Vae Victis

When the Gauls sacked Rome in 390BC they captured the whole city except the sacred Capitoline Hill. Starving on the hilltop, the Romans offered to pay a hefty ransom to be rid of the barbarians. The Gauls agreed and hauled up great scales that could weigh the 1000 pounds in gold they demanded. As the gold was loaded on the scales, one of the Romans complained that the scales used to weigh the tribute were unfairly balanced. Brennus the Gallic Chief retorted ‘Vae Victis!’ - ‘woe to the defeated!’ - and threw his sword onto the scale, meaning the Romans had to find yet more gold. Expect no leniency when defeated. Woe to the vanquished.

The Australian vernacular version may translate as ‘sucked in, loser’. Tough. Suck it up. Look at the scoreboard.

For Labor supporters, any electoral defeat hurts, and if you’ve been a Labor supporter since the 90s, you’ve had a fair few to get used to. I left school in 1995 and started uni in March 96, joining the Labor Club at the same time. Howard won his first victory later that month. I couldn’t vote - I was only 17. Since then I’ve seen Labor win a majority in the House of Representatives precisely once, in 2007. My entire adult life I’ve celebrated one Labor Federal election night victory.

I am rather fond of winning. This has given me an acute interest in how to win elections, and in policy and politics. I’ve read hundreds of articles on the decline of social democratic parties and unions across the developed world. I’ve studied and trained and attempted to influence the way the ALP campaigns by helping to teach hundreds of people across the country the latest campaign methods. I worked as a union organiser for five years and as a Labor staffer for ten. I paid my own way, twice, to volunteer and learn from both the Obama campaigns. I have made it my life’s work to try to understand and influence what works and what doesn’t. I’ve mostly been right about who was going to win each election I’ve watched, and though disappointed with Labor losses, I haven’t been genuinely hurt.

But the 2019 Federal Election loss has hurt more than any other I can remember. Of course it’s because there was an expectation of a Labor win. The polls, the bookies, even the conservative pundits, got it wrong. I believed the polls, and got it wrong too.

It’s not just the unexpected nature of the loss that has many feeling despondent. It’s that we’re not sure how we’re going to win next time. If the seats fall as is now expected, the result is almost a re-run of 2016. Labor hasn’t been wiped out, like it was in ‘75 or even 2013, but it feels very much like Labor has lost the un-loseable election. So, presuming Scott Morrison will have had three more years to entrench his position and hack away at the Labor base, as Howard did for his long tenure, we’re not sure how they’ll win the next one.

Since Saturday night I’ve read dozens of ‘hot takes’, longer or shorter explanations for the defeat, and the implied or explicit alternative path to victory. Articles and Facebook posts proffering various shades of rational reasons and emotional responses are in full swing. Among friends there have been words of resolve and encouragement - ‘we live to fight another day’ - which are genuine sentiments, and helpful. But at the same time fights have started to break out, arguments have begun. Divisions have opened up where recently there was unanimity of purpose.

Vae victis.

The ALP as a whole is seemingly bereft of clear ideas of how it can move forward. Right winger Joel Fitzgibbon, having seen a surge in One Nation votes in his electorate, is saying the party has moved too far to the ‘left’, and needs to reconnect with its working class base. South Australian Labor Right headkicker Don Farrell has expressed similar sentiments. There will be others who run similar lines - that the party needs to adopt more conservative policies or a more conservative approach to policy announcements and development. And that’s just within the party.

The sectarian brawling between the Greens, Labor and others has already begun. While electorally the Greens did well, holding onto their Senate seats and potentially being a brake on the worst excesses of the emboldened Liberal government, the Stop Adani convoy is being heavily criticised. The Betoota Advocate’s headline reads ‘Bob Brown leads the Coalition to Shock Victory Across Marginal Qld Seats’. Trotskyist groups are gleefully putting the boot in to the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign. More sober commenters are pointing out the diminishing returns for both unions and GetUp in their campaigns among the general public, often based around leafleting high streets and train stations. There is also a worrying trend towards blaming the voters - calling for Queensland to be excised from the Commonwealth, or saying that the over 65s are at fault for being greedy over franking credits and negative gearing changes.

Perhaps a fairer take is that our opponents are genuinely strong and clever. They have Murdoch newspapers, Sky News, the major TV channels, and now, they are ruthlessly using Facebook to spread lies. The targeted scare campaign about a Labor ‘death tax’ was undoubtedly effective in some quarters. I spoke with lifelong Labor voters who nominated it as their reason for voting Liberal in the seat of Banks. I tried convincing them it was untrue, but the damage was done. Similarly, my Chinese speaking comrades struggled to counter and expose the fake news, racism and inflammatory rubbish marketed to Chinese-speakers on social media site WeChat.

But acknowledging the strengths of our opponents raises the question - did we have the right people, the right techniques, the right structure, the right strategy and the right policies in place to defeat the Coalition? We know their strengths. We know they have the Murdoch media and that they play dirty. What did we do about it? And how the hell did we lose?

The most obvious answer if you’re taught by the people that taught me campaigns is: Bill Shorten was the wrong guy. The mantra from my campaign school is ‘People vote for people’. Persuadable voters especially vote for people not policies. You need to find and promote authentic, capable leaders. But how do you do that in Australia? The running joke around and about the NSW ALP is that its motto is ‘It’s Not a Meritocracy!’. The evidence suggests that the ossified structures of the ALP do not allow for capable people to rise to leadership.

Look at who has been leader since Hawke. Keating - won one election, but was ultimately a very polarising figure, and the architect of much of what has caused Labor’s long, slow decline. Beazley - nice guy, but proved to be unelectable. Crean. Latham. Rudd and Gillard. And Shorten. Of those, only Rudd could win a majority, but was torn down by the minnows like Sam Dastyari soon after.

The harsh fact is that being a political leader requires such a rare combination of talents that it is nigh impossible to find someone who combines them all - and also wants to be a politician. There was a time when if you were charming, successful, intelligent, politically-minded and working class, the only avenue for your talents was the labour movement. Now, you can work for any number of non-government organisations. With a bit of luck you can live and work in the great capitals of the world, you can go into various forms of media or academia. Why would you put yourself forward for hatred and ridicule from half the population to help a mob that can often only offer you a shot at a marginal seat?

So if we cannot rely on dazzling leaders to emerge, at least without serious structural change to the ALP, then the quality of campaigning and policy work has to be world-class. From what I saw, neither were at their best in this campaign. The policies did not form a coherent whole and were too much like the proverbial campaign shopping list. Certainly in contrast to 2016, which had a strong focus on universal health care, there wasn’t the singular focus that a campaign usually needs to capture the attention of persuadable voters.

In teaching campaigning one of the first things we tell campaign managers is to stop looking at swings. The Mackerras pendulum is a wonderful Australian invention, but it is not a very useful tool for campaigners. It seems to say ‘if you win x more votes you’ll win this seat’. But of course, that is not how elections actually work. And in this election it’s very clear. Labor votes have gone backwards since 2016, when they concentrated strongly on universal healthcare and got a high ‘performance vote’ in places like Macarthur, Macquarie and Lindsay in NSW, and all across Queensland. There is a lesson in that policy prescription and focus.

There’s also a campaigning point. In any electorate you have a base vote - the voters you can absolutely rely upon to vote your way. They’ll vote your candidate even if it’s a pig with a Labor ribbon on it. Then you need to go and get the rest by campaigning - this is your performance vote. In Australia, the ALP seems to have a base vote of around 30 to 33%. This matches up pretty well with social democratic parties around the world. Labor then campaigns and convinces another 4% to 6% to vote with it, depending on the election. These are rough, national estimates. With Greens preferences, it can get over the line with about 40% performance vote, sometimes a little lower. It was expected at this election it could get over the line with a performance vote of about 37%. It looks like it got about 34%. Campaigners need to understand that the performance vote needs to be won every single time, especially if your base vote is static or shrinking. It seems some in Labor forgot this, and have thereby lost Bass, Braddon, Lindsay and Longman, with Macquarie in very serious danger.

The related problem is of course that Labor’s base vote has been shrinking steadily for the last three decades. A major focus has been how the Greens are eating into this base vote. But this shouldn’t be as much of a concern due to our compulsory preferential system, where 80% of the Greens votes come back as preferences. The real concern is the long, slow slide in the base vote and the performance vote to the Liberals and the minor parties of the right.

This long, slow decline in the vote for workers’ parties has spawned thousands of articles across the developed world. There are sociological reasons given, economic factors, cultural, demographic, structural, technological theses. The full gamut. There are people who have made their careers out of analysing it. In Europe, there is a name for it in its extreme form - PASOKification. It’s named after the Greek socialist party that declined from governing party to minor party status after the 2008 crash and the austerity imposed on Greece that they were complicit in. It’s been a disheartening and seemingly endless decline since the 1990s. Well it was, until two things happened. And they can be summed up by the names of two people that have finally come up with a way to reverse it. Corbyn and Sanders.

Political types in this country have been arguing over ‘Bernie’ and ‘JC’ for a few years already, but their rise has had very little impact on the average punter. There is a tendency among those with long political engagement to take a fairly critical approach to both of them. The Labor Party invited nobody from UK Labour to present or speak at its recent National Conference. The party invited anti-Sanders, neoliberal, centrist Democrats to Sydney to talk at a conference on inequality. (Turns out the event was probably just a campaign event to get Wayne Swan elected National President.) There is a certain kind of Labor activist that loves to rejoice in the every failing and failure of Corbyn and Sanders and to ignore their every success. They say that neither have won, and never will. They may not ever achieve office, it’s very hard to predict, but they have changed the very possibilities of what a left party can do in the neoliberal era.

I am no hero worshipper. I know both Sanders and Corbyn have feet of clay. They are both just old white men (as middle-aged white men of the liberal left love to point out on social media, hoping for a cookie). I disagree with specific policies that both have announced or gone silent on. I know Corbyn should have campaigned harder against Brexit and that Sanders should have a better record on guns. I know, I know, I know.

But nobody else has come up with an alternative model for the Labor Party to try to arrest its long, slow decline. Or more correctly, no other movement has come up with a better model for defying the entropy of the left in the developed world, and certainly not in the English speaking world. And before you point to Jacinda Ardern, remember that her vote was 36.9% to the NZ conservatives’ 44.5%.

The startling thing about the Sanders-Corbyn phenomena is that it really isn’t about the two men at the top - as they themselves so eagerly and readily repeat. It’s about the movement behind them. It’s about the way that ordinary people got on board and started working for their victory, especially young people. It’s also about the way that a certain kind of ‘political person’ almost immediately started working for them. News organisations, like The Jacobin and Novara Media formed and grew that supported them vociferously. In the UK, a group came out of nowhere, Momentum, to support Corbyn through thick and thin, and helped him win the internal Labour Party elections, and then 40% of the vote in the general election. It was founded by an old apparatchik, but staffed by young, smart campaigners.

So the question is asked in Australia, time and again: who is our Corbyn or Sanders? People search the current Parliament and come up short. (My answer is always ‘it’s you, comrade!’, but that’s not immediately helpful.) And so the next question quickly arises - why don’t we have anyone like that, who will take a radical social democratic approach, call themselves a socialist and thunder against the rigged economy and declining standards of living of working people? And in doing so, get the Labor vote back up around 40%, and usher in new era of unabashed social democracy, maybe even an entirely new economic system one day?

Do we just have bad luck? Or is it something in the structure and policies of the Labor Party that prevents it? It seems pretty obvious that a lot of Sanders and Corbyn’s appeal is their policy platform, particularly that of making tertiary education free. It is equally clear that the ALP are very unlikely to propose the kind of agenda that Sanders and Corbyn have, and will therefore fail to inspire the same enthusiasm. Until this changes, there won’t be a Sanders or Corbyn wave in this country.

Without the prospect of a transformational leader with a compelling agenda, the choice on who to vote for as Labor leader is very unlikely to be about policy. It will be a judgement on who we think might be able to win those seats, particularly in Queensland, that Labor clearly needs to win. Because no candidate is likely to offer the Sanders-Corbyn style alternative. Nobody will come out and say that we change the game completely, go bold and progressive and win either via another electoral path altogether or by convincing people in regional areas reliant on coal that there will be more and better jobs under a Green New Deal.  

Of course, my political friends will probably dismiss this - they say I’m a “Bernie Bro” or JC “fanboy”, or that the conditions in Australia are so different that anything like what they offer is impossible to replicate. They’ll say the recession never hit here, despite the fact we’re in a per capita recession. Or like the Labor Right luminaries they’ll say that the lesson of this election is precisely the opposite - Labor should be more conservative, not more bold. And they may be right. And as there is no candidate for the leadership of the Labor Party that is likely to do what I would prefer, perhaps I should forget it, lest I be thought of as a crank. “Calling for free education is so 1997 comrade!” The right wingers that run the Labor party will dismiss me as a dreamer, I’m sure. But of their ilk, there is one take I can agree with which gives me a little bit of hope.

Steve Koukoulos has today written about the failure of the Labor campaign to talk about the economy, the per capita recession and the Liberals’ failure of economic management. He said the next Labor leader should make that a priority and go after the Coalition on it. That kind of campaign could bring together the unions, the political Left and the Right of the Labor Party, and could open up an opportunity for more radical change in the longer term. It would confront head-on a huge political problem for the Labor party: the perception that it is incapable of economic management (mainly thanks to Wayne Swan’s surplus fetishism and Keating’s overzealous inflation fighting).

It could also suit the times. Ross Gittins - again, not exactly my ideological soulmate - today has pointed out that the easy part for Morrison was winning the election, it’s the future economic problems that may undo him. The SEARCH Foundation (who I work for) also argued this during the election - that the world is likely to face a significant economic downturn soon, and that Morrison, and the interests he represents, will try to make the workers pay for it, as they will with any future ecological collapse.

If Labor begins a drumbeat about the Liberal failure to improve the living standards of working people, backed up by well understood facts, reality on the ground and in the workplace, we may be able to overcome the conditioning that many working people have that any economic failure that they experience is self-inflicted. If Labor could start pointing out the huge amount of value that is ripped away from workers every day through their rents and mortgages, their usurious credit card interest payments, the duopolistic prices they pay for food and more, then we could grow the demands for something better. The problem will be whether Labor’s policy response will in any way match the challenge. This last election suggests not.

As Osmond Chiu has pointed out, Labor’s offering was essentially technocratic, an Antipodean echo of Milliband’s 2015 loss in the UK. While it was something better than tinkering, it aroused the ire of the wealthy who would take a small hit without convincing the multitude who would have been better off. But I have some hope that if the negative case is made that the economy is rigged, then at some point the positive response will have to emerge to counter that. If we can make the Gini Coefficient measure of inequality a marker of economic management as GDP has become, then we can campaign for policies that actually reverse the increase in inequality that the Gini measurements show.

I fear that the current ALP would need to fundamentally change to be the kind of party that does this. It would need a new strategy, new leadership, new policies and a new structure. I will call for that but I am not necessarily hopeful it will happen.

Many would argue, convincingly, that the ALP is not the main game, and that to change the nature of politics in this country we need mass movements that can engage the skills and enthusiasm of thousands of people. And the Labor Party is certainly not that at the moment: it does not seem to have the structures, policies and leaders who inspire a mass movement, nor does it seem to aspire to be that kind of movement, as UK Labour and the Sanders movement hope to be. So it falls to other movements - the union movement and the movement for action on climate change, principally, to provide that space and opportunity for those who want to change the country. The question is whether the organisations that lead in those movements will make that their priority. They do seem more open to it, but have many internal impediments to how they can do so. The union movement is divided by industry, faction, state and party affiliation. The climate movement may be too disaggregated to act in concerted way. But I think they’re open to being the leading social movements that will force change on our political system, and I hope to help both of those movements to take up that challenge in the most effective way possible.

Right now however, there is no point in sugar coating it. This is a disaster. The Australian left is in a world of pain. Vae Victis.



There is a postscript to the tale of the sack of Rome. It may be mythical, but Livy tells us that the shattered Roman army, which had scattered to the towns about Rome leaving the way open to the Gauls to sack their capital, regathered their resolve and, after another battle, managed to see off the Gauls before they could leave with their loot. And of course, 350 years later, they finally conquered the whole of Gaul. In that context, the 2022 election doesn’t seem quite so far away...

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.