Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Abbott

The victory of Cameron’s Conservatives in Britain was surprising and a challenge to opinion pollsters. One recent analysis of the post-election British Election Survey has these findings on the Conservative victory:

 

Polls had almost without exception shown that 2010 Lib Dems voters that had switched to one of the two larger parties had overwhelmingly opted for Labour. However, the analysis suggests a different picture – Lib Dem to Labour switchers did outnumber Lib Dem to Conservative switchers, but only narrowly

Polls had also suggested that the direct flows between Labour and the Conservatives were very small and essentially cancelled each other out. There was in fact a very small net flow of 2010 Labour voters to the Tories.

These errors were reflected elsewhere in polls besides voting intention. 2015 Tory voters appear to be much more socially liberal – with more progressive views on gender and racial equality – than was previously thought.

The new BES data also suggests that the Tories had both a larger vote share and a larger lead among women than among men.

These numbers support the theory that Conservative modernisation helped – not hurt – the Tory performance in 2015

Modernisation is exactly what Turnbull is doing. The success of the Tories in appealing to socially liberal voters is a challenge to two schools of thought in Britain and Australia. To simplify one saw the Tories as a homogeneous reactionary mass. The use of the phrase ‘Tory scum’ was an extreme expression of this interpretation. From this interpretation former Liberal Democrat voters would naturally gravitate to Labour. On the political right there is an analogous position it sees social liberals, disparaged as luvvies etc., as part of a homogenous left. The enemy of this left is seen as a populist conservative alliance. Tony Abbott was the imagined leader of this coalition. In fact socially liberal voters are not a homogenous group and a skilful conservative can make inroads among them as Cameron did and Turnbull may be able to do. In Britain there is a clear historical precedent for this. After 1924 the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin attracted most of the Liberal constituency, as the Liberals shrunk most of their base gravitated to the Conservatives. This fact is obscured by the move of Liberal intellectuals to the left.

 

From this perspective Jeremy Corbyn looks like Tony Abbott, both believe there is natural ‘left’ or ‘right’ majority that can be called into existence by the correct appeal. There are other parallels. Australian voters approved of some of Tony Abbott’s specific policies: scrapping the carbon tax, a strong emphasis on national security and border protection for example. Despite this voters judged the Abbott government too extreme, voters may approve of some of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies but overall they see him like Abbott as too extreme. Both Corbyn & Abbott share a propensity for clunky symbolic politics.

 

Supporters of Abbott and Corbyn share a propensity for misreading history. Abbott and his admirers misread the Howard years as a conservative morality tale. For Corbyn and his allies Labour’s 1945 victory is the template. Leaving aside questions of how to evaluate the 1945-51 Labour government, there is the problem that in the 1930s Labour was not an electorally competitive force as Ross McKibbin has argued. The economy recovered strongly from the depression and economic misery was largely restricted to a minority. The popular image of hunger marches and dole queues obscured what was occurring outside of the areas of mass unemployment. This is the argument of historians of the period such as John Stevenson and Richard Overy. Labour in the 1930s found itself a party of the inner cities and the industrial north. As Overy argues there is clear contrast between thirties intellectual life, often preoccupied with a crisis of capitalism and modernity, and the experience of those in the suburbs where elections were won. World War Two changed everything and the British left won the 1940s as dramatically as they lost the 1930s. The problem for the British left is nothing is on the horizon that will have similar impact.

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