May 18 seems like such a long time ago. For many of us it still feels incredibly raw. Every day we see the consequences of Labor’s failure to win the 2019 federal election with conservative attacks – on our public health system, people’s job security, the environment, and by letting more and more people fall between the cracks of our fracturing social safety net. We can’t afford to lose again in 2022.
Two weeks after May’s defeat I spoke at a shell-shocked local branch meeting reflecting on Labor’s loss. No doubt one of many similar conversations being held around the country on cold nights of at the start of a long winter.
My take to the branch was three-fold. Firstly, as a contest of national leadership we never got a handle on Morrison, but they got a line on us and it hurt. Morrison ran as an insurgent, an Opposition-in-exile led by a fresh face liberated from the Abbott/Turnbull tumult when in truth he was a key player the whole way. Given the Liberal disarray expectations on us were high and many started treating Federal Labor as the government in waiting. We got tagged with baggage – some true and some false – and never shook it off. Secondly, on policy we had so much to say, probably too much to be absorbed in the crowded and noisy media world of today’s election campaigning, and in breadth we lost the benefit of sharp focus. And thirdly the campaigning environment hurt – an unprecedented advertising blitz from Clive Palmer attacking Labor and a lack of commensurate resonance in our own attacks. What went wrong has been thoroughly examined by the Weatherill/Emerson-led election review and on its release we must be honest with ourselves and learn its lessons.
Labor’s fundamental values are strong: standing up for the interests of working Australians and as a driver of fairness and equality in our social compact. We must maintain a clarity of purpose. People want and deserve authenticity from politics and to have our actions reinforce their instincts about what we stand for.
Good values alone won’t win us elections, and what stands Labor apart on the left is that we believe we need to govern to secure change for the better. We need to win elections. And that’s hard to do when our primary vote is so low – as low as it has been since the Great Depression. In 2019 Labor often won votes where we didn’t need them – in some seats we already held and others where we never had a chance of winning. We should worry that our votes receded further in areas we should be stronger – with middle suburban and working class voters and in some regional towns. Places that have voted Labor before. People who gladly give us their votes in State or Local elections, yet Federally were unwilling to do so this time around. We need to win them back.
To do so our policy offering must reinforce our values, not leave people bewildered by the choices we have made. Rushed and reactive switch ups in our policy positions won’t work as a short term, quick fix to the perceived reasons for our defeat. Reasons often shouted loudest by those with the least genuine interest in our success. Our policy offering for the next election needs to be carefully and thoughtfully developed. This is not easy in today’s world where attention is in short supply, and the space for thoughtful conversation limited.
To guide the policy development we could do worse than recognise some fundamentals. People want a secure job that pays well, a home for their family, and a future for their kids. A good health system to look after us when we’re sick and old, and enough to live on to get the retirement everyone deserves.
Australians will support a role for government in their lives; when we demonstrate the need and show we have a good plan. Labor’s experience creating the National Disability Insurance Scheme – and Medicare, and social security before it – tells us there is popular support for universal social services funded through taxation when the need is clear, and the case well made over time. But it’s not a given and it takes work.
Our nation doesn’t want rampant inequality, nor to accept unfairness to those who are part of our community. The marriage equality campaign shows us that. Supporting those different from ourselves achieving the same rights we all should enjoy isn’t ‘identity politics’, it’s solidarity – and that’s what the labour movement is built upon.
Fortunately that long winter of 2019 is over. The arrival of spring brings us an opportunity to clear our heads and get on with thinking about the future – for our nation, our party, and our next campaign.
In early December the Chifley Research Centre is convening a two-day discussion on Labor’s ideas and how we take them forward. As we prepare for the next election – due by 2022 – the debate about how to win again and the policies we need to get us there is an important conversation for Labor to have. We don’t yet have the answers, but we need to start the conversation.
Come and join us.