The Labour Party finally smells electoral success after 12 years in the political wilderness.
The party is flying high in the polls with a 33-point lead – the largest any political party has enjoyed this century. In contrast, the Conservatives, now down at 21%, would appear to be facing the very real threat of political oblivion at the next general election.
Nonetheless, the last year has shown how quickly things can change in British politics. Questions remain as to whether Sir Keir Starmer can fully win over the British public. After 12 years in opposition, and a long way back following the catastrophic defeat of 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is still understandably nervous.
Luckily for Labour, there are significant parallels with the recent experience of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).
The ALP spent almost a decade in opposition, losing a winnable election in 2016 and then the ‘unlosable’ election in 2019. This led to a reckoning within the party, and a review into the shattering 2019 election loss.
Come May this year, the ALP, under the now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, engineered a historic election victory.
The Australian electorate turned their backs on the Liberal-National Coalition. Not only did a swing of 3.7% leave the ALP with a lower house majority of 77 seats, but there were also unprecedented gains for the greens and climate-conscious independents in traditionally conservative-held seats.
On its route to power, the ALP faced significant obstacles, solved political dilemmas and experienced a great deal of luck courtesy of their Conservative opponents. Their experience can show the way for Starmer and Labour to regain the keys to Number 10 Downing Street.
First and foremost, the ALP unapologetically benefitted from a decade-old, politically unstable and policy-void incumbent.
Under former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the former government was right-wing and populist. Policy-wise it was a vacuum, offering a limited vision for Australia. With few plans to address cost of living pressures or high energy prices, and a refusal to establish an anti-corruption commission, the coalition’s pitch was primarily a tax cutting one.
During the election, the Morrison government was accused of running a campaign focused on ‘dog-whistling’ and culture wars. This included climate change denial, scare campaigns about refugees and a bizarre attack on transgender people.
The sitting prime minister Scott Morrison, also quickly became attached to a perception in the minds of many voters for rank dishonesty. This centred on claims about his time in Hawaii during the worst bushfires in decades, about Australia being ‘at the front of the queue’ for coronavirus vaccines, and the response of French President Emmanuel Macron who replied “I don’t think, I know” when asked whether Morrison was dishonest about a scrapped submarine deal.
The Australian right also shared the penchant of their British counterparts for knifing sitting prime ministers. Between 2013 and 2019, the party had three leaders, from Tony Abbott, through Malcom Turnbull to Scott Morrison.
After two years of a pandemic that highlighted inequalities in Australian society, the electorate clearly decided that the government’s time was up and that they wanted a viable, policy-driven alternative.
In response, the Australian Labor Party offered a ‘small target’ policy platform that was criticised in some corners as unambitious and risk-averse. This included the establishment of an anti-corruption commission, a referendum on an indigenous ‘voice’ to parliament and reform of the childcare sector. Albanese also announced a climate policy, which although more ambitious than that of the incumbent coalition, was still not ambitious enough to meet Australia’s international commitments.
This ‘safety-first’ approach avoided repeating the mistake of a broad policy platform that spooked the electorate in 2019. Easy to explain to the electorate, it was the opposite of Morrison’s self-described ‘bulldozer’ approach to government. Although it was less far reaching than previous ALP platforms, and unpopular with many on the party’s left, it was evidently enough for ordinary Australian voters to elect Albanese and Labor.
In the UK, Labour’s position has, similarly, undoubtedly been helped by the Conservatives, who after twelve years in power have little credible to show for their time in office. That is outside of Brexit of course, which remains a heavily contested achievement. Recent polls would suggest that the party’s tax cutting agenda may no longer work with voters.
In response to the challenges facing ordinary people, Labour in the UK has so far outlined a relatively ambitious but seemingly mainstream manifesto. At Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool, Starmer announced a range of policies to address the cost of living crisis and high power prices, including the creation of Great British Energy and ambitious renewable energy policies. The speech also outlined Labours plans for better economic management, support for the NHS, policies on home ownership and a points-based immigration system.
Like the ALP, this is a steady policy approach that successfully differentiates the party from the instability and perceived poor governance of the incumbent government. Labour will be hoping, just like the polls suggest, that the electorate desires change.
The ALP’s victory also shows that Starmer himself doesn’t necessarily need to be popular to win a national election.
In Australia, the Labor leader Albanese was initially seen as unpopular or underwhelming. He is not known as a good public speaker and found it difficult to connect with the wider public. Less that 12 months ago in, September 2021, Albanese polled 26% to Morrisons 47%, when it came to who Australian’s preferred as their Prime Minister. While Albanese successfully increased his popularity, even by May 2022, Morrison still hadn’t surpassed Morrison (37% versus 45%).
However, come the election campaign, Morrison’s personal unpopularity and the governments failures dominated the agenda and ushered in a Labor victory. Once again there are parallels with the UK. In June, only 26% the British public thought Keir Starmer would make a better PM than Boris Johnson. Although the position has since changed, the same was still the case when Liz Truss first entered Downing Street.
Starmer and Albanese are therefore taking similar paths to government.
Both are keen to see themselves as a safe pair of hands in contrast to the political instability and perceive mal-governance of the incumbent.
Both present themselves as offering sensible reform rather than riskier, more substantial manifestos.
The tricky task now for Starmer is to stay the course.
While Labour will continue to benefit from any mistakes by the Conservatives, consistency of message and a united front will go a long way to getting the keys to Number 10.
It may not be exciting, but it appears to be working.