This week Unite’s Len McCluskey claimed that Labour losing 30 seats in the general election would be a success for Corbyn. It was widely interpreted as expectation management ahead of the next Labour leadership election. However, perhaps there is another explanation for this.
Perhaps Len has been studying a long forgotten political campaign strategy, dubbed ‘The Queensland Effect’.
Cast your mind back to the 2001 general election. Back then, it was Labour and Tony Blair who were taking nothing for granted. 15 points clear of the Tories in the opinion polls, Blair had launched his campaign with a warning to his party and the electorate against complacency. Bill Clinton, who had been ahead from the outset in his victory over Bob Dole in 1996, gave Blair some advice:
‘Show them you are desperate for their mandate. The more you are up in the polls, the more desperate you should become. Fight the campaign as if it’s neck and neck’
However, the public did not see the election as a tight contest. The inevitably of the result saw Ladbrokes pay out on a Labour victory with a week of campaigning still to go, having seen their odds on winning move from 1/40 to 1/50 through the campaign.
But the fear of defeat that had gripped Blair, had worked its way into his immediate campaign team. Labour HQ began to fear that a little known State election in Queensland, Australia from 1995, could show a route to Conservative victory. To add to their fears, they believed Hague was now copying the strategy.
What was ‘The Queensland Effect?
In 1995, the Liberal-National coalition, despite being well behind in the polls throughout the election campaign, almost snatched a stunning victory in a Queensland state election. During their campaign, the Liberal-National coalition decided to concede defeat early, change tactics and focus on a campaign to register a protest against Labor. They warned of the dangers of a landslide Labor win.
On polling day, The Labor party, who had been well ahead in the polls for months, saw its lead wiped out by the Liberal-National coalition. Although Labor ended up with one more seat than its rivals, they later lost their majority by losing a mid-term by-election.
The message from the coalition had been clear ‘if you think Labor’s arrogant now, imagine what will happen if they win a big majority again’. Although the Labor leader Wayne Goss had strong personal ratings and the Australian economy was in good shape, they ended up with only 45 seats out of 89. Their vote share fell 8% from the previous poll.
The person thought to have who brought this to Blair’s attention was Michael Stephenson, one of his key policy advisors. Stephenson had moved from Downing Street to Millbank for the 2001 campaign but had previously ran the Queensland Premier Wayne Goss’s office.
Labour feared Hague was copying this model. After starting the campaign on traditional policy issues, Hague urged voters to ‘clip Labour’s wings’ and ended the campaign with a poster asking voters to ‘Burst his bubble’ alongside a picture of Tony Blair. The media began talking up ‘The Queensland Effect’, whilst Blair and Brown claimed ‘The Conservative strategy now is to sneak in through the back door’.
Labour had nothing to fear. They were returned to power with another huge majority of 167, dubbed the ‘quiet landslide’ as the Conservatives made a miserly gain of just one seat.
In the aftermath of the 1995 Liberal-National campaign, numerous people came forward to claim credit for the strategy. Kelly Gee from the National Party’s advertising agency, claimed some credit, whilst Graham Young, the Liberal Party Campaign Chairman claims it was his strategy.
There is one other person however, who is often and wrongly credited with developing the campaign, the Liberal party’s deputy federal director.
His name, was Lynton Crosby.