The Legend of Tom Cochrane - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

16 May 2008
If elected, we will immediately demand a recount.

Mr. GB ponders if Labour could be heading for a wipeout along the lines of the Conservatives in 1993. What, you don't recall the great Conservative wipeout of 1993? After nine years in power, and under a new leader, the party hoped for a respectable defeat. But the party ran a shockingly poor election campaign, described by some as directionless, allowing the nationalists to form the opposition.

This is a party with a past and a present but above all this is a party and a country with a future, said the new leader when she assumed office just four months earlier. What, still confused? This is Canadian politics, in an era where people called Avril had to change their name to Kim in order to be taken seriously, only to find that they would have been taken more seriously if they'd campaigned on a policy of low-cut jeans, pink hair streaks, and bangles for all. And if you're reading, Mr. Eager Young Space Cadet...

The Progressive Conservatives under Kim Campbell suffered protest from every side. The constitutional settlement was fraying, with the Atlantic provinces rejecting one proposed change, and the prairie provinces rejecting another. The Conservatives had come to power offering greater autonomy to Québec, and their inability to deliver caused the defection of some members to a new group, the Parti Québecois. The opposition Liberal party was led by Jean Chrétien, long on charisma, short on experience, and perhaps short on policies. The second national opposition, the NDP, had held over 40 seats in 1988, but lost ground in the polls after leading unpopular governments in Ontario and British Columbia. Opposition, particularly in BC, congregated around the charismatic Preston Manning and his new Reform Party of Canada, which demanded a better deal for the west.

So, there are new opposition parties looking to cannibalise the vote in parts of the country, a stylish opposition, and a residual protest vote. Mrs. Campbell was only elected in June 1993, and had to call an election by September, ensuring that she was still in her honeymoon period when she went to the polls. Even though the date of the election had been known for years, pisspoor organisation from the Progressive Conservatives led to a complete lack of national campaign leaflets, and all their literature being designed locally. There was no coherent message, and Mrs. Campbell came across as prissy and out-of-touch. The Liberals did actually manage to come up with some policies, which put them ahead of the opposition.

Ultimately, the reason the Progressive Conservatives lost so many seats was because they lost so many votes. They got just 16% of the ballot, retaining just two official seats and one independent who had been kicked out of the party on a technicality. Tactical voting played a significant part: Reform picked up votes in BC and Alberta, the Bloc swept the board in Québec, with the Liberals gaining in the Atlantic provinces. The NDP collapsed outside their strongholds.

What can British psephologists learn from this? A party going from 40% to 16% of the vote is going to get wiped out. It'll only go to 16% if its campaign is atrocious and its leader is unpopular and its policies are rank. These conditions are necessary, but they're not sufficient. People will vote tactically to get rid of a government they don't like, somewhat easier in Canada thanks to the proliferation of fourth parties each targetting a particular region of the country. The UK doesn't have those parties, but does have an unpopular leader, and it appears that the Labour government will be the victim of significant tactical voting, just as it benefitted from the phenomenon in 1997.

Could Labour fall to just five seats at the next election? It's highly unlikely, but not completely and utterly impossible. One of the necessary preconditions is the invention of a competitor party in heartland seats, just as the BQ ripped the PCs out of Québec. The closest analogy here, we think, is the Labour heartlands in northern England. This putative Northern Labour Party doesn't need to actually win many seats, it doesn't need to become the second-largest party as the BQ did, but it must take votes away from Labour allowing the opposition to come through the middle. The SDP was far more of a southern phenomenon; while it ensured that Labour would lose traction in southern England, it scarcely broke through north of Watling Street.

At this stage, we're not going to get involved in the tribal loyalties debate between Mr. GB and correspondent Strictly True that unfolds in comments, other than to point out that the Lib Dems grew seats faster than they grew votes in the general elections of 97, 01, and 05.

Stuff we found while researching but couldn't squeeze in anywhere else: an online forecaster for the 1997 Federal Election, asking people to work out their own transfer probability matrix, a proper Web Relic. Apparently, it's illegal to discuss Canadian politics without mentioning The Rhinoceros Party of Canada, and we can't mention Kim Campbell without a nod to Moxy Fruvous.

Finally, for those who believe that the southern part of the North American Dominion is capable of self-government, a discussion of by-election results morphs into a general psephological-electoral discussion, and on the local Seanad knife rules, and modification thereof.

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