On May 5, Albertans voted to end the longest unbroken streak of success that a governing party has ever enjoyed in Canada. The Alberta Progressive Conservative Party had been in power for 44 years straight. Today, the NDP, a socialist party, runs Alberta. The formerly governing Progressive Conservatives, led by Jim Prentice, went from 70 seats down to 10. They aren’t even the official opposition. In contrast, the British Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, was widely expected to lose seats, possibly even losing power to the Labour Party. Defying the pundits and the pollsters, David Cameron went on to win an outright majority on May 6. I believe the difference in outcome was due to the different way they handled their respective right-wing challengers.
The Alberta PC’s were challenged on the right by the Wildrose Alliance; the British Conservatives faced off against the United Kingdom Independence Party.
The Wildrose Alliance has been around in one form or another since 2005. In the 2004 and 2008 provincial elections, it won one and zero seats respectively. However, in 2012 it jumped to 17 seats. Trouble was brewing for the PC’s and everybody knew it. After an internal struggle to remove a horrible leader - Alison Redford, the ruling Conservatives decided to do something about Wildrose. On Dec 17, 2014 Wildrose leader, Danielle Smith and eight other MLA’s crossed the floor to sit with the Progressive Conservative government. Problem solved, or so it seemed. Unfortunately for the PC’s, Wildrose climbed from 17 seats in the 2012 election to 21 seats in the 2015 election – more than making up for the defections.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, David Cameron was grappling with his own right-wing threat: UKIP. An Alberta-style decapitation strike wasn’t in the cards: UKIP hardly had any seats in Parliament (except for some Conservative turncoats). Instead, Cameron stole some of UKIP’s thunder by promising to hold a referendum on EU membership and negotiate a better deal for the UK in Europe. He also made encouraging noises on immigration. Whether he will carry through on any of this now that he has his majority remains to be seen, but it was enough to keep UKIP from toppling Conservative MP’s through vote splitting.
Until this year, the classic example of this strategy was the Australian federal election of 2004 when John Howard won his fourth term as Prime Minister. While the vote share of his Labour rivals remained steady at 38%, his vote share increased by 3.6%. How did he do this? Simple. He co-opted the program of his smaller, right-wing competitors. For instance, the One Nation Party, led by Pauline Hanson – the ‘fish and chips lady’ - saw its vote share drop by over 3%. With new, revised policies on immigration, many One Nation sympathizers voted for John Howard instead, because he was actually in a position to deliver.
The classic example of what not to do occurred in the 1993 Canadian federal elections when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives went down in flames. After winning the 1988 federal election over the US free trade deal, Mulroney chose to systematically humiliate his right-wing base. Once free trade was passed, he veered left. He instituted a value added tax, passed draconian gun-control laws, and presided over chronic sky-high deficits. If this wasn’t enough, he tried - twice - to fundamentally rework the Canadian constitution in order to enshrine left-wing labour laws, multiculturalism, socialized medicine, and an apartheid system for native Canadians into its text. Thankfully he failed. When Canada’s right inevitably revolted, he thought, where are they going to go? Where they went to was the Reform Party, which went from one seat in 1988 to 51 seats in 1993. Thanks to vote splitting, the formerly dominant Tories went from 156 seats to two in 1993. Yes, you read that right, two.
The lesson for political parties in first-past-the-post electoral systems seems to be this: if you have a challenger who competes against you for your core voters, you had better take them seriously, even if they have achieved little to date. They will continue to be unsuccessful until, all of a sudden, they are no longer. The best way to alleviate the threat is to co-opt at least part of their policies. Because the people who join protest parties are animated by principles rather than ministerial limousines, a decapitation strike - like the one Alberta Premier Jim Prentice expertly executed against Wildrose - won’t work. The absolute worst thing to do is what Brian Mulroney and his hapless successor Kim Campbell did: spit in their faces.
There is a cautionary note for the victorious David Cameron in all of this. Just because UKIP won only one seat (out of 650) in the British Parliament, it nevertheless should not be ignored. UKIP received the third highest number of votes in Britain; its problem is that its supporters are spread out evenly across the UK. The Scottish National Party only got 4.7% of the vote but, because their supporters are concentrated in Scotland, they won 56 seats. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, a party can win many votes and have nothing to show for it, until they cross some critical (but ill-marked) threshold. The thing Cameron must remember is that the Wildrose Alliance won almost no seats in its first two outings, but look where they are now – 11 seats ahead of the once-dominant Alberta Tories. Cameron had better not be as complacent with UKIP as the Alberta Tories were with Wildrose. One day, the insurgents might just cross that threshold. In 2004 and 2008, Wildrose received 9% and 6.5% of the vote respectively. In 2015, UKIP won 12.6%, so watch out David.