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.
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.