The title is not original. In fact, comparing the UK Conservative Party leadership battle to the popular television eviction show has become just about the cheesiest cliché in the British media; but it just fits so well I couldn’t resist it either. More on this later.
I have been in the UK now since just after the May election and it has been interesting to compare and contrast British and Australian politics, and maybe to see where the two might meet.
The first thing to strike me is just how important it is to occupy the centre-right. For Australian and UK voters, old notions of left and right are dead. People just don’t care about tribal politics any more and will increasingly act on self-interest rather than party devotion. More and more we voters become risk-averse, pragmatic and self-serving.
The evidence is that modern voters make their decisions in a multidimensional political space, not unidimensional left or right, and any analysis of voter behaviour must recognise that fact. Successful leaders in the UK and Australia have smelled the breeze, jettisoned traditional party ideology and headed to where the votes are: the centre-right. Tony Blair has moved to this ground in many of the same ways as John Howard has, even though, notionally, they lead parties from opposite sides of the conventional left-right schism.
The leaders might have worked it out, but it is always a battle to keep the troops in line. Witness Tony Blair’s latest desperate attempts to hold the centre right territory.
For the first time since becoming British prime minister in 1997 Tony Blair has lost a vote in the House of Commons. The British press have all but written him off. They predict, correctly, that crucial votes to come on other Blair “reforms” concerning health, education, incapacity benefits and pension, are more likely to be defeated now that the increasingly confident dissidents have tasted blood.
Blair, who has built his career on a pragmatic Third Way, will need to re-think his tactics with his own party if he is to keep his left-leaning sheep in the centre right paddock. Whatever Blair’s lame-duck failings, I can’t believe that Labour members, after seeing where electoral success lies, look so prepared to cede the centrist territory. This is not meant to be an endorsement of Tony Blair - maybe he is no longer the man for the moment - but just a pragmatic acknowledgement of where a party needs to be to get elected.
UK Labour, just like their Australian cousins on so many occasions, has managed to wedge itself and allow a re-energised Tory party to force the crack wider. The last thing Labour needs is the Tories supporting Blair on education vouchers or pension reform, but that is what is likely to happen. And then who will occupy the centre ground? The Tories, that’s who.
The second, and related, aspect is that, as an issue, the economy is still king. Ordinary Britons have benefited from the same property boom as Australians, the result of which has been a dramatic rise in the wealth and aspirations of the middle class. Compared to a decade ago, ordinary families care a great deal about interest rates now that the family home has been levered to support a better lifestyle: a holiday or investment property, a SUV in the garage or to pay for the children's school fees.
Bill Clinton, who set the mould for the current crop of centrist leaders, got it right back in 1992 when his campaign chief, James Carville, coined the term, “It’s the economy, stupid”. An opposition must have a credible economic face or become a sitting duck for a scare campaign from the incumbent, as Mark Latham found out. In the UK, the economy was similarly the government’s trump card in 2005. Gordon Brown's established reputation as a prudent and successful manager of the economy was enough to keep pragmatic voters from straying too far, despite warnings of underlying economic problems and troubles on the horizon.
In fact, paradoxically, rocky economic times ahead may work in the favour of incumbents, rather than voters punishing them for poor economic outcomes. The reason is that the economy, as an issue, is now seen to be “owned” by long-term governments in both the UK and Australia. The worse the economy gets, the more worried the voters become, and the more likely they are to be afraid of risking an untried opposition.
Opposition members and staffers will cheer on bad economic news because it makes the government look bad. Maybe so, but the evidence is in both Australia and the UK that governments win election campaigns as voters, happy to record their displeasure in mid-term opinion polls, swing back again when they decide not to risk losing their economic prosperity.