Labor’s newfound unity behind Kevin Rudd took something of a beating this morning with a particularly vicious attack from Michael Costello, former chief-of-staff to Kim Beazley, in his regular column in The Australian.

Calling Rudd the “Milky Bar Kid”, Costello likens him to previous failed leaders John Hewson, Alexander Downer and Mark Latham:

As yet there is little indication that he has the strength, the policy, the vision, the rhetorical skills or the personal style to overcome the political history of this country, which shows that at the ballot box people have always insisted on long experience as a necessary precondition for their vote.

Costello’s basic point is that Labor was already in an election-winning position under Beazley, and that therefore no change was necessary.

Peter Brent (Mr Mumble) made the same point, although without the attacks on Rudd, in yesterday’s Canberra Times. There is certainly an element of truth to this: many commentators, whether through animus to Beazley or just through ignorance, have misrepresented the last few months of poll results to give the impression that Labor’s condition was hopeless. As the graphs compiled by Bryan Palmer at Ozpolitics clearly show, Labor has in fact been ahead for most of the year, and the trend is generally in its favour.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that Costello and Brent both slide over fundamental weaknesses in Beazley’s position. Although he led in the polls, it was usually not by much (disregarding Nielsen’s last 56-44 result, which looks like a rogue sample), and the government would be expected to make up ground in an election year. In the last couple of years, oppositions in Western Australia and Queensland have enjoyed substantial leads a year or so out, only to fall well short on the day.

Brent is quite right to say that the approval rating “is just something invented by pollsters.

There is, of course, no such question at the ballot box on election day”. But the downward trend in Beazley’s approval cannot just be ignored; something was going on in voter’s minds, and it wasn’t good.

Most serious for Beazley was the perception that he was a loser. As I’ve pointed out before, Labor leaders do best at their first attempt; Beazley’s near-miss in 1998 was a huge achievement, but he treated it as laurels to rest on rather than a springboard to better things. He frittered away a huge lead in 2001, and was left rudderless when Tampa emerged over the horizon.

Experience is one thing, but experience in losing is not an attractive trait. Rudd may or may not do better, but the idea that everything was going just fine under Beazley is difficult to sustain.