Watching the British elections, and the rather strong performance of the Liberal Democrats, I’m reminded of a couple of provincial elections that took place in Canada: Manitoba’s in 1988, and British Columbia’s in 1991. Both of those elections have the following in common with the current British election campaign:
- The incumbent party is deeply unpopular and is facing electoral defeat.
- The official opposition party, however, is still held in suspicion by a large part of the electorate.
- The leader of the third party puts in a strong performance during a televised debate, introducing an unpredictable element into the campaign.
In 1988, the Manitoba NDP was facing collapse, but unpleasant memories of the last Tory government were fresh enough in enough voters’ minds that they more comfortable voting Liberal, particularly given the high personal popularity of their leader, Sharon Carstairs, who’d clobbered the two main leaders in a debate during the previous election in 1986.
British Columbia’s Social Credit party was also imploding in 1991, but the electorate was sufficiently polarized that traditionally right-of-centre voters were unwilling to vote for the goddamn socialists (i.e., the NDP). Again, a strong debate performance by then-Liberal leader Gordon Wilson gave voters an alternative to holding their noses. (Wilson had to go to court to be included in the debates; he made the most of it when he got there.)
In both cases, the third party finished a strong second, with the incumbent party reduced to third place. We’ll see what happens in the U.K. tomorrow.
Now, televised debates are old hat here, as are three-way campaigns; the Brits, never having had debates before the three held during this campaign, lack such experience. I doubt these conditions will ever be repeated: the two top parties, whoever they are, will not underestimate the third-party leader again. The dynamic of the scrappy third-party leader calling bullshit on the other two will simply not recur.
Similarly, Nick Clegg’s challenge will be to avoid losing momentum: lightning does not strike twice. The Manitoba Liberals dropped to third place in the following election two years later. And while the B.C. Liberals eventually absorbed the remnants of Social Credit and took power in 2001, Gordon Wilson lost the leadership only two years after that breakthrough election in 1991, for rather sordid reasons. If the electorate hands you a gift, do not fritter it away.