Politics·Analysis

If you think you have this election figured - remember Great Britain

The day before Great Britain's election in May, Conservative Leader David Cameron — so uncertain of winning — practiced a resignation speech in front of his inner circle. The next day, he was elected with a majority. Are there echoes in the UK election for Canadians?

Are there lessons for Canadian voters in May's UK election?

Ed Miliband, left, resigned as leader of the Labour Party, while Nick Clegg, centre, resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats after losing to Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron in May. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

Within hours of a crushing defeat, the losers in Great Britain's general election in May stood shoulder-to-shoulder, duty-bound, with the unlikely victor, honouring soldiers who died in the Second Word War.

Just steps from 10 Downing Street, Labour's Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrat's Nick Clegg — almost touching but never making eye contact — stood side-by-side with the unexpected winner, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

The day before, the Conservative leader — so uncertain of winning — practiced a resignation speech in front of his inner circle.

But the British Tories defied the polls and won a surprise majority.

The awkward moments of silence at the Cenotaph marked Miliband and Clegg's last official duties, capping a bitter and polarizing election, reminiscent of the marathon campaign here in Canada.

The turbulent British campaign dialled up Scottish nationalism, exposed deep unease about immigration and heightened virulent Europhobia.

Much of the credit for the Conservative's surprise win goes to Lynton Crosby, a top Australian political campaign strategist known for his use of so-called "wedge" issues. 

The "Wizard of Oz," as he's known in Australia, was said to be offering advice to Stephen Harper's Conservatives for their campaign (although Crosby's business partner has taken to Twitter to say he is #notinCanada).

Crosby aside, there are other similarities between the May's UK election and the current Canadian campaign — and maybe even some cautionary lessons this old British colony can learn.

1. Polls can be wrong

Much like the Canadian election, the UK campaign was saturated with polls. Ninety-two campaign polls in seven weeks of campaigning to be accurate. But none of them — not a single one — was accurate. On election day, Rupert Murdoch's cheeky tabloid The Sun fretted about polls suggesting a tie between the two main parties — and urging voters to vote to "stop Labour from ballsing up Britain."

All of the surveys failed to predict the seven per cent lead the Conservatives had after the votes were counted. Described as a "total, calamitous, ignominious failure", polling companies underestimated Conservative support, didn't accurately predict turnout and made flawed assumptions about who was actually answering the surveys.

2. Do polls miss 'shy Tories?

Stephen Carter — the campaign strategist who helped Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and former Alberta Premier Alison Redford get elected — thinks Canadian polls, like the UK surveys in the spring, systematically under-represent Conservative supporters. 

Polls account for everyone surveyed. Some of those people don't show up on election day.

And polls might also not pick up so-called "shy Tories." These voters are reluctant — or even ashamed in the UK, it seems —  to admit to pollsters that they were going to vote Conservative. Akin to the UK, Carter and other Canadian experts think people who are likely to vote for the incumbent Conservatives are less likely to admit to it — and less likely to participate in polls. They are happy with the government, so they hang up on robo-polls (also known as IVR, for "interactive voice response").

3. Likes and Tweets don't translate into votes

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has the biggest following on Twitter — but that doesn't mean he'll have the most votes on election day.

Social media is often used as a barometer of how politicians are doing. Some analysts here in Canada even suggest Twitter and other social media is a potentially good indication of how people will vote. But Retweets and Facebook didn't help Labour win the election in May. Labour clearly won the social media battle -- but lost the bigger real-world election war.

4. Exceeding expectations helps — but…

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, did better than many thought in the campaign's five debates. Will that help propel him to victory over Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, centre, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair? (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Expectations were very low for Justin Trudeau heading into this election. Conservative spokesperson Kory Teneycke suggested the Liberal leader would win debate points "if he comes on stage with his pants on." Trudeau, of course, did much better than that.

Labour's Miliband had similarly low expectations heading into the spring vote in Great Britain. The Oxford-educated Miliband famously had trouble eating a bacon butty. But he far exceeded expectations in the campaign and did well in the debates. Yet, there he was, standing, stoically, beside Cameron and Clegg at the Cenotaph on May 8 just hours after his party's unexpected defeat.

5. One party is like the other

After five years of a formal coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, many UK voters concluded there was no real difference between the parties. Many Liberal Democrat stars, including big-name cabinet ministers and other popular MPs with distinguished records as dutiful servants to their constituents, were replaced with Conservatives in the May election. Voters couldn't distinguish between the two parties — and so they didn't in the voting booth.

The plunge in the polls here for the NDP might be attributed to their inability to define themselves as different from their opponents. The Liberals, arguably, have done a better job of positioning themselves as the alternative to the Conservatives.

We'll find out on Monday whether any of these factors cause Canadian voters to decide things similarly to their British counterparts.

About the Author

Brooks DeCillia

Political researcher

Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. He splits his time now between researching public opinion about energy and the environment at the University of Calgary and teaching journalism at Mount Royal University.

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