It has been an eventful few weeks in British Labour Party politics, with the leader Ed Miliband being subjected to considerable pressure from rebellious elements within his party. The sense of dissatisfaction within Labour over Miliband’s leadership reached a crescendo in last week’s British Sunday papers, with headlines such as The Sun’s “Labour Push to Axe Miliband” typifying the sort of stories that have surrounded the leader for days.
This dissatisfaction has been expressed constantly and solely through off-the-record briefings and leaked statements. A prominent shadow minister, for example, “revealed his doubts [about Miliband] in private conversations with senior Labour colleagues”. Backbenchers contacted The Guardian’s political correspondent following a televised rebuke of the off-the-record briefings from a Miliband supporter, to give the following assessment “Even if Ed survives this he will not recover and the party has to come to terms with this. Two thirds of the party would be happy for him to go.” And so on.
The context of this challenge to Miliband’s authority is his poor performance at the recent party conference and poor personal polling relative to Prime Minister David Cameron, despite Labour leading the Conservatives on the primary vote. The gradual slide in Labour’s vote leading up to the 2015 general election has many MPs worried that they face another five years in opposition with Miliband at the helm.
Yet, while the context is different, the tactics used by Labour party members to attack the leader bear a strong resemblance to the tactics used by ALP members of the “Rudd camp” during the Gillard Prime Ministership. As with the current political environment in Britain, dissatisfaction with the leader was expressed via anonymous briefings to journalists, by the constant publication of opinion polls comparing the leader directly to their colleagues, by the constant implication that a huge and ever increasing number of party members have lost confidence in the leader and by the constant inference that they are on the verge of losing power.
The former aide to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Damian Mcbride, succinctly summarises the rationale behind this strategy; “Momentum is everything to succeed. The plotters must keep pushing the leader to the edge of the cliff. And the crucial determinants of that momentum are the media – if they say it is fizzling out, then that becomes self-fulfilling. If they say one more bad day will make the leader’s position untenable, then it usually will.”
The biggest difference between the Australian and British examples is that Kevin Rudd was widely regarded as being the ultimate source of the destabilisation, while in Britain the rebel MPs lack an actual candidate (Alan Johnson, the most popular Labour MP, has consistently denied opportunities to lead the party). Yet the nature of the tactics means that one can’t help but imagine that some Labour MPs have observed the success of the strategy in Australia and are utilising it against Miliband.
On a basic level, leaking against a party leader is not necessarily always a bad thing. If the leader is clinging on through a factional power arrangement that subverts the general will of party supporters and prevents them from having a reasonable prospect of doing well at the next election, then off-the-record briefings could a useful mechanism for subverting those power structures so a more viable candidate has a chance.
Yet this strategy is highly susceptible to being used as a vehicle for ambition for its own sake. The media’s inherent interest in leaked information means that a leader can be constantly destabilised, steadily eroding their authority and reducing their capacity to control the political agenda. Furthermore, leaked stories necessarily obfuscate relevant facts from public view. The public is only being invited to make an assessment of the subject of a leak – the politician who leaked the story and their motivations for doing so, are kept out of the public eye.
Michael Gawenda, the former editor of The Age offers an illuminating example of how this can distort public debate by recalling the actions of one particular leaker to the paper;
“Here’s the thing: not only did he leak only when guaranteed anonymity, but he would then insist that the reporter quote him on the record saying he knew nothing, about any of this leaked information and at times, for instance, he would go as far as saying the rumours – his anonymous rumours – were ridiculous and untrue.”
There can be little doubt, based on recent events in the British and Australian Labour parties, that the strategy of constant and destabilising leaks is a highly effective method of bringing about leadership change. Yet the question of whether the leadership change can bring around a strong electoral boost for the party itself – which is surely the ultimate aim of a leadership change – is an open question. Gillard’s strong personal approval figures dropped in the months after she replaced Rudd, and Rudd’s personal lead over Tony Abbott dropped dramatically when he regained the leadership from Gillard. Yet, in contrast, both Rudd and Labor improved strongly following Rudd’s undermining and overthrow of Kim Beazley in 2006.
Why are some leadership changes more popular than others? The difference in the public reaction could come down to whether it is perceived as a change for the sake of personal ambition, or a change brought about by a challenger’s desire to deliver a new set of policies and ideas.
For example, In 2006, Rudd did not simply take the leadership from Beazley, he also introduced popular new policies such as the ‘Education Revolution’ and the National Broadband Network. Regardless of one’s opinion of the merit of these policies, they were widely regarded as giving Labor a stronger and more modern image.
In contrast, Gillard did not have any comparably major policies to announce in 2010, and Rudd’s 2013 announcements of the re-opening of Manus Island and a 33 percent cut in the Northern Territory company tax rate, were not seen as particularly visionary. In the context of this policy vacuum, it was easier for the public to ascertain that personal ambition was the primary motivation for leadership change and punish accordingly.
The British Labour MPs currently leaking against Miliband should take note of this, and if one of them feels they could challenge Miliband based on his poor personal approval ratings, then they should make sure they have some exciting and innovative policies prepared in their top drawer that can re-define the political debate and allow Labour to set the agenda.
If the argument for leadership change continues to be expressed solely in the language of opinion polls and political messaging, however, the British public will likely see the change as representing nothing more than the irrelevant and self interested actions of an out-of-touch elite.