Politics, Ice Cream & Gossip Girl: Can Rudd save Labor?

“If Kevin Rudd was leader of the Labor Party, would you vote for them?”

This question, or slight variants of it, has been asked by pollsters across the country in an attempt to gauge support for the former Prime Minister amongst voters.

According to some recent polls a return to Rudd as leader would deliver the Labor Party a boost of more than 8 per cent in key marginal seats, mitigating the huge swing against the government most commentators are predicting will occur this September and potentially giving them a shot of winning the election.

But how much stock can we place in polls that ask questions in the abstract and don’t factor in the associated turmoil and trauma that would inevitably follow another leadership change?

The Labor Party itself certainly puts a lot of stock into these kinds of polls. They were used as the excuse for knifing Rudd in the first place, and replacing him with Julia Gillard, who polls said would lift Labor’s primary vote. As we know, Gillard led Labor into an election that resulted in Australia’s first hung parliament since 1940 and a series of policy and communication blunders since has resulted in her popularity plummeting.

It’s similar polling, though this time suggesting that a shift back to Rudd is necessary to stave off electoral doom, which is being used internally within the party to agitate for another leadership change. By most accounts, a significant shift has occurred amongst former Gillard supporters who have resigned themselves to the fact they are likely to lose, and lose bad, under her leadership and a change to Rudd is required to limit the loss.

So we’ve established that these sorts of questions, and the response to them in the electorate, are taken very, very seriously. What’s incredibly surprising is how few people have questioned their veracity when on past performance, federally and within the basket case that is NSW Labor, they’ve proven to be very wrong.

NSW Labor’s internal ructions in the 2007-2011 period of government are so infamous they’ve been dubbed the “NSW disease” in political circles. The “disease” refers to both the massive allegations of corruption facing senior party figures, but also the leadership merry-go-round that saw Labor change leaders twice. In each of those situations, polling was used as the main justification.

The last leadership change, which saw Nathan Rees replaced by Kristina Keneally, was initially lauded as polls showed Keneally’s approval and “likeability” ratings were sky high. However, they started to collapse pretty quickly and ultimately Keneally led Labor to one of its worst defeats on record, with the party recording a primary vote 5 per cent lower than what they were tracking under Rees’ leadership. The lesson from NSW seems pretty clear – changing leaders might sound like a good idea in the abstract but once it actually happens, the gloss wears off pretty quickly and there’s a high likelihood you lose even more support.

So how might this translate to a federal level for Labor? While we’ve seen plenty of polls saying Rudd’s return to the leadership would boost Labor’s chances, and that’s been used internally to advocate for his return, as the likelihood of Rudd becoming Prime Minister again has increased there seems to be evidence that this is no longer the case.

A poll out today suggests that if Rudd was returned to the Prime Ministership, that would make roughly the same amount of people less like to vote for Labor as more likely. In other words, a shift to Rudd would have no impact on Labor’s vote.

That conclusion fits the “NSW disease” argument that even though when people are asked in the abstract how they would respond to a leadership change, when it actually happens, or looks inevitable, support slips even further.

One strong thesis is that when people are answering questions along the lines of the one at the beginning of this article, they’re actually responding to a slightly different question – “Would you vote Labor if Rudd had never been deposed” rather than “Would you vote for Rudd after yet another messy leadership coup”.

The last argument in relation to why the popular response to Rudd’s return may not be as rosy as polls currently suggest has to do with the basic mechanics of it. Gillard has made it clear she will not be stepping down of own volition, meaning that any transition will require a delegation of the much despised “faceless men” blasting her out. The public didn’t respond positively to that situation in 2010, and it’s not an outrageous proposition to suggest that there might be a backlash to Australia’s first female Prime Minister being deposed by a group made up of men from Labor’s right-wing faction. This accusation is particularly likely to hurt Labor in seats with a high proportion of working women, like Batman and Grayndler, where the Greens are in with a strong shot of winning.

There’s also the issue that Rudd will have a short amount of time in which to assemble his own policy agenda and Labor will have to rework it’s entire campaign messaging and look and feel, which is currently dominated by key Gillard policies such as Gonski and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, as well as references to “Gillard Labor”.

It’s possible that a return to Prime Minister Rudd might aid Labor in key marginal seats, as some polls have suggested. There is, however, a substantive body of evidence based on public reaction to the 2010 coup, the NSW Labor experience and the fact that all the polls are based on hypothetical scenarios, that suggests that removal of Australia’s first female Prime Minister by “faceless men” could see Labor plumb currently unimaginable new depths of unpopularity.

Osman Faruqi
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