Opinion: Rebuilding faith in active government is democracy’s only hope

Photo by Dominika Gregušová from Pexels
Sunday 7 July 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Britain's record-smashing July 4 election has provided many pointers. Some will be learned and others wilfully misinterpreted by those intent on exploiting divisions.

In victory or defeat, political practitioners tend to work backwards, starting with where they are, and organising the causative factors in an order that best suits their arguments. And their remedies.

When the outgoing Tory Health Secretary Andrea Leadsom was asked about the historic voter rejection of the 14-year Conservative government, her unhesitating diagnosis was “we’ve not been conservative enough”. It was a view echoing around a besieged party which had lost a colossal 251 seats in one election.

Tellingly, Leadsom rated immigration and small boat arrivals as the core vulnerabilities for the defeated PM Rishi Sunak. Expect to hear more of this gently dog-whistled xenophobia despite a reconfigured Westminster boasting greater ethnic diversity than at any previous time.

By “not conservative enough” Leadsom probably meant ‘not populist enough’ now that the Tories’ nightmare of being cannibalised by Nigel Farage’s Reform UK is underway.

Farage’s victim-laden appeal has only been aided by big flaws in Britain’s electoral system which is now edging close to being untenable.

Like the crisis now engulfing US politics, these events serve as a reminder of Australia’s vastly superior democratic machinery – compulsory preferential voting (with proportional representation in the Senate) and all run by an independent federal electoral commission.

American democracy is in a parlous state. An infirm Joe Biden can’t be replaced even by his party despite critical failings which actually increase the likelihood of a second Trump presidency.

The country’s electoral machinery is a farce – a farrago of dodgy state processes in which voter suppression is rife and where partisan practices only fuel suspicions.

According to the Parliamentary Education Office, Australia has achieved 90 percent voter turn-out in every federal election for the past century, whereas in Britain, turn-out was just 60 per cent.

Of that, Labour got only a third (34 per cent) but snared nearly two thirds of the seats (63 per cent). Reform UK, came in third place overall, with a 14 per cent share of the national vote and just 1 per cent of the seats. Compared to the Liberal Democrats, Reform UK did very poorly. With its 12 per cent vote share the Lib Dems picked up a stunning 63 new seats in its 71-strong total accounting for 11 per cent of Commons’s seats.

Despite its low five seat haul, Farage’s is set to become the big new destabiliser. Shattered Tories are divided about confronting hm or capitulating. Some have talked about a merger and others have even whispered about handing him the Tory leadership.

Farage is dreaming big.

“This is just the first step of something that is going to stun all of you,” Farage proclaimed.

“There is a massive gap on the centre-right of British politics and we intend to fill it.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Keir Starmer plans to counter-balance that conservative chaos with a new sense of order. He is only the fourth leader to take Labour into government, which is even more remarkable when you consider that between 2016 and 2022, the Tories had no fewer than five PMs (David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Sunak).

On the most superficial reading, Britons have turned away from the intoxicating fringes of resentment and nostalgia-based populism, towards sensible centrism, orthodox steady-as-she-goes, delivery-focused government. They have roundly rejected what Starmer frequently referred to as the “performative” politics of a succession of Tory PMs.

This seems true, but closer inspection reveals something in common with Australia’s 2022 result – a dangerously low level of passion for an incoming social democratic party masked by a high level of anger at the last mob.

An election marked not by an enthusiasm for the new but by an overweening despair at the old.

Labor here got a primary vote of 32.6 per cent nationally. Starmer’s support in Britain’s first-past-the-post system was hardly better at less than 34 per cent.

But for all this, there is no arguing with his astonishing parliamentary haul. A stunning 412 seats delivering a parliamentary majority of 179.

Quite rightly, given that some argued in 2019 that Labour would never recover from Corbynism, “Starmer’s tsunami” is the headline story of the election.

Somehow, this uncharismatic, even “dull” figure dragged Labour from an internally focused party of warring tribes to one seen as the safest option for government. It was a journey from the wilderness of its worst result to the triumph of one of its best, in a single term.

The questions going forward however are how strong his mandate is and how durable will be his electoral support? Starmer asks for patience, but in circumstances like these, Labour can expect no real honeymoon.

With right-wing populism apparently on the rise in democracies of Europe and the United States, the wins by Starmer and Anthony Albanese before him, suggest four things.

First, divisive campaigning, which exploits rather than solves problems, is not unstoppable. It can be defeated by solid and constructive policies which reach across the middle-ground and target ordinary people. Integrity still matters.

Second, survival for mainstream parties turns (perhaps exclusively) on their willingness to listen to voters, and be seen to be prioritising their lives. Centre-left parties must recognise that populism attracts supporters not merely because the fringes of right and left are more exciting but because in many ways, the centre has actually failed to deliver. Many working people have gone backwards. In the eyes of many voter, decades of neo-liberalism have diminished the very purpose of governments, institutions and norms.

Third, small targets lead to thin mandates. Governing from the centre should not be confused with playing it safe when bold reforms are long overdue.

Fourth, even with his extraordinary electoral success, Starmer lost a handful safe Labour seats (and two shadow ministers) in areas of high Muslim populations – a result connected to the moral morass of Israel-Gaza policy.

Australian Labor is not immune. The Israel-Gaza war is morass every bit as topical here right now as a new party, Muslim Vote, seeks to pull voters from safe Labor seats in Western Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere.

Australian Labor successfully schooled Starmer’s machine on election strategy. Now it must heed some lessons coming back the other way.

Mark Kenny is the Director of the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  9 July 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications