Boris Johnson should heed Australian election warnings

Just days after overseeing Scott Morrison’s doomed re-election campaign, Isaac Levido, the political strategist who more fortunately ran Boris Johnson’s campaign in 2019, has returned from Australia to join a Conservative meeting high profile on how to win the next contest. The Conservatives would do well to absorb his thoughts on the defeat of the Liberal Party last weekend.

The campaign has particular resonance for the Conservatives, given the political similarities between Johnson and Morrison as well as the British leader’s long reliance on Australian campaign strategists. And like the defeated prime minister, Johnson’s persona made him a drag on his party’s vote.

A health warning is in order, however. Comparisons of international campaigns are often specious. In Australia, climate change was the main divisive issue. The preferential voting system helps smaller parties and key to the result was the emergence of a new force, the “teal” independents, a well-funded group of conservative greens led by professional women alienated by Morrison. Elizabeth Ames, a former Australian diplomat turned COO of Atalanta, a company focused on female leadership, points to Morrison’s loss of female voters and the need to “take professional women seriously as a voting cohort “. Ironically, it’s a gender gap that Johnson has managed to bridge. For the time being, polls show equally unpopular with men and women.

Yet Tory and Labor MPs are paying attention, not least because Australian campaigning techniques have long influenced British contests.

The first lesson is that divisive “corner” tactics, negative attacks on security, crime and immigration amplified by Murdoch’s press, could not save a party deemed to be failing on the big issues. On the contrary, it helped alienate affluent suburban voters.

The obvious omen is for the future of about 40 suburbs, affluent, educated and broadly voting. “blue wall” Conservative seats where voters are increasingly alienated from Johnson. Some party strategists fear the post-Brexit realignment was only half-completed in 2019 as fear from then Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn saved a number of seats where demographics are shifting against the conservatives. With a less threatening opposition leader, voters can feel safe switching to the Liberal Democrats or Labour.

In the last two elections, the Conservatives have broadened their electoral coalition and increased their vote. Yet southern MPs see blue wall voters alienated by the constant focus on recently won northern Labor ‘red wall’ seats, corner tactics on social policy and the systematic bashing of those who turn to London. They also feel left out. Besides the cost of living crisis, focus groups in these seats cite housing and childcare costs as issues the Conservatives are failing to address. Johnson can’t keep power by holding the red wall but losing the blue. An outright victory for Labor is hard to predict, but a hung parliament that leads to electoral reform is scarier for the Tories.

While the UK does not share Australia’s stark divisions over net zero policies, senior Tories see its electoral relevance when it comes to ‘values ​​signals’ – the indication that one side shares the voters’ priorities and has a desirable vision for the future – are concerned. In a country plagued by wildfires and floods, the signal was about the climate challenge, but in the UK it will be about the economy and public services.

In 2019 Johnson offered a positive vision of a reinvented economy and investment in public services. This time it will be judged on failing delivery and inflation, albeit caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

He is further hampered by internal divisions over economic strategy. Even though the national mood has shifted towards a more active state, a core of Conservative MPs and ministers want lower taxes and spending cuts which they see as a political virtue. Yet Johnson’s impending retreat on a windfall tax on energy companies to fund support for the poorest is a sign he fears Labor is opening a value gap on the cost of living.

Beyond the dominant issue of the cost of living crisis, voters feel things are slipping. Real wages have stagnated for a decade. The NHS is in trouble. Longer wait times for ambulances are cited at the door. Above all, many British voters are repelled by Johnson’s conduct in office.

The lessons here are not just for conservatives. Labour’s Keir Starmer could draw hope from the successful safety campaign led first by uncharismatic Australian Labor leader Anthony Albanese. But the latter saw the vote in the primary of his party drop. John McTernan, a strategist for Tony Blair and former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, fears the election will convince Starmer to choose caution over a bolder values-driven vision: “I’m terrified that Labor examine this and think the answer is to be small target.

Despite all the false parallels, conservatives should heed the lessons of Morrison’s defeat. They need to find that elusive signal of economic value. More urgently, Johnson must understand that you cannot neglect or denigrate a key element of your electoral coalition indefinitely without paying the price.

Faced with weak opposition, without the aid of a preferential voting system, Johnson could hold on next time around. But conservatives need to know that, like Morrison, he is leading his party to its own demographic doomsday.

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