This past week-end Maxime Bernier shook up Canadian politics by announcing that he would be leaving the Conservatives to start his own party. He did this following a couple of twitter tirades against political correctness and multiculturalism. This has led to a great deal of speculation as to what will become of Bernier and his new party. In a series of posts, I will look at a number different comparable cases in order to provide some insight into how such a new party might do. In this first post, I will draw comparisons with the UK Independence party. This comparison suggests that Bernier’s new party will struggle to win seats and votes but could still have a significant impact on Canadian politics.
In my last post I looked at the way that first past the post and proportional electoral systems affect the success of far-right candidates and parties. I argued that far-right candidates can succeed in first past the post systems, but only if they co-opt existing mainstream right parties. When far-right candidates like Donald Trump and Doug Ford are able to take over parties like the Republicans and Ontario Conservatives they benefit from the work those parties have done to build a brand and an organization capable of mounting a strong election campaign. They also benefit from the electorate’s expectations that the party will be competitive. As such, voters considering the Trump Republicans or the Ford Conservatives could be fairly confident that they would not be “wasting their vote.”
By going out on his own Bernier loses all of these advantages. His party will not have an established brand and the voter loyalties that come with it. It will have limited to no organization outside of whoever he is able to bring with him in his leadership campaign (and early indications are that he is not bringing all of his supporters from that campaign with him). He will need to set up riding associations and find candidates to run across the country (and who will not embarrass the party). Finally, he will need to convince conservative voters that voting for his party is not just drawing support from the Conservatives and guaranteeing a Liberal victory.
The UK Independence party faces similar challenges to the ones that Bernier will. The party competes against a strong Conservative party in a first past the post system. The results for UKIP have not been encouraging. In the 6 elections it has contested, the party has only broke 10% of the vote once, in 2015. In that election it managed to win just one seat, despite having almost 13% of the vote. Its next best showing was in 2010, when it won just 3%. This is despite the fact that one of its headline policies, leaving the European Union, won a majority vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum. In most elections UKIP struggles to convince many voters that they are a preferable option to the existing British Conservative party. Even when they did in 2015, those voters were not geographically distributed in a way that yielded many seats. Given that Maxime Bernier is likely to try to appeal to the same anti-immigrant voters that back UKIP, and is running against a similar Canadian Conservative party, he is likely to face the same challenges.
To make matters worse for Bernier, there are three ways in which Canada differs from Britain that will put his party at a disadvantage relative to UKIP. First, Canada’s electorate has a significantly larger number of immigrants than Britain’s. Canada’s foreign-born population is 20% as compared to a few percentage points over 10% in the United Kingdom. Assuming that most immigrants will be less likely to vote for an anti-immigrant party than the rest of the population, this means that the pool of voters that Bernier can draw from is smaller than the one that UKIP can. If one adds to this the greater to degree to which multiculturalism has become part of Canada’s national identity, it is hard to imagine that sympathy for Bernier’s new party in Canada could exceed sympathy for UKIP.
Second, unlike UKIP, Bernier is unlikely to find policies other than immigration that gain traction with the electorate. In addition to running on opposition to immigration, UKIP was able to run on opposition to Britain being part of the European Union. The Brexit referendum demonstrated the popularity of such a stance. In contrast, the non-immigration issue on which Bernier differentiates himself from the Conservative party is supply management (a policy placing limits on the amount of dairy produced and imported to Canada to keep prices from falling too low). Bernier opposes supply management while the Conservatives, along with most major parties in Canada, support it. The problem with this policy for Bernier is that the voters that benefit from the policy (largely Quebec dairy farmers) benefit a great deal and therefore are willing to make it a top election issue. In contrast, voters that are hurt by this policy are only marginally hurt and are therefore unlikely to make it a major voting issue. As such, Bernier has fewer policies than UKIP that he can use to pull voters away from the Conservatives.
Finally, UKIP benefited from facing a Conservative party that was in power. When UKIP was at its strongest in 2010 and 2015, the Conservative’s strongest competitor, Labour, was quite weak. In 2010 Labour was coming off of a long period in office and was unpopular as a result. In 2015 The Conservatives had just spent 5 years leading a coalition government. In both years, the argument that voters had vote Conservative in order to keep Labour out of power was relatively weak, compared to prior elections. By comparison, Bernier is forming a party one election after the Liberals won a striking majority. While Trudeau has become less popular in government, it is unlikely that he is as unpopular as Labour leader Gordon Brown was in 2010. Because of this, the argument from Canadian Conservatives that right voters will have to stick together to keep the Trudeau Liberals from winning government will be powerful relative to its strength in Britain with respect to UKIP.
While the experience of UKIP suggests that Bernier’s party will struggle to win votes and seats, it would be deeply problematic to suggest that UKIP has not had a significant influence over British politics. The party contributed significantly to mobilization of voters around opposition to immigration, multiculturalism, and the European Union. It put these issues on the British political agenda in a way that split the Conservative party (as well as the Labour party to a lesser extent). Theresa May’s Conservatives are still struggling to find a balance of positions on immigration and to find a way to deal with Brexit in a way that can prevent the party from breaking apart.
Bernier’s new party could cause the Canadian Conservatives similar problems. The Conservatives, especially through the 2000s, were careful to reach out to immigrants and ethnic minorities. Such outreach was critical to the party’s success in swing ridings in suburban British Columbia and Ontario that have large numbers of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Without success in these ridings, the Conservatives cannot win elections. At the same time, there are significant numbers of anti-immigrant voters within the Conservative party. If Bernier starts to mobilize anti-immigrant voters around his new party, the Conservatives may end up caught between a rock and a hard place. They could co-opt Bernier’s anti-immigrant/anti-multicultural rhetoric. In doing so, they would like lose support in suburban swing districts. Alternatively, they could ignore Bernier, but in doing so, they risk losing anti-immigrant voters to his new party. Bernier can do a lot of damage to the Conservatives just but raising the profile of issues that split the party.
It is not clear whether Bernier will manage to build a party similar to UKIP. It is entirely possible that he will be unable to build the kind of organization that can run effectively in elections. If he does, the first past the post electoral system will make it difficult to translate what support he is able to win into seats. Failure to win votes and seats, however, may not prevent Bernier’s new party from having an impact on Canadian politics.