Scott Morrison’s Liberals were absolutely thrashed in the Australian elections this weekend. The party’s vote collapsed, and there were big-name defeats, with the man touted as Morrison’s successor – Josh Frydenberg – ousted in Kooyong, a suburb which had been in the party’s hands for 121 years.
Whatever went wrong for the Morrison government, Saturday’s results might have relevance closer to home. Teasing out domestic lessons from elections on the other side of the world is problematic. Australia is a different country, with a different political culture and a different electoral system. Scott Morrison was also an unloveable figure — stolid, gaffe-prone and not outwardly empathetic. When women marched on Parliament House to protest his government’s handling of a ministerial rape allegation, Morrison’s attempt to commend the demonstrators got sidetracked by the awkward musing that ‘not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets – but not here in this country’.
Anthony Albanese has been sworn in as the new prime minister but his Labour party still lacks a majority. Much of the damage was done to the Liberals not by Labour but by the teal independents, so-called because of their blending of Green ideology with the fiscal restraint of the blue team. Teals unseated Liberals all over the shop.
All of these candidates focused on climate change and Morrison’s failure to take it seriously. Another theme, less explicit in some cases but detectable all the same, was replacing blokey conservatism with something more inclusive and forward-looking. As I noted in a Coffee House post on the 2019 Aussie election, educated professional voters are shifting leftwards.
What are the chances that Britain’s Conservative government could suffer a similar fate at the next election? The Tories have been incumbent even longer than Morrison’s Liberals, more tainted by scandal and more sparse in policy achievements. Boris Johnson is more liberal than Scott Morrison and yet this Tory prime minister who has done next to nothing for conservatives is perhaps as hated by progressives as Thatcher.
Johnson’s electoral renown is based on smashing Labour’s red wall but he did so in the context of Brexit, something he has since pronounced ‘done’. His government has failed to tackle a housing crisis that is excluding young couples from at least part of the job-house-family trifecta previously thought to produce Tory voters. Having alienated the graduates and done little for the non-graduates, infuriated the centrists and neglected the conservatives, over-taxed the workers and kept the young off the housing ladder, you have to wonder: who exactly do the Tories expect to vote for them next time?
This is before we even allow for the growth of graduate progressivism, what has partly done for Australia’s Liberals and might yet do for Britain’s Tories. In 2019, ABC1s – those more educated and better-paid than other groups – went Tory by 43 to 33 per cent; in YouGov’s most recent polling they are 41 to 26 per cent Labour. Women were 44 to 35 per cent Tory; now they are 44 to 31 per cent Labour. At the last election, the Tories beat Labour among every age group 40 and over; now the Tories are just two points ahead among 50 to 64 year olds. Three-quarters of Brits worry about climate change, with women more likely to do so than men. Half of voters say the government is not doing enough on the environment.
A country with more graduates, fewer homeowners under 65, greater cultural and institutional progressivism, and growing alarm about climate change. Might it be more than a protest vote that the Greens almost doubled their council seats in the local elections? Might the shift away from the Tories by graduate professionals be about more than Brexit and Boris?
First-past-the-post would make it difficult to recreate Australia’s teal insurgency in Blighty but the underlying trends can’t be locked out. The political wisdom has long been that Britain is a conservative country that every so often is convinced to vote for the centre-left. Is that changing? Is Britain becoming a progressive country and, if so, how will the Tories convince it to vote rightwards? The Australian election result is a lesson in what happens when you ignore questions like these.