This weekend, WA Labor suffered an overwhelming defeat in the state election, despite starting their campaign with a popular, comprehensive major policy to fix Perth’s public transport system [link to pdf]. There will be months of soul-searching, blame-attributing and truth-avoiding over the next few months, as we all fight about how much of this is federal Labor’s fault and how much more badly Labor will do in September. Some of it will be good, some of it will be nonsense, and some of it is going to be done by me. (Sorry.)
In the lead up to September I want to focus on those things that people variously call branding, the narrative, the optics, and all of those other things that make serious policy wonks a little bit cranky. And I don’t blame you, too often those words are used to imply the opposite of substance by people who don’t understand them. They’re used by people who think voters are stupid, who think that voters need shiny substitutes for policy. And they’re rejected by people who think the solution is for voters to just spend more time reading policy documents and educating themselves. Both of those camps have it wrong.
Politics is increasingly complex. While it would be great if voters could spend more time informing themselves about issues they care about, nobody has the time to become an expert in every field. This is so obvious as to probably not need saying, but I’ll say it anyway. That’s where the brand (or narrative) comes in. Voters couldn’t understand all the policy even if they wanted to, so a campaign needs a way of explaining what reasons and values the party will use to make decisions. Waleed Aly recently wrote:
This isn’t an optional, esoteric extra. Governments ultimately thrive on narrative. Voters are not merely electing a suite of set policies. They are electing a party that will respond to future, unforeseen policy questions. They therefore need to know what you’re about. That’s what a clear consistent story tells them.
WA Labor began the campaign with the announcement of a huge plan to improve Perth’s rail system. Metronet was big, forward looking, and designed to use money from the mining boom to develop the infrastructure that Perth will need in the future. So when McGowan announced that they would be supporting a smaller version of Barnett’s waterfront development, which was itself a smaller version of the previous Labor government’s plan, there was a great deal of debate about which of the plans was more popular with the public, and whether McGowan’s announcement would hurt them with voters. I’m not sure that public opinion was the main point, and I don’t think people were especially enthusiastic about any of the plans. However I do think that it added confusion to the narrative that Labor had started with their Metronet plan. Metronet told voters that a McGowan government would be serious and visionary, that they would use the state’s resources to make life better for all its citizens, not just the ones working in mining. Supporting a smaller waterfront project, and defending it largely on the grounds of the short-term problems of road closures, said the exact opposite of this. With two completely different rationales for decision making, voters couldn’t be confident that they could predict and understand the kinds of decisions McGowan would make in government. Would he be visionary? Would he be obsessed with polls and avoiding short term pain? Who knew?
Looking back even further last year, Labor had two campaigns that were aimed at sympathising with voters’ frustration about two big problems: rising cost of power, and massive transport problems. After spending a great deal of time encouraging and focussing voter frustration on these issues, Metronet provided a solution to the latter, but the former slipped away as it became obvious that there was little that Labor could promise to fix the former. But voters didn’t forget, and now the resentment that Labor helped foster was aimed at all the parties. Encouraging resentment without providing a solution is harmful – Labor helped encourage the anger at power bill prices that the Libs have been blaming on the mining and carbon taxes. Voters aren’t blank slates you can just refill with new campaign slogans every election campaign. The narrative matters, and it has to be consistent, so that voters know who you are, what you stand for. And more widely, the narrative is important if you actually want to make a difference in people’s lives, if you want politics to be more than just polls and hoping that voters hate you less than they hate the other side.