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When Canada’s Tories faced electoral wipeout

In 1993, Canada’s governing party was reduced to an irrelevant rump. Could it happen in Britain?

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics UK World

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It seems all but certain that the Conservative Party will face a historic wipeout in the coming UK General Election. While we often see comparisons with New Labour’s landslide in 1997, which pushed the Tories out of power for 13 years, there is an even more striking precedent – namely, the fate that befell their Canadian counterparts just over 30 years ago.

In 1993, the Progressive Conservatives (PCs), also referred to as the Tories, suffered one of the worst defeats for a governing party in the history of a Western democracy. The PCs, having won 169 of 338 seats in 1988, lost all but two in the next federal election. They lost official party status, went deep into debt and did not recover until 2006, when the newly formed Conservative Party won a majority. In 1993, the new Bloc Québécois came second. In third place was a right-wing challenger to the Tories, called Reform.

There are certainly some similarities between Canada then and the UK now. Clearly, Nigel Farage is hoping so, hence why he has named his party Reform UK.

When he was asked last month about the significance of the 1993 Canadian election to the UK’s on 4 July, he enthused: ‘Huge, huge, huge.’ ‘In the end [Reform Canada] sort of “reverse took over” the old Conservative Party – they are the model… That’s the plan.’ Farage is particularly keen on the way Reform was able to reshape the Canadian right, after merging with the PCs. Stephen Harper, who had been a Reform member, went on to lead the new Conservative Party of Canada, which then won the federal election in 2006.

Ideologically, there is some crossover. The Canadian Reform Party was unapologetically right-wing. It emphasised the rights and responsibilities of the individual. It championed democratic reforms and a smaller, more fiscally responsible government – not a million miles from what Reform UK wants. Like Farage’s Reform, the Canadian version was also attacked by the mainstream parties and media for its allegedly racist and low-status membership.

Further echoing the situation in the UK today, a group of Canadian political scientists remarked shortly after the 1993 election: ‘The shift from 1988 to September 1993 reflected Conservative weakness, not Liberal strength.’ The same could be said about Labour’s forecasted ‘supermajority’ in this week’s UK election.

In many ways, though, the differences between the two scenarios outweigh the similarities. First of all, the Canadian Reform Party was a regional phenomenon. It traded on resentment in the Western provinces that too much support was being given to Quebec and to eastern Canada. Meanwhile, it was felt that Western industries such as oil and agriculture were being undermined by government policy. In 1993, the PCs were squeezed between the demands of Quebec – which angled for more concessions and autonomy from the federal government – and the Reform-backing Western provinces.

Reform UK, by contrast, has no particular regional base. While polling tends to show that Farage’s party has been successful in picking up votes across England, the lack of regionalised support means that it is unlikely to win many seats in the British first-past-the-post electoral system.

Most importantly, Farage’s dream of stitching together the British right underestimates just how much the Tories have been hollowed out. Much as it might be possible for some current Conservative MPs in Westminster to join a coalition with elements from Reform, the Conservative Party has become a technocratic husk of its former self. Ultimately, there is not much of a conservative right in the UK for Farage to take over.

It is also important to remember that Canada in 1993 was an outlier. Conservative parties in other nations did not experience a similar wipeout. Much about Reform’s rise was particular to Canada. Its success was bolstered by regional grievances, but this was also a key limitation. It needed a merger with the PCs to become a truly national party.

The rise of Farage’s Reform UK, in contrast, is part of a much broader global trend. A populist storm is brewing not only in Britain, but also in Europe and the United States. One need not look any further than France, where Marine Le Pen’s right-populist National Rally dominated last week’s first round of parliamentary elections.

The British Tories are unlikely to suffer quite as badly as their Canadian counterparts this week. The most pessimistic polls predict them retaining just over 50 seats – far more than the PCs in the ill-fated 1993 election, although this would still be a catastrophe for the party by any measure. Perhaps the only real lesson we can take from Canada is that such dramatic political shifts are indeed possible. Even the mightiest of parties can be brought down when the public mood turns against them.

A drubbing on the scale of Canada 1993 may not be all that likely this Thursday. But it could nevertheless be the start of a profound and much-needed shake-up.

Kevin Yuill was a parliamentary candidate for the Brexit Party in 2019 and is an emeritus professor of history.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK World

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