Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Canada's historic election: British conservatives mull their options


Well, coming back from the UK's two-week double Bank Holiday bender, electoral politics continues to be just as fascinating as ever. First up, in a packed week of votes, is Canada's general election - which has produced a decisive Conservative victory for the first time since the 1980s. The party's leader, Stephen Harper (above), has won the majority he's always coveted after governing for years as a minority Prime Minister. Sound familiar - if only as an ambition?

Several points occur, and will already have occurred to our Blackberry-wielding and politics-obsessed ruling classes:

1. Electorates are volatile. The proud Canadian Liberal Party, for so long the 'natural party of government', lost its status as the official Opposition, many of its 'safe' seats, and even its leader, in a historic landslide to both Left and Right of it that the party may never recover from. Academics in politics seem to be out of fashion - the Liberals' leader, Michael Ignatieff, is a prominent intellectual, historian and thinker. It didn't help him deflect many of the devastating attack ads launched against him. Gordon Brown, too, has a PhD and an intellectual, analytical bent. Didn't help him either. Voters seem to prefer rather more 'normal' and 'familiar' leaders these days - as Al Gore and John Kerry found to their cost in 2000 and 2004. In any case, some parties may still think that because they've always dominated the electoral landscape, they always will. They're wrong.

2. Third parties can break through. The left-wing New Democrats have replaced the Liberals as the official Oppposition in Canada's Parliament. They have over one hundred seats - a stunning advance, and one unparalleled in Canadian history. This is what the Liberal Democrats might have achieved in 2010, when Labour's 'near death experience' saw the prospect of being shoved into third place briefly flash across what was left of the party's collective strategic brain. Somehow - as in 1983, under challenge from the SDP/ Liberal Alliance - Labour managed to hang on to second place. From those fighting retreats much else has flowed - but need not have done. There might have been an SDP Government elected in 1983, led by Roy Jenkins, or a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition in 2010, with Nick Clegg in a much stronger position as Deputy Prime Minister, backed by 100+ MPs and more actual votes than Labour. Labour's survival was not inevitable - something the party's leaders would do well to absorb.

3. Older voters retain their hold over politicians. Young people didn't vote much in Canada's last election - and although it remains to be seen how much they did this time, all the YouTube and Facebooking in the world didn't help 'ABC'-ers ('Anyone But Conservatives') muster a convincing case for a broad 'rainbow' coalition. Quite the opposite - in fact, the prospect of a multi-coloured government in Ottowa seems to have scared off many small-'c' conservatively minded voters. The number of over-65s in the Canadian population has doubled since the war, and is set to go on rising. Fail to appeal to them - and the election starting gun was fired in a row over pensioner benefits in the federal Parliament - and you can forget about winning elections.

4. Conservative minorities can become Conservative majorities. Many people thought that Harper would stumble and bumble his way through minority government - and that Canada's 'natural' centre-left majority, expressed in the no less than four opposition parties, would see him off eventually. Not a bit of it. In fact he's ruled since 2006, with a shrewd mix of pro-business tax cutting, 'tough on crime' rhetoric and a series of populist spending pledges. It's been a tour de force for a man hardly noted for his charisma. Some British Conservatives are already rubbing their hands about what they could do in a post-Clegg general election. And although it's unwise to draw too many parallels, the split in Canada's 'progressive' vote might be replicated in the next UK general election. Should David Cameron wish to expel the Lib Dems from his government, and go for broke in a 2011 or 2012 general election, the Canadian example gives him every reason for hope that he will indeed win an overall majority.

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