In the 1992 British election, Labour under Neil Kinnock looked big winners. The Conservative party and prime minister John Major looked down for the count. During the election campaign, most opinion polls showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck, or Labour in front. Final polls predicted a Labour majority, even exit polls indicated a hung parliament
But not only were the Tories and Major re-elected comfortably, their share of the vote was seven points ahead of Labour’s and only a little below Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987. Pollsters did not pick the result because many voters claimed to be ‘don’t knows’, or even said they were voting for Labour or another party to disguise their true intentions.
This phenomenon became known as the ‘shy Tory factor’. It happened again just this May, when David Cameron won a clear parliamentary majority despite the published polls, almost unanimously, predicting another hung parliament or narrow Labour majority. Thanks to Labour selecting subsequently a lefty dingbat, Jeremy Corbyn, as its new leader, the Conservatives suddenly look to be entrenched in power for another decade. But for that, Cameron can thank those shy Tories who watched, and waited, before declaring themselves at the polling booth.
In Australia, as the honeymoon of new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull continues in mainstream and social media, the narrative is of Turnbull bringing sweetness and light across the land after the dismal rule of vanquished Tony Abbott. According to this narrative, Turnbull has a mandate to shift Liberal party policy to the progressive centre, even centre-left, challenging Bill Shorten’s unreconstructed Labor party for the middle ground supposedly vacated by Abbott. Coupled with this is the luvvies and chattering classes demonising Abbott at every opportunity, and now portraying him as a sore loser to Malcolm, the shining champion of progressivism and its many causes, including man-made climate change and gay marriage.
Yet maybe there is a message from British politics that needs hearing by Turnbull and his Anglophobe barrackers like Australian Republican Movement demagogue, Peter FitzSimons. Could it be that, just as there is a shy Tory factor in British politics, there’s a ‘shy Tony factor‘ in Australia’s, an undetected reservoir of electoral support for Abbott and his values?
Think about it. Throughout his entire political career, and certainly as Liberal leader, Abbott has never been overly popular, let alone loved. He never courted popularity like the man his relentless Opposition leadership brought down, Kevin Rudd. He didn’t acquire respect over time as did his personal and political mentor, John Howard. Abbott succeeded despite this, and especially despite the unceasing, ruthless and vicious attacks on his character and integrity from his Left opponents who have morphed into a new political coalition outlasting his leadership: the Abbott haters.
Abbott’s innate social conservatism, and even his daggy suburban ordinariness, infuriates many media commentators and self-appointed opinion leaders. So much so, that the haters who so maliciously and viciously attacked Abbott as prime minister continue to do so enthusiastically despite Turnbull prevailing in the Liberal party room. Their pathetic anti-Abbott schadenfreude insults everyone else’s intelligence, but continues to pour almost unabated through their favoured outlets, Fairfax newspapers, the ABC and that suppository of anonymous bile, Twitter.
Faced with such vitriol, many voters understandably were, and are, undeclared Abbott supporters. It’s certainly not socially acceptable to say you’re in favour of being tough to stop the boats; to put national security before diplomatic niceties (and calling threats to our way of life, like Isis, the unspeakable evils they are); or to stand up for traditional notions of family and community. Nor is it fashionable to say Turnbull’s new vision is really a continuation of Abbott’s, and whose prime ministership was made possible by Abbott after a generation in Opposition looked likely when Rudd ran rampant in 2008 and 2009.
But outside basket weaver enclaves, Abbott wasn’t really on the nose. Yes, the government had serious problems, but none that couldn’t be resolved before an election due to be held a full year from now. Yes, Abbott was unpopular, but many grass roots Liberal supporters appreciated what he was trying to do and respected his perseverance against relentless hostility and vitriol. And yes, Turnbull dominated preferred Liberal leader polls, but that’s easy when you don’t have to make tough calls and be associated with them. So if you’re an Abbott supporter wanting a quiet life, why would you declare yourself when Abbott haters, and your family and friends whose heads they turned, condemn Abbott at every opportunity?
The same goes for progressive causes associated with Turnbull. Gay marriage rates up a storm in opinion polls, but when those who question, let alone oppose, it are shouted down, why on earth would you want to say anything but yes when you’re asked? That’s why the luvvies are so afraid of a gay marriage plebiscite: in the privacy of the polling booth they can’t control people’s minds.
Indeed the Canning by-election, the catalyst for Turnbull’s move on Abbott, showed shy Tony supporters are out there. Private Liberal polling before the leadership change anticipated the final Canning result: Turnbull’s triumph made little or no difference in the end. The Canning voters’ message was the government needed a kick before it was too late, but returning to Labor was not an option. Who actually was Liberal leader proved unimportant.
It may be too late for Abbott, but the message for Turnbull’s second-time-around leadership is simple. Don’t think that because the chattering classes cheer for you, you’re a moderate messiah. There are still many shy Tony supporters in the grass roots of the Liberal party and wider electorate, who like and respect Abbott and what he offered.
Their acceptance of Turnbull is reluctant at best and can’t be taken for granted, nor their more conservative views neglected and ridiculed. Otherwise, shy Tony supporters may yet have the last laugh, at the ballot box.
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