Kim Beazley, Australian Ambassador to the US, had a pretty dire record of losing not only Labor Party leadership elections in Australia but also losing general elections even when he managed to win leadership contests. His repeated comebacks became a farce of continual failure rather than a dramatic story of persistence and redemption. Hence he said of his final departure: “For me to do anything further in the Australian Labor Party I would say is Lazarus with a quadruple bypass”.
Along the way, he tried out one political approach that became notorious for its cautions failure: the ‘small target’ strategy for an opposition. Say as little as possible, offer up as little grounds for attack on your party as you can, relying on the government’s unpopularity to see itself defeated whilst you minimise the risks that anything you do or say might give it an opening. It failed dramatically as an approach when the government used an opening offered up by events to seize the political agenda (the Tampa affair), box the opposition into an unpopular corner and win re-election.
It all looks rather like the template that Ed Miliband is following, and as Labour’s summer jitters show, it is in danger of ending just as badly for him – especially if the burst of economic good news in the last few weeks continues.
Kevin Rudd, in his 2007 incarnation, however offers a different, and more successful model. As I wrote about it in 2009:
Despite the failure of a previous Labor leader – Kim Beazley – to win with a “small target” strategy (i.e. say and do as little as possible, in the hope that the government will defeat itself with its own unpopularity), Rudd and team went for a very similar approach. This time dubbed “me too-ism” it resulted in Labor copying most Liberal policy stances, thereby allowing them to focus media and public attention on the few where they drew a significant distinction. For all the “me too” brickbats, it was a highly effective way of largely keeping control of the political agenda, despite being in opposition.
It’s a fine line between the two, but if Ed Miliband wants a minimalist strategy that works, he needs to copy Rudd, not Beazley – else the cautious minimalism ends up highlighting not your key selected differences but your lack of difference.
(It is also, as an aside, a model that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats can adapt for coalition. By picking carefully the issues on which you disagree strongly in public, you draw far more attention to them than if you are arguing over everything, ever day, in public. Hence the attention secured for income tax cuts and the desire to introduce a mansion tax. The risk is if these grounds are drawn too tightly, then it too ends up like a Kim Beazley losing rather than a Kevin Rudd winning strategy.)