Can Labor get it together in time to win the next election?

Where will the Labor Party be by the end of the sitting fortnight – or after the Party Room meets, for that matter? An interesting question. Still, if they’re doing some soul searching, here are a few things they can meditate on.

We all know the old adage that oppositions don’t win elections, but governments lose them.

Like all old sayings, it’s lasted because it’s true. There’s another part to it, though, that never seems to get mentioned – the fact that when people start to tire of a government, the opposition has got to look, feel and act like a genuine alternative.

The Howard Government’s shiftiness was wearing thin with the punters in the 12 months leading up to the election. Coalition MPs were getting was ready to lose. True, there was no single overwhelming cause to change governments – but lots of decent enough reasons that gathered together properly should have provided enough reason for change.

Labor blew it.

Now, all they’re doing is waiting for the economy to fall over so the voters will punish the Government. Hullo? Who’s more convincing – even if it all goes wrong. Howard and Costello any day.

It’s a basic theory of politics – issue ownership, it’s called. The economy is a Liberal issue – they own it. A sliding economy will hurt lots of people and rattle even more – but it could well work in the Government’s favour. Economic management is a Coalition issue, and if it remains safely so they can then fight the next election on their own turf.

The best bet for Labor is for voters to still feel comfortable – interest rates and employment stable – which gives Labor the chance to fight more on their ground: education, health and welfare.

OK, so they tried that this time, but stuffed it up by not pointing to the great economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating years and how they laid the groundwork for the prosperity we are now enjoying.

And the current approach is even stupider. What did Graham Freudenberg have to say in the Fairfax broadsheets last Thursday in Why Mark Latham must be in it for the long haul?

“The best way ahead for Labor is for Mark Latham to adopt and articulate a two-term re-election strategy. His post-election insistence on victory in 2007 is undermining the credibility of his leadership. Nobody believes it and it gets in the way of the real tasks of policy development and party rehabilitation.

“It is largely a question of mind-set. John Howard has disclosed his mind-set, with the astonishing proposition that he wants the Coalition to adopt a permanent election mode. A two-term strategy by Labor can be portrayed as a healthy antidote against the cynicism implicit in the Howard approach.

“But there is an over-arching reason why Latham and Labor must not be seen as staking everything on a single-term win. It says we want a huge national disaster for Australia in the next two years. How else could we realistically expect to gain 16 or 17 seats in one bound? There could be nothing more demoralising for Labor than the impression we have a vested interest in the misery of the people.”

In Britain, the poor old Tory Party, out of office just one year less than Labor and a virtual dead cert to go down when Tony Blair trots off the polls, is trying something similar. “Sub Marxist economic determinism,” is how one conservative critic described it.

Columnist Frank Johnson, reporting on the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth and the speeches given to the faithful on the way forward, wrote:

“There remains the more interesting, privately stated analysis: one which cannot be mentioned to a party conference, in the Commons or on television. It is that the Tories will lose the next general election, but will recover when ‘the economy goes wrong’. Thus the Conservative party has embraced a kind of sub-Marxist, or materialist, economic determinism.

“It is reasonable to assume that the economy will ‘go wrong’ eventually. Economies always have. But this economy is taking an unconscionably long time doing so. That is because of something about which Conservatives should be pleased. Mr Brown handed monetary policy — which with fiscal policy is one of a chancellor’s two important functions — to the capitalist Bank of England, just as many an old Thatcherite had urged. Kenneth Clarke was against it; Lord Lamont was for it.

“Handing monetary policy to the Bank is one of the reasons — perhaps the most important — why we now enjoy both low unemployment and low inflation, two blessings which previous generations of politicians and Whitehall officials thought incompatible. If you are a good monetarist, you should not believe that the economy will easily ‘go wrong’. In any case, there is something disagreeable about a political party whose entire ‘strategy’ consists of sitting there waiting for economic hardship to befall one’s country, and hoping that it does. In exchange for high employment and low inflation, most of us — Tory or not — should be prepared to endure Mr Blair and Mr Brown lording it over us. The latest opinion polls suggest that most Britons are.”

And is it just the economy, stupid? Johnson had this to say:

“The Conservatives might not be the beneficiaries even if the economy, before or more probably after the next election, ‘goes wrong’. There is no evidence that voters live by economics alone. The Clinton campaign ‘strategist’ in the 1992 presidential election who said that it was ‘the economy, stupid’ has something to answer for. By election day, 1992, the American economy was doing well. Mr Clinton won for reasons other than the economy. He amused, reassured and interested voters as a campaigner, and was of humble origin. Above all, he came from the south, and so could win back to the Democrats those many southerners who had voted for the similarly amusing, reassuring, interesting and low-born Reagan. President Bush Sr, unlike his son today, had no appeal to the south.

“If all this is correct, the Tories cannot expect to win again even if the economy ‘goes wrong’. Rather, is it possible that they are the victims of broader forces?”

Like British equivalent of the voters in former Labor outer suburban strongholds who have thrown their backing so firmly behind John Howard at the last two polls?

Labor have comprehensively failed on two fronts. They have forgotten their own victories in the battle for economic reform – and can’t even fight the cultural wars, fight for the values voters.

They can fight because they’re hurt. They’re scalded. Scaled ‘cos they’ve spilt their lattes all over themselves.