A Warning from Oz
A flashing red light should be going off in Downing Street after Scott Morrison's loss
“Teal” independent Kylea Tink celebrates her victory over the Liberals in one of the wealthiest seats in Australia - North Sydney. Somewhat confusingly not wearing teal. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
A conservative leader so heavily disliked they can’t even be featured in campaign literature; seen as lacking integrity; unclear about strategy in the face of a cost of living crisis; and unpopular with women and liberal graduates for his culture war posturing. An election campaign where his party tried to push “wedge issues”, including small boats and trans-rights, supported strongly by the right-wing press and particularly the Murdoch papers. A Labor leader seen as uninspiring but solid – a “safe change” – but one that the electorate aren’t overly excited about…
Australia’s election, won by Labor this last weekend, felt uncannily familiar to followers of UK politics. It may be on the other side of the world but no other country has such similar politics. In part this is due to our shared cultural past. Recently though it has been magnified due to the influence of conservative Australian strategists Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, and their proteges. Between them they have run all the Australian Liberal Party’s campaigns since 1996, where Crosby made his name via four successive victories for John Howard, and been involved in all UK Conservative campaigns since 2005.
In 2019 Crosby-Textor strategist Isaac Levido went straight from masterminding a shock win for Australian PM Scott Morrison to running Boris Johnson’s successful election campaign. Their basic model is very simple. Strip all complications (like policy) out of a campaign – they call it “getting the barnacles off the boat”; focus on a tightly constructed set of core messages, nearly always accompanied by a memorable three-word slogan (“stop the boats”, “strong and stable”, “get Brexit done”); and pick a few wedge issues to help focus the attention of friendly media outlets.
It hasn’t always worked – see Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for the London mayoralty – but it’s been pretty effective over the years. Boris Johnson’s new No 10 adviser, David Canzini, is another Crosby protégé, who is unsubtly returning the UK Government to the same strategy.
No one ever accused the Crosby-Textor gang of being overly innovative, and they make liberal use of the same ideas between countries. The Rwanda deportation policy is a straight lift from the Liberals “Operation Sovereign Borders” (Morrison was the Minister who delivered it under Tony Abbot). The Tory assault on “red wall” seats here was mirrored by a similar attempt to take seats traditionally held by Labor in mining areas.
This strategy comprehensively failed the Liberals last weekend – and it was the same strategy even down to highlighting a small boat full of immigrants that had been stopped on the last day of the campaign. While there are some important differences between the UK and Australia, which we’ll explore shortly, this should act as a flashing red warning light for the Tories.
The Liberals went backwards in Labor’s working class seats, partly because Labor refused to get sucked into pointless battles on the Liberals chosen wedge issues. But critically they also got squeezed horribly in their traditional seats – losing six to the so-called “teal” independents in the wealthy suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. This group of loosely affiliated independents were backed by the wealthy businessman Simon Holmes à Court, and campaigned primarily on integrity on politics and climate change. Notably they were all professional women from outside politics running against Liberal men. The Morrison administration has been widely criticised for its handling of sexual misconduct allegations in Parliament last year.
These “teals” and the three existing independent MPs who were backed by the same campaign, represented a rebellion against the vulgarity, lack of empathy, and lack of interest in the climate demonstrated by the Liberals. The seats won this time had nearly all been Liberal for their entire existence, or as good as. They include some of the wealthiest places in Australia and contain large numbers of professional graduates. Meanwhile Brisbane has gone Green – they picked up at least two seats there, with one more still to be decided, giving them at least three overall, their largest ever grouping on their largest ever vote. Labor picked up some seats too, particularly in Western Australia where they achieved huge swings largely due to the popularity of the Labor state Premier. He was seen as having protected the state against covid, by implementing even more rigorous safeguards than the national government, and was criticised by Morrison for doing so.
The relevance of all this is obvious to the UK context. The local elections showed the Tories were in deep trouble in exactly those kind of wealthier, graduate, seats that the “teals” and Greens won. I’m still not sure they’ve realised how much trouble they’re in. If you look at the polls, and applied a simple uniform swing, they’d just lose a few seats, like Esher and Wimbledon. But if you look at the underlying data from the locals they could lose many more on the kind of swings we saw in North Sydney and Melbourne. These include previously rock solid Tory seats like Jeremy Hunt’s in South West Surrey, or Grant Shapps’ in Welyn Hatfield. It cannot be emphasised enough that the Tories could hold every single seat they have in the “red wall” and still lose their majority in London, the South-East, Scotland and Wales alone. And without a majority they will find themselves out of Government with no plausible partners.
Now for the differences. Australia has a preferential voting system which means in each constituency voters rank all candidates in order (and they have to rank *all* the candidates or their vote is invalid). This means that you avoid the problem of First Past the Post where a right-wing candidate can win if the larger left-wing vote is split, or vice versa. (NB: this is not a proportional system – the Greens, for instance, still win far fewer seats than votes – no single seat constituency system can be proportional).
In both Australia and England the “progressive” vote has splintered. Labor’s first preferences went down in this election while the Greens and independents went up. Likewise here in the local elections Labour kept roughly the same number of seats in England, outside London, as last time but the Liberal Democrats and Greens saw big gains. Under a preferential system this isn’t a problem – the aligned majority will win one way or the other. Here it requires tactical voting. There is some debate amongst progressives as to whether a formal pact between UK progressive parties would be desirable. My view is that it wouldn’t, many voters would not like to see their choices limited, and the transferability of their preference taken for granted. The current approach of informal deals to target certain seats seems better. But it’s certainly less efficient than the Australia system and could save the Tories a fair few seats.
Another big difference is the more direct impact of climate change in Australia. The terrible bushfires in 2019/20 were a trigger for heightened public concern and it doesn’t seem coincidental that the Greens’ big wins were in Brisbane given the flooding there earlier this year. Australia is also one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world. Here climate change has been slowly creeping up the priority list – it’s now the fifth highest priority on the MORI “issue tracker” – and of course we have had major floods. But it’s not quite such an immediate threat to life and property for most of the population.
So for these and other reasons we cannot, of course, assume that the UK will follow Australia. But I do think if the Tories continue on their current path of a standard Crosby-Textor run-in to the next election they will struggle badly in commuter-land around London and other major cities. The revolt of the gradate professionals is causing problems for the right everywhere and they don’t seem to have figured out how to respond.
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