

    Shorten was always well behind in the preferred PM polls but this was dismissed as irrelevant by those supposedly in the know, who hung their hats on the 2PP polls. The electorate never warmed to Shorten.

    The gladiatorial leadership game is not necessarily a losing game, but for it to be a winning game you have to have a leader who is liked, or at least not actively disliked by too many people.

  5. Pr Q said:

    The crucial point here is that, by playing the gladiatiorial leadership game, Labor was setting itself up to lose. Campaigning on policy would have reinforced the point, obvious since the election, that the coalition didn’t have any.

    It seems hard to credit that the ALP lost the 2019 election due to an absence of emphasis on policy. The ALP was brim-ful of policies in the year leading up to the election. It is a stretch to believe that voters simply forgot about this in the month prior to the election. True it dropped the policy ball during the campaign. But it is an open question whether campaigns make a big difference to voter intentions. Machine operators insist they do. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

    There is only flimsy evidence to suggest that Morrison’s lead over Shorten in the preferred PM stakes had a decisive effect on voter intentions. Ipsos polling showed that, prior to the campaign, Morrison did have a significant edge on Shorten. But his advantage lessened over the course of the campaign, simultaneous to the L/NP closeing the preferred party gap:

    Mr Morrison is under pressure on his main leadership ratings, with 45 per cent of voters naming him as their preferred prime minister compared to 40 per cent for Mr Shorten – the tightest gap recorded between the two leaders.

    One month ago only 35 per cent of voters considered Mr Shorten their preferred prime minister, compared to 46 per cent for Mr Morrison.

    This evidence is contrary to Pr Qs conclusion that “gladitatorial contest” campaigning necessarily worked to the ALPs disadvantage, at least in leadership stskes.

    In any case the evidence from previous elections indicates that leaders preferred PM is a poor predictor of changes in partisan alignment. As van Onslen concluded in 2003:

    Preferred prime minister polls have been a poor form guide for Australian elections. It is the party votes that count.

    Australian political history is replete with popular leaders losing elections (Hewson in 1993) and unpopular leaders winning elections (Howard in 1996).

    Pr Qs subsidiary point, that the L/NP was bereft of policies and thus reduced to negative campaigning, is true as far as it goes. But that begs the question why voters would prefer a policy-less L/NP to a policy-full ALP. Particularly when the polling evidence suggested a lot of latent public support for broadly Centre-Left policies.

    My intuition, no doubt biased by the distorting prism of my prior convictions, is that it is Left-wing parties, as opposed to Left-wing policies, that are on the nose with mainstream voters. The evidence from the EU suggests that the social-democrat Left has collapsed since it has been deserted by (or has deserted or both) working-class and Christian-sympathising voters.

    Normal citizens dont trust Left-wing parties because they seem to be dominated by abnormal types, that is people who have wierd social agendas ie Orwells’s “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist“. The voters dont want watermellon Greens and rainbow ALP pulling the strings behind the scenes. For a ripe example of this nonsense check-out the hilarities ensuing at the recent Democratic Socialists America conference. Which is why normal voters seem to latch onto any excuse to switch votes away from Left-wiing parties, even at the death eg Brexit, Trump.

    (Daniel Andrews is the exception that proves the rule, due to his aggressive normality. Sex un-appeal was certainly a factor in Rudd’s favour. Morrison seems cut from the same cloth. It seems AUS voters these days prefer crushing bores.)

    This suggests to me that a party which embodied a “fourth quadrant” strategy, conservative social democracy or statist nationalism, would be a winner. But this strategy is like kryptonite to respectable elites, leaving it open to rank amateurs (Hanson) or con-men (Trump) who create more trouble than they are worth. Somehow we must conjure up the ghost of Richard Nixon.

  6. “Fruit-juice drinker”: everybody drinks juice now and Orwell’s jibe only shows how things have changed. More important, feminism (in the ordinary sense of equal rights and opportunities) is a mainstream position. Cultural conservatives are looking for excuses to support privilege, racism and mysogyny, and find them in caricatures and cherry-picked outliers among progressives.

  7. I thought at the time that the combination of programs that cost money and a sure surplus did not seem credible. I thought that what I heard would appeal most to the Labor base but not so much to the swinging voters – and may have been indicative of believing they could not lose. I also thought that, of the many issues in contention, climate and energy were ones to push hardest on – and remain sceptical of the idea that support for coal was that widespread outside of electorates that were not already pro-coal that it was a significant voter turner. Perhaps more so where Newscorp dominates “local” media.

    Favouring some of the major policies myself, I was looking forward to change – but I was never someone who was going to vote or preference the LNP.

    I would like to see much better communication of the importance of government policy and taxpayer funded services to creating Business (esp small, medium) opportunities – that does not fall into the old Labor “business bad” rhetoric; educated and healthy employees, whose earnings contribute to consumer demand are a consequence of taxpayers and inequality reducing policies of the past.

  8. Discussions of this kind should always bear in mind that Labor is not the natural party of federal government. We have a long enough run of data (118 years) to prove the point conclusively. Labor has won a majority of seats once since 1993. By the time of the next election that will mean once in 29 years; once in a generation.

  9. Anthony Albanese is quite a good leader isn’t he? Wrote a very fine Shipping industry plan a few years back. Best to get into power with someone solid in charge. Nothing really has been right about this country since Kim Beazley left for the US.

  10. Jack Strocchi writes:

    “Daniel Andrews is the exception that proves the rule, due to his aggressive normality. Sex un-appeal was certainly a factor in Rudd’s favour. Morrison seems cut from the same cloth. It seems AUS voters these days prefer crushing bores.”

    It is far from clear to me that Labor could have chosen anyone more crushingly boring than Shorten. If anything I would say that Morrison’s high fives with groups of kids and football kicking antics gave him a patina of being a bit interesting in a safe kind of way which Shorten never managed to convey.

  11. As to Jack’s general point, it could be stronger if he could provide examples of prominent and potentially emblematic Federal Labor figures at the time of the Federal election who fitted his notion of an “abnormal type”.

  12. We shouldn’t overlook the scare campaign about Labor introducing death duties, which they were not planning to do. The question is always why some scare campaigns stick while others don’t. In this case, if you promise to introduce or increase six different taxes, you’re going to be susceptible to a scare campaign about a fictitious seventh tax.

  13. Paul N. “be stronger if he could provide examples ” …”who fitted his notion of an “abnormal type”.”

    No, it wouldn’t. But a good philisophical excersize for Jack.

    “his aggressive normality. Sex un-appeal ” really needs a reference Jack, or just a data point of one.

  14. “A force as dark and powerful as Trump’s populism can be defeated only by an equal and opposite force”… which it states as an example; “the people against the elites—but with very different sets of characters.”.

    Such a strategy sounds like dancing on the knife edge. One slip… and it becomes deplorable.

    “For most of U.S. history, from Thomas Paine to Eugene Debs to Martin Luther King Jr., the left had a populist language of its own. It used a simple vocabulary and spoke in universal moral terms that appealed to the basic goodness in people rather than inventing a sophisticated hierarchical code to label their ills. It created insiders and outsiders, but they weren’t divided between the knowing and the unilluminated, the woken and the sleeping. The populism of the left posed the same opposition as Trump’s—the people against the elites—but with very different sets of characters.

    “Trump, with his sadistic instinct for the weaknesses of others, has learned how to hurt Democrats by using divisive rhetoric and waiting for them to walk into a trap of self-enclosure they can’t see. He won’t hesitate to use an event as terrible as El Paso to keep this logic working in his favor. A force as dark and powerful as Trump’s populism can be defeated only by an equal and opposite force.”


  15. Thomas Paine said many admirable things, but he never led a political party to an election victory. The same is true of Eugene Debs, and of Martin Luther King.

  16. Enough ephemerals. Conservatives have been shoving the Overton Window rightward for decades. Labor needs to embark on a similar unremitting strategic effort to the contrary. Tactically buying into surplus fetishism is not the way to do it. Liberal Lite has no legs, short term or long term. Why buy it when you can get the real thing? And how could any leader or party with that tactical play book come across as authentic?

  17. Its a difficult choice to vote ALP nowadays for some traditional supporters, especially working class people and older males. They don’t get identity leftism and they don’t like immigration. Also they think their culture is disrespected by some of the ALP leadership. Which it obviously is. In that scenario, unless their is a direct economic assault, such as work choices or a bad recession, these former loyalitsts will no longer vote ALP. Of course, that doesn’t matter if the ALP picks up votes elsewhere.

  18. Very few people follow politics closely ,> Chinese influence in Australian politics ? How about the recent CPAC Australian conference run by a cruel Christian fundamentalist who is married to a Trump white house insider (and former Fox News host).

  19. In re jackstrocchi, I think you’re exactly 180 degrees wrong. A clear plurality of people basically do not care about the “fruit-juice drinker” issues like ethics, and the group firmly in favour is much larger than the tiny minnow of lunatics against. The religious right has lost the argument.

    I think there’s something in the idea that conservative parties of a certain ilk get a degree of purchase in convincing voters that those people over there are concerned too much about relatively minor issues like ethics and morality, while we are dead-eye focused on your back pocket.

    And clearly, in this country, the largest anti-fruit-drinker constituency is One Nation’s band of gibbering loons, primarily motivated by racial animus.

    To my mind the 2019 pitch wot won it was the simplest conservative message of all – it sounds great to help out the poor or whatever, but are you sure it won’t be a modest financial burden for you personally? Best wait a few years to do some more research. Simple as that.

  20. GB – “Nothing really has been right about this country since Kim Beazley left for the US.”

    Oh gawd, Bomber, the small target… in step now, by the left, mark time, right right right right me too me too me too… Our/Their Albo’s model?

  21. I wonder whether it’s more accurate to say that while Labor did put forward positive policies and attempted to emphasise the policy-focussed nature of its campaign, these policies were somewhat disparate/incongruous and reflected an attempt to be « all things to all people ».

  22. “Did late deciders confound the polls?

    “Predictions of the 2019 election result were way off the mark. But we still don’t know why

    “…also concluded that “undecided voters, and a late swing to the government, rather than problems with methodologies’ explained the polls’ ‘failure.’” His narrative? That Bill Shorten had “pulled-up stumps” too early and gone “for a beer on Friday, while Morrison was still working hard, just as people were making their final decision.” Benson’s narrative turned out to be very much the same. The idea that over 350,000 voters responded to the last minute campaigning — or absence of it — by switching their vote choice from Labor to the Coalition, stretches belief.”


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