As the British Liberal Democrats sustain their surge in the polls during Britain's ongoing election, its time to reflect on what we, Canadian politicos, can learn from it.
To point out, most pundits are saying that the Liberal Democrat surge is real, but it won't be sustained at its current levels. Most agree that their support is coming mostly from "none-of-the-above" votes - aka voters parking their votes with a party that isn't of either old regimes. It's probably better that the British electorate is parking their vote with the Lib Dems, rather than, and God forbid, the BNP, or UKIP, who are usually apart of the "other" column, which has been getting squeezed with the surge.
But the Lib Dem surge is also coming from previously non-voters, as evident with this poll of marginal seats, where both Labour and Conservative vote declines don't correspond with the Lib Dem's big swing upwards. This means that previous non-voters are now becoming more excited at the prospect of a strong Lib Dem opposition, which is usually what happens in any sort of large electorate shake-up. Whether these non-voters were hidden Lib Dem supporters, or disenfranchised Labour and Conservatives, we have no way of really knowing. But, it's clear they're now coming out.
So what can Canadian politicians, politicos, and pundits learn from this?
Well, first off, we already have this sort of situation in our country, except it isn't as noticeable, since it stems from a fifth party - the Greens. No one can deny the large discrepancy between the Green's average polling and their popular vote. This is because Greens are most likely a "none-of-the-above" vote, than gaining any real support. With a lackluster government and an apathetic Opposition, I wouldn't blame them.
The New Democrats don't benefit from that disaffection because they are seen as the "old regime," even though they're in the same position that the Lib Dems are in the UK, vote and seat wise. The NDP, who have controlled governments in provinces, have made a big yet mitigated impact on the political scene (you can rely on them in a minority, but they aren't getting government), are seen pretty much the same way the Liberals and Conservatives are these days. The NDP also have the half-and-half benefit/problem of being a known face on the circuit, and have been exposed to the TV debates for years, while Clegg and the Lib Dems are a newly exposed brand, or at least one which has been more exposed than every before.
One thing we can take from this is that the Lib Dem support is bound to decline, just as the Green Party's support does. As election day nears, voters will become more strategic in their thinking, and even now some newspapers are calling for voters to "think with their heads," even though they want to vote Clegg in their hearts.
Another thing we should note is that when a none-of-the-above vote party surges, you need to tackle it head on. Stephane Dion and the Liberals, and to a lesser extent the other parties, didn't do this in 2008, and paid for it in a lot of ridings, where the increase in the Green vote managed to coincide with the decrease in the Liberal vote, or the difference in really close ridings between parties. It wasn't a direct vote transfer, but as non-voters and the disenfranchised looked to the Greens, the Liberals lost out.
What we shouldn't follow is David Cameron's lead on the "hung parliaments are bad" line. He's using this to try and take a slice off of the Lib Dem supporters who simply want Labour out, and won't mind a Conservative government. It won't work to any great extent, especially if the support is based more out of former non-voters than protest voters. If a party here says, don't vote Green so we can get a majority, I have a feeling it won't work too well.
Instead, follow what Gordon Brown is doing - tackling the Lib Dems head on. I don't agree with what Brown is saying, but he's giving a good fight that will hurt the Lib Dems more than Cameron's fear-mongering over hung parliaments. Show that this none-of-the-above party does indeed have an agenda, and that if you vote for them, simply on the basis that you don't like the older parties, you're risking putting people in power you really won't like. Present a platform, show that the old parties are old for a reason (we get the job done, most of the time), and give it your all. You won't get everyone, but you'll get a lot.
Finally, HAVE MORE DEBATES! The British election on their first try are having three debates, and that's just nationally - they've having almost 9 debates overall, three nationally and the rest in the devolved states, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This is key - Canada only has two debates nationally; one French, one English. We're not as big as the UK, nor as internationally involved, but we can use more debates. One for domestic issues, one for foreign policy, one for the economy, or whatever combination - but we need more. Two hours just isn't enough to cover all our problems. And why does Duceppe need to be in the English debate? The Bloc isn't a national party, they're a one-province-only party - let's make note of that, like the British have, denying the SNP and Plaid Cymru access to the national debates, and letting them have their own debates in their respective nations. This will ensure we get a much wider breadth of policy in, and expose the leaders to a little bit more glare. One's shift after the first debate could become one's decline after another. Let's make elections interesting, eh?
And that's all I can think of right now, at least until election day (May 6th). We'll see how the Lib Dems do, and what government the Brits end up with. My guess: Tory minority. David Cameron isn't that bad a of a guy, anyways. I just hope Clegg gets the consideration he deserves as a contender for Number 10.