Canada’s Conservatives and Britain’s Labour Party share a similar problem

I’ve mentioned before that election junkies looking for their next fix should be looking to Canada, who’ll be electing a new government on October 19th. It’s a country where elections often deliver unexpected outcomes, with really big poll movements often happening during the campaign and this year’s campaign seems likely to keep up that trend. There are three parties that the polls can barely separate, each also rising and falling in different parts of the company so first past the post voting looks like it could deliver some very confusing and unpredictable results when the votes are cast. Remember that this is the country where a majority ruling party lost all but two of its seats at a national election, where the Opposition lost over half its seats last time, and at the same time a party that had never won more than a handful of seats in Quebec swept the province to the extent that a candidate who never even visited her constituency during the election was elected.

There’s still over a month until the voting takes place but the campaign’s in full swing already and this piece from Maclean’s gives an idea of the mood around Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s campaign. It all feels very pessimistic – though I recall us debating whether David Cameron really wanted to win in April and if he was just going through the motions – but one section from it caught my attention and got me thinking:

As early as 2009, Conservatives close to Harper were describing his political aims in terms that lasted beyond Harper’s own career as leader of the Conservative party. Earlier Conservative leaders—John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney—had left their parties so worn out that their opponents rolled over them, leaving them without influence for many years. If the Liberals have been Canada’s natural governing party, in this analysis, it’s because Conservatives have failed to build something that could last and compete long after the first flush of a new leader’s novelty.

If you look at the Canadian politics since the war, it does appear to be long periods of Liberal dominance punctuated by occasional Conservative success, making it the mirror of Britain where we’ve had long periods of Conservative dominance, punctuated by the occasional Labour government. The diagnosis of the cause is also similar: both Labour and the Canadian Conservatives have been unable to renew themselves in government in the same way Britain’s Conservatives and the Liberals have been able to. The two successful parties were able to hand over the Premiership from one election-winning leader to another, while the two unsuccessful ones were able to get into power with the right leader at the right time but couldn’t stretch that success into another generation.

I’m reminded of one of the criticisms levelled at Tony Blair during this Labour leadership election: that he didn’t pay attention to what would happen to the Labour Party after he left, leaving it short of credible future leadership candidates to carry on his ethos. Meanwhile, David Cameron appears to have made the focus of his second term in office ensuring that George Osborne succeeds him as seamlessly as possible, and if he should stumble, there are plenty of others willing to continue the Cameron project.

Is the secret to success for parties having that focus on the real long term? Not just planning how to win the next election, but already thinking about who’s going to win the ones after that? It seems that a good leader can make a party successful and electable in the short term, but something else in the party’s institutions and operations is needed if it’s going to win after they’ve moved on or the electorate has tired of them.

One thought on “Canada’s Conservatives and Britain’s Labour Party share a similar problem”

  1. This suggests that perhaps the problem with the Tories post-1997 not having good successors available as leader goes back to an earlier leader. Famously, Thatcher crushed all below her to prevent them from challenging her (look at what happened to Lawson and Howe, both allies of hers in 1979, not to mention Hezza).

    It took from 1990 until after 2005 to get to the point where there were multiple credible leaders for the Conservative party – arguably if 2001 had been Clarke v Portillo then they might have got there earlier, but neither of them were any sort of chosen successor to anyone.

    I suppose the Labour exception to this is that Attlee had a number of very able potential successors – the 1955 election was Gaitskell v Bevan v Morrison, and there were people like Wilson and Patrick Gordon Walker in his final cabinet too. I know the conventional view is that Labour was exhausted in 1951, but I think there’s a solid case that it was starting to renew itself in office (lots of young new talent in junior Cabinet; compare to the new junior Cabinet of 1995-7 or 2007-10) – and both 1951 and 1955 were close-run elections; even 1959 was less than 6% (smaller than 1979, for example), greatly exaggerated by the voting system.

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