Samuel Coates was a special adviser to Canada’s Foreign Minister, and the first Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.
The Conservatives need to win those extra 23 seats. It’s still to play for, and the prospect of a Miliband-Balls-Sturgeon-Salmond quad running the country is just too hard to stomach. But if, sadly for the party and the country, that dystopia becomes a reality – the first stat to be bandied around will be the number of seats where UKIP’s tally outweighed the Tory margin of loss. That number will be higher than 23…it was around that number back in 2005.
It will be a close call either way, and whatever the outcome there will inevitably be calls for more cooperation with UKIP now or in the coming years. There are three forms this could take, each potentially leading into the other.
First there’s electoral pacts and tactical voting, such as the one the Bow Group Chairman called for. The weight of this position is questionable due to the fact he is not a Party member (which Andrew Neil made much hay with), the lack of transparency in the decision to make this call in the Bow Group’s name, and the lack of credibility that it now has as a think-tank in general (I know from having joined and left its committee in recent years). But the biggest problem with the tactical voting idea itself is the long-term questions it poses, which I’ll explore in a moment.
The second form is a governing coalition. Nigel Farage has said that this would be his ideal governing outcome – something the LibDems have already tried to caricature as “Blukip”. But as things stand it seems unlikely that that the margin will be small enough to be filled by UKIP’s tiny handful of seats this time around, even with DUP backing.
Third, a full-blown alliance or merger. In the anguished aftermath of Miliband successfully cobbling together a majority, a unified “Blukip” alliance would be an especially tempting reaction to the Labour-SNP one ruining the country.This idea would gain traction with many grassroots members and a good number of MPs. Would it be a good idea?
This all feels like uncharted territory, but it is hardly a unique challenge among our sister parties abroad. Take the example of one in particular: the unified Conservative Party of Canada.
How Canada’s UKIP came to power
Stephen Harper’s unapologetically Conservative government is now in its ninth year of office in “liberal Canada”. Just last month, they announced a balanced national budget. To cut a long story short – the modern Conservative Party there is an amalgamation of the traditional Progressive Conservative party with the more dominant UKIP-esque party called Reform (which later expanded into the Canadian Alliance, an expansion the PC leader had dismissed as merely “Reform in pantyhose”).
In 2011, Harper forged the first ever majority government without a significant level of support in French-speaking Quebec. He did this by appealing to various ethnic minority groups, disgruntled westerners, and gritty aspirational voters. Anglosphere-watcher Dan Hannan MEP was an early advocate of following this impressive example, and at first glance it does appear to be a successful trailblazer for a Blukip alliance here in the UK. At the same time, many Canadian Conservatives have a soft spot for UKIP. The names Farage and Hannan are as well-known and well thought-of there as the names Cameron and Osborne.
This is partly because of both men’s viral speeches excoriating the EU, which attracted a lot of attention in North America. It’s partly because of their speeches to the Manning Networking Conference (Canada’s equivalent to the Republican’s CPAC – the Tory conference fringe is closest UK equivalent), which Iain Duncan Smith spoke at this year. But mostly, it’s because they see a bit of themselves in UKIP – a plucky right-wing underdog taking on the establishment.
I’ve tried to dissuade friends and colleagues from this fraternal affection, but it’s understandable when you look at some of the original characteristics of Reform that are similar:
- Populist and anti-establishment. The Canadian equivalents of contracts-for-donors, cash-for-peerages and the MPs’ expenses scandal all fed into a disillusionment with the remote political class (“the Laurentian elite”), and a justified sense that they were in it for themselves. The very first Act passed by the Harper government was on political accountability and finances. You can see Rand Paul and others pushing a similar message in the US.
- National identity. Not about a relationship with a supranational body, but the supra-provincial nature of the second largest country in the world. The overly liberal, Quebec-heavy, post-British narratives didn’t appeal to all corners.
- Values votes. In a country with, for example, virtually zero restrictions on abortion, social conservatives were among the most alienated voters. Gay marriage was a rallying point for many, but was a done deal before Harper came to power. The nature of immigration was also an early driver, though a very engaging message later won out on this.
- Accusations of intolerance. Perhaps related to the above points, the party had a maverick nature and was frequently undermined by regular off-colour or off-message remarks by the more strident views of some of its elected members. These remarks were amplified by the mainstream media, causing a brand problem that took time to heal.
Why the UK isn’t ready for a Blukip
Having worked for both Conservative parties, I’m confident I would have been a Reform supporter, but I can’t say the same about UKIP. While there are some big lessons to learn from Reform’s rise to power, a Blukip alliance is not yet one of them.Here’s why:
- Time and scale. Over the span of two decades, the upstart Reform/Alliance actually outgrew the original Progressive Conservatives before they agreed to merge. And it was very much on their terms. We are years from that being a likely situation here. It’s true that the Canadians merged too late, allowing another decade of Liberal rule, but conversely a merger in the UK would be far too premature.
- Geographic base. The huge and diverse expanse of territory in Canada meant that, despite the constraints on newcomers inherent to First Past The Post, they were able to sweep seats across a whole region, and use that as a reliable foundation. It’s also worth noting that the federal political narrative doesn’t have to factor some key domestic issues such as health and education, which the provinces have primary responsibility for. Similarly, the CDU-CSU arrangement in Germany and the Liberal National coalition in Australia have been very successful models for maintaining a broad church – but they’re contingent on a geographic factor that we don’t have here, other than with the Scottish Conservatives
- The establishment. Harper is Canada’s closest answer to a Thatcher. He broke through decades of stagnant consensus, and took on a liberal hegemony that dominated Canadian politics for most of the 20th century. The term ‘Red Tory’ came from there. Today’s Westminster village isn’t as sclerotic as the Ottawa Bubble was. While it is easy to caricature our Conservative leadership as elite, their agenda is anything but.
- Ideological consistency. While UKIP can still be called a party of the Right, unlike Reform it is relatively shallow and increasingly promiscuous in its political ideology. If two parties are not fishing for votes in the same pond, the electoral benefits of an alliance become very questionable. In fact, YouGov predict a net Labour gain from a joint ticket – only two-thirds of Tory voters, and just over half of UKIP voters, say they would vote for candidates on that ticket.
So a formal alliance is not the solution here. As these points show, the cost-benefit analysis – the short-term pain, long-term gain – was a very different equation in Canada. And it was still a very painful transition.
What lessons we can learn
That doesn’t mean that a split Right isn’t a major problem. Stephen Harper is in power, and has a real chance of winning his fourth election in October, largely because he has cultivated a solid base versus a divided Left. Over in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu confounded pollsters thanks to his successful “Only Likud” argument that persuaded voters on the Right to unite behind the biggest party.
Many thousands of pixels have been devoted on this site to the need for Tory modernisation to be in tandem with, not contrasted with, the party’s more traditional sensibilities. To look at another example – New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key, the leader Cameron reportedly feels most politically close to among the Five Eyes countries, made sure to secure his base first before moving to dominate the centre-ground.
Of course, part of that means respecting the values and motives of those who are in and around your base. My former boss in Canada believes the PC party’s reflexive dismissal of the Reform phenomenon was one of the biggest mistakes they made. Fortunately, it’s clear that the party leadership here realised that the initial unkind comments about UKIP supporters were not wise – culminating most recently in Cameron making direct pitches to UKIP voters to “come back home”.
Another way of maintaining a united base is by clearly articulating the mission we are on together. It helps to retain an insurgent feel and reforming zeal. After a competent term in government, it’s natural to make the pitch for steady continuity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still tap into desires for change. In other words, you need a blend of “stick with us” and “stick it to them”.
When Tim Montgomerie and I first visited Harper’s team back in 2007, they really felt like, and were, insurgents in government. Outsiders to Ottawa. A band of brothers. Fast forward nine years, and that hasn’t really changed. The media, academia, activists, ‘appointocracy’, and various ‘experts’ routinely round on the government – and the government, in turn, routinely ignores them. Occasionally too much so. Unlike the previous PC (both Progressive Conservative and politically correct) administrations, they don’t care about fitting in.
What external factors could help bridge our internal divides? The zombie of Scottish nationalism could yet be the biggest. Then there’s the union barons who bankrolled Ed Miliband’s campaign and would pull the strings of his government. The Blob, the NUT, which has a strong case for being the today’s NUM. Eric Pickles’ attrition against elements of local government, combined with the people power of direct democracy. The “enemies of enterprise” and “ridiculous regulations” within the civil service, that Cameron rightly called out. And even enemies of freedom beyond our shores – ISIS, Putin, and yes, Brussels bureaucrats (in very different ways…).
With these rallying cries, the army of decent, centre-right minded people can have good reason to fight in the same direction – and under the Conservative banner. That’s certainly what I’ll be doing for the next 36 hours, and what we should all continue to do in the months ahead.