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Winds of Change Blow Both Ways

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.

Margaret Thatcher.  Hey, stop throwing things at the screen!

Margaret Thatcher. Hey, stop throwing things at the screen!

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.

Rachel Notley, the new Premier of Alberta.

Rachel Notley, the new Premier of Alberta.

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?

Voters want direction, but may not care which one.  New times call for new leaders.

Voters want direction, but may not care which one. New times call for new leaders.

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.

The image that launched "Texts from Hillary".  She's at her best looking bad-assed.

The image that launched “Texts from Hillary”. She’s at her best looking bad-assed.

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.

16 thoughts on “Winds of Change Blow Both Ways

  1. Interesting analysis! I also suspect that voters are increasingly looking for someone (or perhaps a wider movement) that they can trust, versus an ideological connection. At least in Canada, I think this has to do with rising insecurity that voters face, both at a personal and societal level. (Shameless plug – I have a blog post coming out about that tomorrow morning at http://www.pinetreerepublic.com). In addition to Alberta’s election, we’ve seen wild swings in public opinion polls in the past few provincial elections, which would indicate that ideology is not a determining factor in deciding elections.

    I’m not as familiar with the European cases, but it seems like a similar phenomenon is driving elections there, including the UK elections and the recent French municipal elections, where the Front National seemed gained strength (another example of a female leader!). Again, it seems to be more about whom the average voter trusts the most, rather than home they agree with the most.

    • Thank you for your your additions! it’s just a theory of mine at this stage, but it seems to be working. The two parts are that: 1) The developed world is experiencing a similar angst about politics so we are seeing similar wild swings everywhere, and 2) It is indeed about who we can trust and/or who will take care of business, not ideology.
      Everything is expressed differently in a parliamentary system vs a presidential system, so you really have to dig to get at the similarities some times. And we do have yet to really experience this in the US, with hyper-partisanship still reigning. But I think we’ll get there, too.
      Funny things happen when the world gets really close, eh? 🙂

  2. Young women who are smart represent change in at least three ways – youth gender & intelligence. They would have my vote.

  3. First of all we need more women in power. Its not just a matter of fairness but a matter of different leadership styles. Women are much more likely to listen and less likely to be selfish with blind ambition. There are exceptions of course, but overall it can only be an improvement.
    If what you say is true I don’t know that this is good for Hillary. She does seem like an elite that people will have trouble relating to. If you add generation change that is also against her. What I have read about Sturgeon from you and now Notley (last names only, right?) they sound like being young is probably more important than anything else. And women are always outsiders which might finally be good for us?

    • I agree on all counts, but especially on Clinton (last names, yes!). She has to re-fashion herself as an outsider somehow, or at least someone who has a common touch. Bill will have to give her pointers. Generational change is something we will have to see.
      I think that as outsiders women are strong candidates all around.

  4. Your examples are good, but we saw zero evidence that this is happening in the US in the last election. I don’t buy that things are about the same everywhere until I see something.

    • Fair point. But turnout was terrible, meaning that what was dished up by the two-party system was not to anyone’s liking. One big difference in these parliamentary elections is that there are many parties, meaning there are real alternatives.

  5. One miscue on Barataria’s part may strengthen his argument. The New Democratic Party may once have been a “very left-wing” force in Canadian politics. But what remains of that early social democratic idealism (cf. introduction of medicare by Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan) has been highly moderated for decades. So the idea of voting NDP is no longer that far of a stretch for many thinking people.

    • So I am simply behind the times on my Canadian politics, eh? Well, that does explain things rather well. They do seem to have kept their populist roots, however, so a center/popular party would definitely be the kind of party I would see doing well in this environment!

      • Yes. I think another hint you gave earlier also helps. People will respond to people; that is, if a candidate presents as a person like me I might not have to agree with all their positions to support them, because they contrast so clearly with candidates whose manufactured image dominates. The best government Canada has had in the last 50 years was a Liberal/NDP coalition with Pierre Trudeau as Prime Minister. Center and populist. Lots of good results. Unfortunately Trudeau was able to leverage that good work into a majority for himself the next time around, and we returned to form.

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