Monday, 9 September 2013

Four lessons from Australia's election

Australia's election of a centre-right Coalition government has got plenty of conservatives pretty excited. Why, they shout, a proper conservative can win! By rejecting gay marriage, while promising lower taxes, less regulation - and a few giveaways for the middle classes. What a coup. British Labour in particular, in the midst of their own poll downturn and with their leader facing pretty nasty personal numbers square in the face, might well mope at the fate of their Australian Labor counterparts.

But wait. It might not be like that at all. Let's look a bit deeper at that Australian election result and have a think about what it might mean - especially for the UK. As we do so, it'll become clear that the situation is slightly more complex, and rather stranger, than it at first appears.

Unpopular leaders can win elections. Not so long ago, Tony Abbott (above), now Australia's Prime Minister-elect, was regarded as something of a loser. Not by everyone, mind you. But the numbers were against him. He was one of the least popular Opposition leaders in Australian history - ultra-conservative, socially gauche and, well, a bit weird. Not for nothing was he called the 'Mad Monk'. Now look at him. As Mike Smithson of Politicalbetting has pointed out again and again, UK voters elected Ted Heath and Mrs Thatcher despite liking their opponents a whole lot more. Mr Abbott just proved the theory once more. So Ed Miliband, Labour's leader in Britain, might just perk up a bit.

The electorate are unpredictable. There's a strong anti-incumbent feeling out there. Basically, voters think that all politicians are liars. They've got a bit of evidence on their side there, of course - though no more, and probably quite a bit less, than they ever had. But they're not keen on any of the big established parties in the developed world, and they're making that quite clear. Australia's Senate will now contain representatives from the Sports Party and a pro-motorist party that no-one seems to know anything about. A mining magnate's new populist party will be represented in both the lower and the upper chamber. Anything can happen these days - even, perhaps, an MP or two from the UK Independence Party.

There'll be strange swings all over the place. Zoom in for a moment on Australia's seat-by-seat results, and you notice an effect that's becoming evident across the democratic world - differential swings that look like electoral crazy paving, from 10 per cent to Labor to (a more usual) 10 per cent swing towards the Coalition. Local effects - the quality of candidates and the salience of micro-issues - are going to be more and more important. Come election night 2015 in the UK, some very marginal Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats are going to be retained while some 'fortresses' are swept away. Labour will probably lose seats even if its vote goes up overall. That's the way politics is going everywhere.

The Greens might hang on in Parliament.
Britain's Green Party must be pretty worried about their only Parliamentary seat - Brighton Pavilion, the sort of socially liberal and laid-back place that always looked most likely to deliver such an upset. They've been losing ground to Labour there recently, including on one 11 per cent swing to their Labour opponents in a recent council by-election. The Greens were, similarly, slataed to lose their own Australian MP - their deputy leader, Adam Bandt, who sits for left-leaning central Melbourne. The result? They held on comfortably, hugely increasing their vote. Some voters will say 'there ought to be at least one Green Member of Parliament in the House of Commons'. Others will like their charismatic MP, Caroline Lucas. Either way, on this evidence, she might well hang on.

There you have it - Australia's reminded us again that the electorate are rather more grown-up, unpredictable, volatile and perhaps a little more environmentally conscious that they're often given credit for. Which are all rather cheering thoughts, really.

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