UKIP had finally won their first by-election in Clacton. Bob Spink was the first sitting UKIP MP, but Douglas Carswell was the first MP elected in the UK banner. On the same day, UKIP was also close in the old Labour stronghold of Heywood and Middleton where a few hundreds vote would have »sealed » the deal for UKIP in beating Labour in this shock result. Mark Reckless had also won his seat in Kent for UKIP after defeating from the Conservatives to UKIP.
In the land of British Politics, we are entering a Terra incognita. Like when Columbus went into the open sea in 1492, nobody know how this support will translate itself in term of seats in the next general election in May 2015.
But however, those similar events are awfully similar to what had happened in Canada during the 1990’s.
In the 1980’s, the Progressive Conservatives in Canada under Brian Mulroney had a transformation like the Conservative Party since David Cameron became leader of the party in 2005. The party ditched some hard line policies (such as reinstating the death penalty) and became supportive of higher immigration quotas and the Liberals multicultural policy. It also was very keen on building in base among French Canadians who traditionally voted Liberal – just like Scotland voted Labour for decades, and this strategy paid out very well in 1984 and 1988.
The Mulroney government also had some very unpopular policies, especially in their second mandate, like the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, along with two failed initiatives for constitutional reform.
Then came the Reform Party of Canada, which was broadly like UKIP in term of policies and even in term of political timespace. Even if the party was founded in 1987 and was in the wilderness for a few years having a lacklustre performance in the 1988 general election, it became close to the official opposition in the 1993 general election a few years after winning a by-election in March 1989. In fact, on paper, this 1993 election had changed so many things that the official opposition was the Bloc Québécois with the Tories reduced to only two seats. This is exactly like if the SNP was the official opposition in the British House of Commons.
The Reform Party was a populist party and it was initially very reluctant to be associated with conservatism. It was based originally in Western Canada but it had sizable support almost everywhere in the country except in Quebec and the Eastern Atlantic provinces.
Like UKIP, the Canadian Reform Party attracted many people not usually into politics in the sense that it was an house for those sick of »old » parties. It was critical of state multiculturalism and was for lower immigration quotas.
The Reform Party of Canada was able to do much better with working class Canadians than the Progressive Conservatives, and especially in Western Canada, the party had found a niche among new Canadians. Some MP of the party were of South Asian or East Asian origin. The first federal MP of Muslim faith in Canada was elected in 1997 from the Reform Party.
But what is interesting is that even if the Reform Party was founded by some ex-Tories, the party did very well in constituencies which were traditionally voting for socialist parties – especially outside of metropolitan areas, exactly like UKIP is doing right now in some Labour seats in Northern England. In many ways, they were seeing the mainstream left as equal to the aspirations of people of metropolitan areas as opposed to their aspirations, just like the British Labour Party is seen right now.
So how this division went out between the Canadian right? Well, for a decade in Canadian politics, there was a massive civil war among two parties who were considered on the right of the centrist Liberals. The Liberals won by default, even if they took some Reform Party policies when they reduced the size of the federal government during the mid-1990’s.
The first past the post electoral system also made it possible in some regions that a party wins 98% of seats with only half of the popular vote, as the right was divided between two parties of equal footing in term of popular vote. In a region like Ontario which had about 100 seats at the time, the Liberals won almost every seat in this province.
This civil war ended in 2003, when the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance (the Reform Party new brand) merged together. Stephen Harper, who was a former Reform Party MP, became leader of this party.
Three years after, the Conservatives were in power in a minority government, and there are still in power in 2014. Unity – rather than division, seems to have been the key for electoral success when it counts.
It’s understandable that British and Canadian politics have some differences, but there are too many similarities to consider this historical case something more meaningful than a simple anecdote.
Indeed, perhaps the most important rule to remember, is that under a FPTP system (unlike AV or STV) not having a efficient voting base in marginal constituencies could hurt you a lot and let your opponent win by default – all this with a paltry overall popular vote.
But there is no doubt, that next May, Britain could wake up a Friday morning of May by having the same situation as in the February 1974 general election. The swigometer could go in any way all this with very unpredictable swings all over the UK with regionalism in full swing – exactly like in Canadian politics.