Thursday, June 15, 2017

The UK And Australian Elections Weren't That Similar

Last week the UK had its second straight surprising election result.  In 2015 an expected cliffhanger turned into an easy win for the Conservatives while in 2017 an expected landslide turned into a cliffhanger.  The government went to the polls three years early (that's a whole term over here), supposedly in search of a strong mandate for its position on Brexit, yet came away with fewer seats than it went in with.  The real motive seemed to be to turn a big lead in the polls into a bigger majority, and if that was the aim then it backfired spectacularly.

In the wake of this result the Australian commentariat have put out several articles that seek to stress parallels with Australian politics.  The primary themes of these articles are as follows: that Malcolm Turnbull is Theresa May and that Anthony Albanese is Jeremy Corbyn.

Let's start with the Turnbull-May comparison.  Turnbull has no hope of winning the battle of perceptions on this one, because it's the kind of analogy many of those who consume political chatter will congratulate themselves on having thought of first.  But on a factual basis, the comparison is twaddle.

Exhibit one: Mark Kenny.  I frequently disagree with Kenny's articles but this one seems to have hit a new low in lazy pseudo-political fantasy clickbait.  Mr Kenny claims that "Initial popularity had seen both PMs opt for early elections and bizarrely extended campaigns".   The first part of the sentence is the silliest, because Turnbull infamously chose not to go to a significantly early election at a time when his popularity was greatest.  By the time Malcolm Turnbull called the election, his Newspoll net satisfaction rating had already fallen to -11, having been as high as +38 five months earlier, and his party had crashed from 54-46 aggregate leads to around about 50-50.

The reason the Coalition under Turnbull chose a "bizarrely extended campaign" was that - largely as a result of the Abbott administration's inaction on Senate reform - the Coalition was left with no other way to go to a double dissolution using a non-ridiculous Senate voting system.  Probably the Coalition were also getting ahead of themselves in their hopes for the election result, but still the length of the campaign had nothing to do with Malcolm Turnbull's supposed popularity.

In May's case, the campaign wasn't "bizarrely extended".  The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 provides for a total of 25 working days (and typically hence 10 weekend days) between the dissolution of parliament and the holding of the election.  The extra two weeks (depending on when the campaign is counted as starting) arose from the formalities involved in having an election triggered by a parliamentary vote, the outcome of which is unknown for sure until it happens.

In Australia's case, the election wasn't even all that early, coming three months shy of a three year term.  Indeed, four of the five previous new federal governments had had shorter first terms than that.

Kenny goes on to argue that both May and Turnbull succumbed to "hubris", underestimating their opponents, and that "In each case the longer the campaign period dragged on, the less compelling became their case for another term. And the stronger grew their respective opponents."  This is a fair cop as concerns May and her advisors, but in Australia's case, aggregated polling shows that there was no trend away from the Coalition during the campaign.  In fact, the Coalition gained about half a point in aggregated polling around the midpoint of the campaign.

Another line of comparison comes from right-wing commentators such as Jennifer Oriel and Andrew Bolt and is basically that both the Tories in the UK and the Coalition in Australia struggled because they were too centrist.  (And also because they both ran Crosby-Textor campaigns and hence allowed their campaign strategy to be fouled by same-sex marriage juice, or something.)

If the Tories in the UK in 2017 paid the price for being too centrist, then why did they reap such a reward in 2015 under the similarly moderate administration of David Cameron?  And if they were too centrist all along, why was their polling sky-high in the first place?  And if Australians were secretly begging for more of that old Tony Abbott magic, where was this desire in almost two years of persistently poor polling leading up to Abbott being given the boot?  It makes more sense to me to lay the blame for the bad Tory result on the many obvious mistakes made during the campaign - and if the methods of Crosby and Textor were among them, that might just mean voters are getting sick of being bludgeoned and herded with cynically abstract three-word slogans.

For Albo equals Corbyn, the usual suspects include Troy Bramston and Peter Hartcher (actually,  Hartcher's article reads pretty well, at least in comparison with Kenny's piece.) Bramston starts by telling us that both have "often voted against the majority position at party conferences".  He neglects to mention that Corbyn has, spectacularly often, voted against his party's position in parliament.  Admittedly, party discipline in the UK is less strong than in Australia, but Albanese is ultimately a party man through and through while Corbyn had become a fringe figure until (and even after) his support base swamped his party's leadership process.

Albanese does have an authenticity-perception edge over Shorten, but I don't for a moment buy that he is so radical a lefty that he sits outside an ALP-leader mainstream that includes Hawke, Keating and even (jeepers) Gough.  He is politics more or less as usual, albeit with a bleeding heart on its sleeve.  Corbyn's very election as leader prompted internal war within UK Labour.  If Albo became leader of the ALP, the Australian party machine would just shrug and get on with its job, and the ALP's factional processes would carry on largely as normal.

That Albanese would have some of Corbyn's appeal to the youth vote is not hard to see.  But in Australia, where voting is compulsory and many young Green-supporting voters are polarised against the Coalition automatically, it just isn't that big a deal.

So what does it mean for Australia? Anything?

For sure, the bad Tory campaign played a major role in their plummet from supposed 20+ point polling leads just after the campaign started to roughly 6-point leads at the end, which turned into only a 2.5-point margin on polling day.  (Many but not all pollsters overestimated the Tory margin all along, mainly because of incorrect turnout modelling).

However, the result serves as a lesson about what polls are telling us between elections.  When pollsters ask a voter who they would vote for if an election was proverbially held "right now", the voter is not factoring in their reaction to the calling of an early election.  The sense of being dragged to the polls, the several weeks of politicking and the suspicion that the government has something to hide, are all not factored in to a generic polling response halfway through a government's term.  The voter is really saying who they think they might vote for at the next election at this stage.  Governments that call snap elections without planning for them over several months are not always well-prepared for what they are doing, either.  The voter is not being asked "If the government called an election today and then spent the next month and a half in blunder mode, who would you vote for?"

At the time the election was triggered, the May government's lead had been in double figures for about eight months and was steadily increasing.  Something similar was seen in Australia in the 1984 campaign.  The 1984 campaign was not as long as is widely believed, and nor was it as gratuitously early as the UK's (see Malcolm Farnsworth's piece on the 1984 myths).  However, it started with a similar scenario: an incumbent government with a nearly 20-point polling lead, facing an Opposition Leader with spectacularly poor personal ratings (Andrew Peacok's net satisfaction had crashed to -47).  By election day, following personal distractions for Bob Hawke on the campaign trail, Labor's primary vote lead had crunched to a similar extent and Peacock's personal ratings had staged the biggest surge Australian politics has ever seen.  Labor still won reasonably easily, but an election has a remarkable way of contracting a mid-term polling bounce or surge.

This is important because it has been very common for people to argue that Kevin Rudd should have forced an early election over climate change in 2009 while way ahead in the polls, and that Turnbull should have gone to the polls in late 2015.  Both, supposedly, would have won in a canter.  Had Theresa May won the landslide that her early polling implied, the lesson for Australia would have been that Turnbull should have gone early too.

What the UK result more likely tells us is that had Turnbull rushed to an election before voters had much idea how he would govern as Prime Minister, with the displacement of Tony Abbott still fresh and with no particular reason to do it other than that he was way ahead in the polls, he may have been in for a nasty surprise.  Right-wing conservatives were disappointed with the result Turnbull eventually achieved but whether the Coalition could have done much better by any means after two years of Tony Abbott's strange combination of inaction and farce should now be a more open question.

As for the role of Opposition Leaders, much is being said about how well Jeremy Corbyn did, but some of that is relative to expectations.  Suppose someone got in a time machine and went back to 2015, and told Labour (before they picked their new leader) that in two years David Cameron would be gone and his successor would call an election three years early.  Suppose they also told Labour that in that election his successor would patronise cosmopolitan voters, issue a dud manifesto and not even show up to the leadership debates.  Labour's expectations might be a bit higher than just a narrow loss after hearing all of that.  A more boring normal leader wouldn't have won the youth vote by anything like as much and wouldn't have made such a massive polling gain in the campaign, but wouldn't have started so far behind to begin with.

I think it's just another example of Opposition Leaders and even Opposition internal antics generally not mattering all that much to voters.  A recent article used the Australian National Election Study to outline a claim that Bill Shorten cost his party 0.9% 2PP, but I'll be waiting for the fine detail on this one.  Using Newspoll net satisfaction ratings instead of whatever ANES data was used by Clive Bean, I get a similar estimate for supposed Shorten damage (0.55%), but I also get Opposition Leader ratings explaining only 4% of variation in election outcomes.  It's quite likely on that basis - and also given that between elections Opposition Leader ratings have almost nothing to do with voting intentions - that there's really not that much to see.  Elections are mainly about governments, and Opposition Leaders are rarely unelectable, and rarer still unstoppable.

The most surprising takeaway of both the UK and the US elections for me was the extent to which mass-participation votes actually worked in selecting a leader, given that those who take part in them are by definition unusually politically active.  Both Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn were selected by populist revolts against their party's normal style, resulting in massive internal turmoil.  Both seemed to have hacked the popular vote method of selecting leaders - Trump through his massive media profile advantage and Corbyn simply because it was so easy to sign up and start voting.  A system that allows cult and fringe candidates to rise to the top should increase the risk of a leader being unelectable, but both Trump and Corbyn were electorally competitive.   In Australia, Labor's leadership ballot system seems inflexible (why is it so hard to remove the leader even when in Opposition?) but maybe that all really isn't going to make that much difference.  Perhaps one day it will cause a massive and protracted fight within the ALP - which the voters will just go on to ignore.


  1. Very good analysis, Kevin. Only comment is that I don't think the 2015 Tory win was 'easy'. They overperformed expectations (and the polls), but had only barely obtained a majority - indeed, they weren't too far off the position that they're in now (in terms of seats).

  2. Sure, "easy relative to expectations" or something like that. They were coming out of a coalition government and probably could have counted on at least the few surviving Lib Dem seats and probably some others for support had they fallen just short of majority in 2015.

  3. "If the Tories in the UK in 2017 paid the price for being too centrist, then why did they reap such a reward in 2015 under the similarly moderate administration of David Cameron? And if they were too centrist all along, why was their polling sky-high in the first place?"

    I think it could be argued that May was more moderate than Cameron, at least on economic matters (later target for eliminating the deficit, abandonment of the 2015 pledge not to raise income taxes) and that much of this economic centrism was only revealed in the manifesto.