Politics·Opinion

What Canadian politicians can learn from Britain's Botox election

What if political parties unloaded their entire arsenals during an election and weren’t able to damage their opponents? Or, performed their best routine to absolutely no applause? If no one changes his or her mind, did an election really happen? British voters are about to find out.

U.K. party leaders have painted themselves into some deep corners, miles away from majority

British Conservative Leader David Cameron, left, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, centre, and Labour's Ed Milliband can't seem to move their numbers after more than four weeks of campaigning in Britain's general election. Britons vote on Thursday. (Associated Press photos)

What if political parties unloaded their entire arsenals during an election and weren't able to damage on their opponents? What if they performed their best routines to the sound of no applause?

If an election happened and no one changed his or her mind, did it really happen?

British voters are about to find out. And Canadian politicians would be wise to pay attention.

It is less than two days from Election Day in the United Kingdom and after four weeks of campaigning polls have moved about as much as the Botoxed face of a plastic surgery addict. It's been a frozen rope of polls: Labour and Conservative, each on around 33-34 per cent, for weeks on end.

No matter how much Prime Minister David Cameron hammers Labour Leader Ed Miliband, or Miliband bludgeons Cameron in return, the figures won't budge. The bleating of Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg and UKIP's Nigel Farage also appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party is set to sweep Scotland. (David Cheskin/Associated Press)

The only movement in voter support has come north of Hadrian's Wall, where Nicola Sturgeon's surging Scottish Nationalist Party has laid a beating on all comers. If the election were held today, polling suggests the SNP would — incredibly — take every single Scottish seat.

Where will this leave Britons on May 8? With a hung Parliament.

It's so garbled, analysts expect no two parties will be able to combine, a la Conservatives and Lib Dems in 2010, to form a coalition government. A governing coalition will need three, maybe four parties. It will be Israel on the river Thames. Markets are already starting to panic over the forecast instability, with traders rushing to sell sterling.

Fixed date, sinking foundations

Why haven't the parties been able to build on their foundations of support?

In short, those foundations were sunk too far into the ground. Now they're stuck. Barring the most obscure of unforeseen events, no leader will come close to constructing a majority.

The first thing cementing the opinion landscape was the decision by the coalition — following the lead of Canada's then-minority Conservative government — to fix the election date. Doing so removed the tradition prerogative of the incumbent government to call an election at the time of it's choosing, i.e. when it was the recipient of a boost in the polls. The government tried to give itself a boost with its spring budget, but Chancellor George Osborne's decision to play it safe denied the Conservatives some much needed rocket fuel.

The thinking behind the coalition government's Fixed Term Parliament Act was to give Britain stability in the wake of the 2010 election. Analysts were worried about the durability of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the face of significant fiscal pressures at home and considerable economic instability abroad. Hence the forced five-year matrimony.

The arranged marriage has served Britain well. The coalition served its entire mandate and the United Kingdom has returned to growth, if not assured long-term prosperity. And yet the nascent recovery has not put wind in either Cameron or Clegg's sails. Had the coalition been able to delay the election until the recovery hit the family pocketbook it might be enjoying more success.

Nigel Farage's United Kingdom Independence Party has siphoned support from other parties, but may not see that translate into more seats. (Scott Heppell/Associated Press)

The fixed date and the stable marriage between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also meant the British children — i.e., the public — could safely disengage from politics. That appears to have resulted in the three main Westminster political parties disengaging from their supporters, allowing for the rise of the SNP and UKIP. When the writ dropped, the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats found their supporters under someone else's roof, and they haven't come back.

The two main parties — Conservative and Labour — have also defined themselves too narrowly for too long. Miliband was only ever planning on targeting the 35 per cent of the electorate he needed to produce a first-past-the-post majority. He didn't foresee his support in Scotland defecting to the pied pipers of the SNP.

For their part, the Conservatives' supposed trump card — management of the economy and the necessity of their austerity program — has framed the debate for so long that promises made on the election trail in other areas aren't being believed by the electorate. Where did Cameron, Mr. Austerity, suddenly find £8 billion for the National Health Service? Or more support for childcare? Miliband's commitment to fiscal rectitude was similarly discounted.

Another factor has been the shifting communications landscape. Television has always been important for British elections — not through TV advertising, which is forbidden, but through the party's political broadcasts. These once-a-campaign events would concentrate the British mind on the choice ahead and allow each party to put their best foot forward.

Now, fewer people watch television. The debates were not popular draws. Most are glued to their social media feeds instead.

The parties have been targeting digital and social channels but it's unclear whether they've been able to reach outside their own supporters to convert new voters. If the frozen polls are to be believed, they've preached only to the already converted.

Whither Canada?

What could the lessons of the British stalemate mean for the Canadian election this October?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has trumped economic competence and security for so long he might have eliminated room to manoeuvre come the fall. The books are precariously balanced, with little room to fund other programs without busting his balanced budget pledge.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has kept mum on most of his pledges, so far; this has left him the ability to surprise — as with Monday's plan for the "middle class" — but he had better hope Canadians remember to tune back into politics when he finally decides to put more stock in the shop window.

I have no doubt Harper would be delighted to freeze the polls now his team is back in the pole position. Trudeau needs to move up and cannot afford to get stuck.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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