Fifteen years ago the Canadian Conservatives were reduced to just two seats. The Right then splintered and spent more than a decade in the wilderness. Two years ago it managed to form a minority government but it was said that it was more of a defeat for the ruling Liberals (who had been engulfed by a corruption scandal) rather than a win for the Conservatives. The fact that the CanCons retained minority status last night – and won
five 16 extra seats* (12 short of a majority) – has to be seen in that historical context (and the fact that Canada is a relatively left-liberal country).
Stephen Harper faces a very divided opposition. Canada’s Left is at least as divided as the Right was in its wilderness years. The Liberals, Canada’s opposition, slumped to their worst modern-day defeat while support grew for the further-to-the-left NDP and Greens. The Liberals must now fear a ‘German situation’ where the main left party -the Realos – bleeds to Fundis. Losing more than twenty seats the Liberals suffered most from the weaknesses of their leader Stéphane Dion and from a very unpopular commitment to raise green taxes. It was unpopular during better economic times but became a serious liability once the economic crisis grew.
Stephen Harper now has the opportunity to deliver his programme for government – a programme that included a Can$50bn programme of corporate tax cuts.
Although he heads a minority government Mr Harper will probably be safe for at least 18 months. The Liberals will almost certainly dump Stéphane Dion as their leader and that will be a very consuming and, more significantly, expensive process. Already financially stressed the Liberals won’t be able to afford another election any time soon.
It’s worth adding some qualifications to the above assessment, however. When Stephen Harper called the election he had reasonable hopes of winning a majority and for the first half of the campaign it looked likely that he would succeed in that ambition. The CanCons reached the critical 40% mark in a number of opinion polls but the economic crisis then started to dominate the news agenda. Centre right parties across the world suffered and some perceived gaffes by Mr Harper eroded his opinion poll position.
It also has to be said that an electoral gift like Stéphane Dion doesn’t come along very often. Dion’s likeliest successors as Liberal leaders may struggle to unite their own party – left alone the wider Left – but neither suffer from Dion’s inability to communicate in a populist way. Dion’s TV interview during which he couldn’t understand an interviewer’s simple question cost his party crucial votes in the campaign’s final days.
Part of Harper’s problem remains a lack of warmth. His own staffers complain about his mean manner although they respect his overall intellect and strategic wisdom. Attempts to present him as ‘more human’ were described as ‘sweatering up’. Mr Harper was put on TV wearing a sweater addressing ‘softer’ issues.
At Canada’s High Commission in London this morning Martin Kettle of The Guardian wondered if Harper’s victory was good news for incumbents. The answer has to be ‘no’ if Mr Kettle means Mr Brown. There is a big difference between an incumbent of two years (the Canadian Conservatives) and Gordon Brown (representing a governing party that has been in office for more than a decade).
We have already refered to the green taxes phenomenon. The UK Tories who have embraced ‘replacement taxes’ need to study the Canadian experience carefully. ConservativeHome doesn’t expect the Tory green taxes to be abandoned completely – largely for face-saving reasons – but they will probably be diluted to meaninglessness.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain politically costly to their political supporters. Canadian troops have fought bravely in Afghanistan but there has been much political cost to Mr Harper from the commitment and he has been forced to promise an end to combat operations by 2011. CanCon policy on arts funding and the Afghan campaign prevented Mr Harper from breaking the Bloc Québécois. The persistence of the BQ – with fifty seats – may mean Canada can expect minority governments for some time to come.
There are also a number of campaigning lessons for other parties to draw. The CanCons used sophisticated systems for the distribution of literature and phone calling. An already close BritTory-CanCon-AusLib relationship will ensure full exchange of lessons.
Final word: Both Stephen Harper and John Howard lack the ‘X-factor’ that David Cameron has brought to British Conservatism. Mr Cameron’s social reform message remains the biggest idea on the international Right. It has three advantages:
(1) Social reform is the morally right thing to do for the millions let down by state poverty-fighting efforts.
(2) Only a stronger society will produce a sustainably smaller state.
(3) It connects conservatives with the growing number of ‘values voters’ who want to vote for a party that isn’t just good for them but also good for their neighbour.
As Stephen Harper looks for that majority he should be studying what David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith are doing in Britain.
* 16 more seats from dissolution and 19 from the last election.