Scandals and a misguided war on woke have cost Australia’s conservatives their voter base, opening the path for Labor. Could something similar happen in the UK where the Tories are still fighting the previous culture war opened by Brexit?
First published: June 2022.
In their recent election, Australians voted out their incumbent government, a long-standing coalition between two conservative parties. In its place, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) formed a government, despite a declining vote share of 30%. Seats were gained by the Australian Greens and, most notably, a swath of independent MPs, who together make up just over 10% of the 151-seat lower house.
If it is true that governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them, then there are four reasons that the outcome of the Australian election should make Conservative MPs in the UK worried.
1. Integrity in politics
Integrity in politics was a key issue that drove many moderate voters away from the incumbent Liberal Party and towards independent candidates in affluent urban seats. Yet instances of dishonesty in Australian politics pale in comparison to the recent partygate scandal in the UK. The fact that the rural city of Wangaratta gained a new clay pigeon shooting range as a result of pork-barrelling seems like small beer compared to the revelations surrounding Boris Johnson’s breaking of lockdown rules.
Importantly, the issue of integrity (or its absence) adhered to the leaders. The six-week election campaign became focused on the two main party leaders’ characters. The incumbent prime minister, Scott Morrison, was an excellent campaigner, but was mistrusted amongst large parts of the electorate. French President Emmanuel Macron’s well-known verdict on whether he thought Morrison was a liar – “I don’t think, I know” – was widely shared.
Morrison became an electoral liability in affluent seats, where moderates deserted him and his party for independent candidates. The same could become true for Johnson. There are already signs of a similar shift in the UK, where Liberal Democrats have taken votes from the Conservatives in local and by-elections, most notably in the immediate aftermath of scandals involving questions of integrity.
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2. A misplaced ‘war on woke’
The second issue that drove moderate voters away from the government was the politics of climate change. Part of the Liberal Party’s poor strategising was to frame climate change as part of a culture war.
In this alternative universe, the anti-climate change elements in the government derided any concern with the environment as a contest between urban “latte sippers” and hardworking blue-collar male voters in rural regions or areas economically exposed to the transition to a non-carbon economy. The government also nailed its colours to the mast by steadfastly supporting a candidate in inner Sydney with derogatory views about members of the LGBTQ+ community.
These “war on woke” framings and tactics backfired. It suggests something similar could happen in Britain where Conservative strategists appear to be still fighting the previous culture war opened by Brexit. In this way they are seeking to keep the 2019 electoral coalition in place by stoking issues that they hope will pit younger, urban voters against those in the “red wall”.
3. A relatively unknown opposition leader
Despite being a poor campaigner, the leader of the ALP, Anthony Albanese (or “Albo” as it is now obligatory to call him), was able to win government for his party. This was despite the fact that the ALP went marginally backwards in terms of its vote share, part of a long-term trend affecting the two major parties.
The lesson here is that even if the British public has not warmed to Labour leader Keir Starmer, when facing a mistrusted opponent this might not be the electoral liability that is often assumed.
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4. The voting patterns of women
It has been interesting to chart the success of so many female independent candidates in the Australian election. We don’t yet know how the vote broke down by gender, but in the previous election, fewer women voted for the Liberal Party than men. Similarly, in the UK in 2019 more women voted for Labour than men for the first time.
These shifts might have been used to inform some sensitive campaigning. Yet the Morrison government appeared to become only more estranged from women voters when it mishandled allegations of rape and sexual abuse in the Australian parliament. The Conservatives would be wise to pay closer attention to women voters, not least in the wake of anger over the murder of Sarah Everard and ongoing scandals over sexual misconduct in the British parliament.
Of course, the big difference between the positions of the conservative parties in Australia and the UK is the size of the Conservative majority at Westminster. The ousted conservative coalition in Australia operated on a majority of fewer than ten seats whereas Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have close to an 80-seat majority. What’s more, Australia has a compulsory voting system, so voters have to vote for someone, but in the UK they can just abstain, which would be to the current government’s advantage.
Nevertheless, the electoral fate of the Liberal Party of Australia – a sister party to the Conservatives – should give the latter pause for thought.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Dr Ben Wellings, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Monash University.
- Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 1 June 2022. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. | 30 May 2022. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)