The failure of the People’s Party of Canada to win a single seat was, to me, the most surprising revelation of the Oct. 21 federal election.
The writing appeared to be on the wall for Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Conservatives seem poised to be squeezed by the insurgent populists.
For the People’s Party to fail to win a single seat is perhaps symptomatic of a psychological effect that populist voters have succumbed to in Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere across Europe.
A recent report by the National Post analyzed the gap between polling numbers and actual votes cast in the federal election. It suggested that leader Maxime Bernier might have had a better chance of winning seats had he been kept from taking part in the televised debates.
Could it be that populists perform better when they’re seen as the underdog but are hurt when they are given the same opportunities as the mainstream parties?
Or could it be that populist parties in Canada and Europe will face an uphill battle as long as there’s a moderate, right-of-centre political party with a greater chance of winning and stopping further-left progressives from gaining power?
Polls before the election showed a substantial number of voters willing to support the populists. In Nipissing-Timiskaming, for example, 34.1 per cent of respondents said they would consider voting People’s Party and 11.2 per cent said they were certain. The party in fact received 5.2 per cent of the vote in that Ontario riding. Other ridings showed similar numbers.
The polls taken before the Canadian election showed the precise opposite of what we’re used to in the U.K. The polls were wrong before the Brexit referendum of 2016, with “shy Brexit voters” turning out to vote in favour of leaving the European Union. In 2015, Conservative Leader David Cameron won a surprise majority despite polls suggesting a repeat of 2010’s hung Parliament. The “shy Tories” had come out in force.
In the U.K., pollsters underestimate the sway of right-leaning political parties and movements because people are simply too scared to admit how they intend to vote.
The exact opposite happened in Canada. In some ridings, over a third of the electorate said they were open to the possibility of voting for the populists, but it didn’t happen.
The reason people didn’t turn out to vote for the People’s Party, ironically, was the likelihood the Liberals would win another term. Rather than voting for the populists to punish the Liberals, voters opted for a larger party that had a bigger chance of chucking him out – the Conservatives.
In 2014, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won the European Union elections with 27 per cent of the popular vote and 24 seats – more than every other party. However, it didn’t translate into support in the national election the following year. The party won 12.6 per cent of the vote and a single parliamentary seat. Even Nigel Farage, the national face of Brexit, failed to win a seat.
Voters didn’t turn out for UKIP and Cameron’s Conservatives won big. Despite being decidedly moderate and in virtually no way conservative, the Conservative Party took home a majority and beat Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. In 2017, Theresa May’s Conservative Party lost seats but still trampled UKIP and beat Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran socialist leader of Labour.
As if two Westminster elections weren’t enough to prove that populists have it tough winning votes in domestic elections, the Dec. 12 general election (the third in five years) looks bad for Farage. Despite forming the new Brexit Party and taking home 30.5 per cent of the vote and 29 seats in the 2019 EU elections, polling looks dire for the Brexit populists and Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are on track for a majority government.
Voters are held back by the fear of inadvertently electing extremists through the back door. A vote for UKIP or the Brexit Party in a national election is, de facto, a vote for an IRA-supporting, terrorist-sympathizing leader of the Labour Party.
Similarly, a vote for the People’s Party, for many, might be seen as a de facto vote for Trudeau.
Can the populists in Canada ever break through?
We haven’t had much luck in the U.K., but change can happen suddenly.
Canada saw it in 1993 when the Reform Party became the biggest party in Western Canada.
The Liberal’s continued slide into progressive lunacy and another poor election campaign from the Conservatives could give voters the confidence to follow through with a populist party vote.
Jack Buckby is a research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.