||Issue No. 183||20 June 2003|
A Beautiful Set of Numbers?
History: Nest of Traitors
Interview: A Nation of Hope
Unions: National Focus
Safety: The Shocking Truth
Tribute: A Comrade Departed
History: Working Bees
Education: The Big Picture
International: Static Labour
Economics: Budget And Fudge It
Technology: Google and Campaigning
Review: Secretary With A Difference
Poetry: The Minimale
Satire: Howard Calls for Senate to be Replaced by Clap-O-Meter
The Locker Room
Is Beazley's Popularity a Winner?
Letters to the Editor
Is Beazley's Popularity a Winner?
The debate about the leadership of the Labor Party has centred around the question of who would win the most votes for Labor.
There is no doubt that Beazley is, and always has been, a more popular leader with the electorate than Crean. As Opposition Leader, Beazley's approval ratings in Newspoll averaged 45%. Crean's have averaged just 32%. Crean has consistently been less popular than Prime Minister Howard.
Yet many opposition leaders have won office despite being less popular than the incumbent. They include Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Nick Greiner in 1988, Jeff Kennett in 1992, Richard Court in 1993, Bob Carr in 1995, Geoff Gallup in 1996, Steve Bracks in 1999 and Mike Rann in 2002.
Recent polls have also asked voters how they would vote if Beazley were ALP leader. The hypothetical Labor vote is higher under Beazley than presently recorded under Crean.
The whole problem with such polls, of course, is that they are hypothetical. They don't locate voters in the real world situation of what politics would actually be like with Beazley as leader.
To give an extreme but illustrative example: in the 1960s, a pollster asked voters for whom they would vote in the bizarre scenario of Gough Whitlam leading a new party comprising a breakaway right faction from the ALP plus the DLP. It showed Whitlam's 'new' party would achieve a higher vote than the ALP was receiving. Wisely, Whitlam ignored this poll, and at the 1972 election humiliated Billy McMahon who had been as popular as Beazley at his peak when he first took over the Liberal Party.
So how can we tell whether the ascension of a popular Beazley would lead to a higher Labor vote? Fortunately, we can look back on his record. If Beazley's popularity as leader then led to Labor improving its relative vote, there may be a good chance it would do so again now.
The trouble is, Beazley's popularity did not statistically correlate with the net Labor vote (Labor's primary vote minus the Coalition's primary vote). When Beazley's popularity rose, Labor's vote did not.
To give some examples, using poll figures averaged over a month: in May 1999 Beazley's Neswpoll approval rating was 46%, and Labor had a 1 percentage point lead on primary vote in the polls. Four moths later his approval had risen to 54%, but Labor was now 5 points behind in the polls.
By April 2000, his approval fell to 43%, but Labor had a one point lead again. By March 2001, his approval had fallen slightly further to 41%, but Labor now enjoyed an 11 point lead. By November 2001, just before his last election, his popularity had risen to 49%, but Labor had lost its lead and ended up over 5 points behind on election night.
So while Beazley is more popular than Crean, there is considerable doubt that this would translate into votes. One reason is obvious: voters take account of more than just their personal feelings about the opposition leader. The degree of party unity, how close a party is to voter's personal philosophies, and its policies, all have big effects.
Many commentators have remarked on the lack of policy development during Beazley's leadership. There is little doubt this led to disaffection amongst Labor sympathisers. Many voted informal, costing Labor votes.
The informal vote in the 2001 election was nearly 5%, over 50% more than in the pre-Beazley elections of the 1990s. The two states with the highest increase in the informal vote, NSW and Queensland, were also the states with the largest drops in the ALP two-party preferred vote. Tasmania, the only state with a swing to Labor, also had the smallest increase in the informal vote. In the 10 seats with the largest increases in the informal vote, the two-party swing against Labor was 4%. In the 10 seats with the largest reductions in the informal vote, there was a swing to Labor of 0.2%.
Other voters switched from Labor to the Greens, and in turn preferenced the Coalition. About a quarter of Green voters give their second preferences to the Coalition (why would you care who gets your second preference if you see no difference between the major parties?). Other disaffected voters switched directly to the Liberals. Because of leakage to minor parties under Beazley, Labor's primary vote at the 2001 election was lower than in the landslide defeat of 1996.
Labor is in trouble, though not terminally. Averaging the most recent polls suggests that, after Crean has started issuing policies, Labor had recovered to be approximately level. His antagonist may have a higher personal approval rating, but it is questionable whether he would produce the policies that would put Labor into office.
School of Industrial Relations
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