Labor left out in the cold

Having lost its compass, the ALP faces a long stretch in the political wilderness - and even its allies look lost.

The status quo is now firmly anti-Labor. This conclusion does oversimplify the way Australians feel about politics at the moment - there is some evidence that voters aren't excited about either side - but in two-party terms, Labor remains well behind.

The result of the Griffith by-election in Queensland supports this general conclusion. The small swing to the Liberal National Party candidate, Dr Bill Glasson, can be interpreted in several ways. I agree with those commentators who have interpreted the close result as favouring the government, not Labor. Almost without exception, by-elections register a swing against the government of the day, but this one did not.

Nevertheless, some have seen the result as a draw, and at least one commentator believes it is a very good result for Labor. Those who see it as a draw look beneath the raw result to factor in the high quality of the LNP candidate, the short period since the last election, and the loss of Kevin Rudd's personal vote, to conclude that Labor did reasonably well under difficult circumstances. In other words, as Tony Mitchelmore of the research company Visibility suggests, voters stuck with their vote of last September. They were not yet ready to change back.

Graham Young, writing in On Line Opinion, concentrates on Rudd's personal vote alone and calculates it to be so large that the LNP should have won very well. He concludes that the result is therefore bad news for Tony Abbott. But in my view, the most sensible interpretation of the by-election is that in the bigger picture, this was yet another swing against Labor, a pattern that has been evident Australia-wide for some time now.

This bigger picture is more significant than trying to exhaustively dissect a single by-election. That's the reality Labor leaders, representatives and supporters should accept.

The electoral cycle has been moving consistently against Labor for four or five years. And there is no electoral evidence yet that the pendulum has begun to swing back. There have been hopeful public opinion polls for Labor but no hard electoral evidence. Labor has suffered a swing against it at election after election.


Furthermore, it is likely that the run of anti-Labor swings will continue at the two state elections scheduled for next month. The polls are predicting anti-Labor swings that may see Labor lose its two remaining state governments. No one really knows when the pendulum pattern will change back to Labor, as it surely will at some time.

When a party is stuck in a situation in which the pendulum is swinging against it, it is not as though there is nothing it can do to reverse the trend, but it is put in a difficult situation. The cumulative effect of successive defeats depletes a party's resources, while also sapping its confidence.

Leaders are lost and issues appear to turn against them. Crisis talk is in the air and the faint-hearted begin to wonder whether the party will ever win again. Drastic structural reforms are suggested and its leaders are judged much too harshly. It has happened to the Liberals and the Nationals, just as it has previously happened to Labor.

That's Labor's problem at the moment. Its leaders are mostly either inexperienced, tarnished or tired. The party appears to be on the back foot over many issues. This is true with only a few exceptions at both the state and federal level. Queensland is a case in point. The weakened state Labor opposition was in no position to assist its federal colleagues in an anti-Abbott campaign.

The ALP's problems are exaggerated by the fact that its usual allies are also weak and in no position to help re-invigorate Labor. They are basically readying themselves for long-term dealings with the Abbott government.

Its prime ally, the trade union movement, is perilously weak and under sustained attack by the federal government. A royal commission into union corruption is in the offing.

The union movement's record of failure means it has to put its own house in order. It can still fund

Labor campaigns, but it is in no position to exert moral suasion or build community support to assist the party. At a more mundane level, it lacks any major spokesperson with a positive national following. The ACTU president, Ged Kearney, is still relatively unknown.

Other social movements are either disinclined to throw their lot in with a weakened party or in no position to have much impact because of their own relative weakness. This applies to the welfare, education, environment, indigenous and women's movements. Some have been disappointed with Labor anyway. Others look forward to the Abbott government's indigenous recognition referendum and/or the government's paid parental leave scheme.

Political scientists are generally poor at predicting the future, but the big question is when the pendulum is likely to swing back towards Labor. It won't happen soon, and when it does, it is likely to be half-hearted or patchy, at least initially. This means the earliest signs may come in the form of swings towards Labor that are not big enough to actually dislodge Coalition governments. One state - more than likely Victoria - may swing back forcefully earlier than the others.

My best guesstimate is that the remainder of this decade will overwhelmingly belong to the Coalition. After the likely demise of the Tasmanian and South Australian Labor governments, most Australian governments will be Coalition for a long while. The pendulum swings slowly. It is not just a matter of a Labor recovery alone, but a recovery by its usual allies as well.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.