The election in the UK produced a surprising result – one not even remotely called by all the polls taken right up to polling day, 7 May. How could they miss it? It’s always possible that the polls were simply wrong, but it’s more likely that something changed deep in the guts of the electorate as they went in to vote. Is Britain really that conservative? No, people probably don’t like PM Cameron any more now than they did before. Can we learn something from this?
Perhaps we can. But we might be able to learn more from the provincial election in Alberta that produced a surprising win for the very left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) in a conservative stronghold. This huge shift came on like an Alberta Clipper off the North Pole, but it was caught by pollsters just before the election. And both of these recent election may apply because, as we noted before, the developed world is suffering from the same chill everywhere – buffeted by change, voters are demanding stability and strong new leadership.
The UK has led the US in political trends before. Margaret Thatcher was elected PM in 1979, a year before Ronald Reagan. Like her US compatriot, Thatcher was dyed-in-the-wool old fashioned Conservative who oversaw the arrival of a lot of new conservative ideology fashionable among young people on the make – “neocons”. The aggressive worldview and hardcore free market domestic policies made for an activist conservatism.
David Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher, for sure. It’s hard to say that his rather soft brand of conservative thought is going to lead the US – but it’s also hard to say that he won the election any more than Ed Miliband of the Labour Party lost it. The harsh swing in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 of 59 seats, showed that when left wing voters had another choice they took it. Moderates? Labour just wasn’t for them.
A charming ready-for-teevee face and a lot of platitudes didn’t make it with the voters. At the last minute, they voted with their guts. Cameron, for all his faults, at least acts like a Prime Minister. But Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, swept the board a lot better than Cameron, at least where her SNP was on the ballot.
In Alberta on Tuesday, 5 May, the 44 year reign of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party came to a close when the voters took a hard turn to the left, 41% of them going with the NDP. How did this happen? As one CBC commentator told us:
The revered former PC leader, (Peter Lougheed,) the man who began the 44-year-old dynasty, described Albertans as “centrist.” Yup. Centrist. Lougheed argued that Albertans rewarded what they determined was good government and supported the party that was best at reflecting and acting on the needs and aspirations of regular people.
In short, the election was a reaction against a perceived air of entitlement by the PC and a feeling that they had nothing new to offer to help ordinary Albertans. Rachel Notley, the NDP leader, is an articulate woman with a no-BS approach that is hardcore real – much like Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP.
That both these successful leaders are women is not a coincidence, either. New leadership seeks outsiders, and who wears outsider status better than a woman?
Two very different election results a quarter of a world apart may actually show us a trend. Voters in both Alberta and the UK clearly voted more with their guts than their heads, demonstrating less concern with ideology than with strong leadership and a clear vision for the future. The nature of the vision? Not all that important.
If this analysis is correct, 2016 could be the long overdue reckoning in US politics as well. We also suffer from a disconnected politics that has little to do with the lives of ordinary people. No one seems to have a clear strategy, instead playing the tactics of the moment for a temporary gain. Arrogance and entitlement seem far more important than progress and a firm hand that not only rides out the storms of change but actually masters them.
The lesson from the shocking elections in our fellow English speaking nations may be very hard to read if you look only at ideology. But after years of ideology run amok, voters may well be unimpressed with it generally.
A successful candidate may well be the one with the plan, really any plan as long as it starts with real people, and a strong connection with the voters.
Any talk of the upcoming US election naturally comes back to Hillary Clinton, who has to manage inevitability for the next 18 months to make it happen. She is a known commodity and voters are unlikely to be swayed by negative ads and reports of scandals. Her mission is to look presidential, which is to say a strong person with a plan that navigates change and sets a course for the next generation. She also has to come off as a regular person who connects with voters, which is not her strong suit.
But that is the task that is probably ahead of her – and anyone else that wants elected office in 2016. If the trends established this last week continue through the developed world we may yet see that voters are unruly and populist, making up their minds at the last minute. If that keeps up, it’s best to not see it ideologically, but as the reason democracy is an incredibly strong system.
The voters, deep in their hearts, usually do know what’s best. Right now, they appear to crave a blend of strong, strategic leadership and understanding of ordinary people. It’s a strong contrast with what we’ve had for many years, and it’s long overdue. The candidates who serve it up will be the victors – regardless of what path they want to take.