If you wish to understand the essential difference between the Australian Labor Party and their British cousins, look beyond that discarded letter ‘u’ and consider the following number: the ALP has ousted six leaders over the past two decades, including two prime ministers; British Labour has never wielded the knife in its entire 106-year history. New Labour is the party of the thornless red rose rather than the bloodied dagger, the smile of Tony Blair rather than snarl of Paul Keating. Labour politicians, though brutish in their own way, are like weekend paintballers, who enjoy the thrill of combat but are too squeamish to use real ammunition. Even at the height of the Blair/Brown divide, the warfare was attritional and psychological, leaving scars of the mind rather than of the flesh.
When a small group of senior Labour figures was invited by the ALP to attend the party conference in Sydney before Christmas, they found the aggression and dissention on open display genuinely shocking. So, too, in private meetings on the fringes of the conference, the toxicity of the relationship between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd — and these were battle-hardened veterans of the Blair/Brown stand-off. Periodically, however, British Labourites have looked towards the antipodes with sneaking admiration as well as queasiness, and pondered whether the time has come to spill some blood in Westminster.
It last happened in the run-up to the 2010 general election, when senior party figures toyed with the idea of ‘doing a Hayden’: ditching then-leader Gordon Brown on the very eve of the poll in the hope that a more popular replacement could ‘do a Hawkie’. Now there are conspiratorial mutterings anew: that Labour should ‘do a Beazley’ and ditch the present incumbent, Ed Miliband, and replace him with a more popular rival. ‘Labour strategists are intrigued at how Kevin Rudd became leader of Australia’s Labor party with just a year to go,’ wrote Melissa Kite in these pages last month, ‘before fighting, and winning, the general election.’
The unexpected winner of the 2010 Labour leadership election, having upturned the rules of primogeniture by snatching the crown from his older brother David, Ed Miliband has made the most stumbling of starts. Polls suggest that he is not only the third most unpopular opposition leader, but also that he is less appealing than the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Aunt Sally of British politics. Miliband has so far failed, just as Kim Beazley did, to harness the mood of discontent with an unpopular conservative government. There has also been the occasional Beazley-like gaffe, most recently when he expressed regret at the passing of the quizmaster of the popular gameshow Blockbusters, but inadvertently called it Blackbusters.
By far the most wounding criticism of Ed Miliband, however, is that he is an uninspiring geek, who lacks that intangible ‘X factor’. Yet this is precisely why the words ‘Kevin Rudd’ should instil hope in the young Labour leader, rather than fear. The biography of the ousted prime minister reads like a self-help manual for the charismatically challenged, and Miliband could do a lot worse than to read it in full and to then ‘do a Kevin’.
Try as they might, commentators have struggled to fully explain why Rudd came to enjoy Hawke-like approval ratings, not least because he was so unlike Hawke. But a willingness to embrace his inner nerd, and turn it into a vote-winning virtue, was surely among the reasons. Though Australians liked the idea of a prime minister with whom they might enjoy a beer, they also warmed to a politician who was not only prepared to be the designated driver but who actually preferred to be the designated driver. Sober and steady, dependable and unflashy: nerdy traits that Rudd has in spades and which Miliband can also easily summon.
One shudders at the thought of the British airwaves filled with blokish colloquialisms, the homemade equivalent of Iced VoVos (the trusty ‘custard cream’, I suppose), terms like ‘programmatic specificity’ and an avalanche of acronyms, but they served Rudd well during the phase of his prime ministership when it looked like he would reign for a decade. They also impressed the Brits. When he attended a progressive leaders summit in Britain in 2009 and unleashed a barrage of acronyms and Ruddisms, Downing Street aides were left completely bamboozled as to what he was actually saying but came away mightily impressed nonetheless. Besides, in this age of austerity, once-useful selling points like charisma and winsomeness seem like unnecessary luxuries. Just look at the few European leaders who are popular — Angela Merkel, an unsmiling quantum chemist, and the new Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, a technocrat’s technocrat.
The Rudd experiment is also useful for Miliband in that it highlights the perils of switching leaders before an election. The word ‘backfired’ seems somehow inadequate to describe the coup that elevated the once-popular Julia Gillard. Would the same be true of Miliband’s most likely successor, Yvette Cooper, another darling of the party, who, like Julia, would become its first female leader? After all, one of the reasons why Gillard is so unpopular is because she decided to wield the knife.
Miliband definitely has certain advantages over Rudd. A personable chap, he is not despised by senior party members. He also owes his rise to powerful union figures, the faceless men of British politics. The key difference with Rudd has been his failure to build a faithful constituency beyond the Labour movement.
Throughout their long histories, there has always been a cross-flow of ideas and tactics between British and Australian progressives. For New Labour, Hawke and Keating’s Australia was just as much a political laboratory as Bill Clinton’s America. Paul Keating tutored the young Tony Blair on how to deal with Rupert Murdoch. During the 2007 election, Alan Milburn, a staunch Blairite, rode shotgun with Rudd for much of the election, as John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, does now for Julia Gillard. Why, Tom Bentley, the PM’s deputy chief of staff, even went to the same comprehensive school in north London as the Miliband brothers.
Now, though, as leadership speculation intensifies on both sides of the equator, Ed Miliband will be hoping that the ALP’s cannibalistic fury will not cross over and that he will be given more time to prove himself. Perhaps he could even echo the words of Kevin Rudd and ask for a fair shake of the sauce bottle.
Nick Bryant is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.