Bouncing straight back

First published by Labor Voice

Labor has suffered a terrible but long-predicted loss. As Tony Abbott hits the ground running Labor must get to work on building a more progressive future and getting the Liberals out of the government – ideally in one term.

The battle is tough but well worth it. John McTernan has set out five ideas for Labor going forward. Here is my advice:

Defend the record

Australian voters elected a Labor government twice. For all the reasons why they might have turfed them out this time it cannot be the Labor party’s view that it was not right for them to have elected Labor in the first place. The six years were a success and the achievements – many of which have been adopted in some form by the coalition – are to be treasured not trashed. It was right to invest to resist recession, put a price on carbon, create DisabilityCare Australia and implement the Gonski reforms for better schools.

The Victorian Labor social media campaign #ThisIsLabor would lend itself well to a PR offensive with the public. Labor should admit where it went wrong but never stop repeating the good it did.

Abbott and all the Liberal front bench devote huge time and energy to rehearsing John Howard’s achievements. When Ed Miliband said ‘New Labour is dead’ it sent two messages. First, to the public, that it might have been a mistake to have voted Labour on three occasions. Second, to those in the party who worked to make the New Labour government a success or joined during that period, that their efforts were insufficient and time somehow wasted. Miliband’s tone has now changed. Kim Beazley walked away from the hard-won victories of the Hawke/Keating government and was punished by the electorate and eventually the party for doing so. More importantly, many of the voters whose lives had been changed for the better – owning their home, accessing university and affording a foreign family holiday – by Labor’s 13 years in government felt the Labor party had abandoned them and left them no choice but to vote Liberal. This should not be repeated.

This was no high water mark for the Liberals

There are some who are already putting about the idea that ‘if this is the best the Liberal party can do…’ With all the drama of the last three years the Liberals still couldn’t win Greenway, Kingsford Smith, Werriwa and McMahon. This argument should be guarded against heavily. Hardworking Liberal MPs in Lindsey, Reid and the Central Coast will do all they can to secure their seats for the party and build out into surrounding neighbourhoods. Abbott also has a highly favourable expectation game to win. Labor has consistently predicted how bad his time in the Lodge will be. It won’t take a lot to do better than many of the expectations that have been set. Finally, this government has the media establishment on side that will prolong their honeymoon and talk up their successes like they never did for Labor.

Have a leadership election

Labor must have a contested leadership election, and soon. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy contest but a genuine one where candidates are put through their paces and have to debate competing visions and ideas.

In this regard the ALP should learn from UK Labour. A three month-long election campaign while the Tories were trotting out their ‘It’s worse than we thought’ lines shredded Labor’s economic credibility and put the front bench on the back foot. The month before Parliament in Canberra return is a perfect window.

However, UK Labour is better for having had a big contest with five heavyweight candidates. The party is better for engaging in the battle of ideas.

There are big questions about the future of the ALP. Where better than to air and debate them than in a leadership election? The winning candidates will be better for having outlined a plan and vision for their party and won people inside the tent to their cause. Nothing will better inspire Labor volunteers across the country than the ideas debate in public rather than behind closed doors.

Work out the difference between opposing the government and beating it

Running down the government is harder than it might seem. Before this is embarked upon there is an important decision to be made. Is our job to oppose the government or beat it? Should the Labor party be the repository of angry people or be proposing the answers? It is tempting in opposition to join every picket and protest, to say the government is wrong when someone comes knocking and throw your hands in the air in horror and disgust. Oppositions who go on to win have both a compelling analysis about the government (both its competence and ideas) and a consistent alternative that equals more than the sum of its parts. This will mean facing down vested interests, picking battles wisely and often saying no to your own side.

Pick the right team

For those who find themselves on the opposite side of the House of Representatives when they return to Canberra there will be mixed feeling – relief, envy, but most of all frustration that their pet project, well-worked strategies and much-treasured briefs are being abandoned or abused by their political opponents. Some will not be well suited for opposition and may need moving aside to new briefs or to allow for new blood.

Broadly the strategy should be for the leader to stay focused on their vision and plan for an elected Labor government that they will lead. This should focus as much on the end of that first term as it does the first 100 days. Often manifestos are written to win elections they should however be governing documents focused on your re-election. The shadow Cabinet should develop an analysis of the government’s performance and a set of policies for Labor to implement.

Promote your new talent and fresh faces

Jim Chalmers, Tim Watts and others have all joined the PLP in the lower house. These ‘young Turks’ should be given the freedom to question past programmes and promote new ideas to show Labor’s next generation is bubbling with fresh approaches to Australia’s problems. In the UK Miliband has excelled at giving such latitude to the 2010 entrants of his team, and this has made a huge difference to Labour’s performance in the media and community.

Start a debate about governing with fewer resources

Finally, the party should be engaging their members in difficult internal conversations about governing with fewer resources. Australia has none of the fiscal problems Europe does but it won’t have the economic expansion of recent years and the ALP has been tagged as profligate and wasteful. Labor must show, as Douglas Alexander MP argues in Progress’ The Purple Book, that its cause is about ‘efficiency as well as efficacy’. The future policy manifesto of the Labor Party should aim to reflect that reality of being in government.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress and is currently on secondment to New South Wales Labor Party. He tweets @RichardAngell

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