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NDP Leader Jack Layton spars with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper during the English-language election debate in Ottawa on April 12, 2011. (ADRIAN WYLD/AFP/Getty Images)
NDP Leader Jack Layton spars with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper during the English-language election debate in Ottawa on April 12, 2011. (ADRIAN WYLD/AFP/Getty Images)

Does Layton's rise mean more Tory majorities? Add to ...

For generations, New Democrats have looked longingly at Britain and wondered when Canada would send its Liberal Party to permanent opposition and allow social democrats to become the second major party.

The 1922 watershed was the election in which the Liberals split into factions loyal to H.H. Asquith and David Lloyd George, allowing Labour to become the opposition and the Conservatives to win victory.

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Another election the next year left Labour in a strong position and in 1924, the Liberals were pushed down to just 40 seats as the electorate polarized between a working class Labour Party and a middle class Conservative Party.

The result was realignment.

Realigning elections are when the coalitions supporting political parties permanently shift, creating entirely new dynamics that drive the politics of the country. They can happen suddenly in a single election, or more gradually over twenty years.

Famous examples are Richard Nixon's " Southern strategy" to get white Southern voters moving from the Democrats to the Republicans in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. It smashed the Roosevelt Democrat coalition and allowing the GOP to hold the presidency for seven of the next 11 terms.

Jeffery Simpson notes the similarities between the "Strange Death of Liberal England" in the 1920s and the current crisis facing the Liberal Party of Canada in today's Globe. What Simpson didn't talk about was the implications of the realignment in Britain in the 1920s.

Prior to the realignment, the Liberals had been the primary force for social progress in Parliament. Liberals laid the foundations of the welfare state with the People's Budget of 1909. Liberals ended the power of the House of Lords. Liberals introduced health and unemployment insurance. And they were electorally successful, governing for the majority of the previous 50 years under Gladstone, Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith.

Part of this was due to the growing clout of progressive liberalism in the early 20th century. Part of it was due to electoral pressure from a snappy little third party calling itself Labour that was scaring the willies off the middle class but beginning to get some appeal with working men. Like the NDP in Canada, Labour at the turn of the century served as a Parliamentary pressure group that drew the centre to the left.

But the realignment of the 1920's changed British politics. The Liberals were replaced by Labour as the dominant progressive party, while the Conservatives grew and became the dominant party of the middle class, and of Parliament.

Just as the Liberals governed Canada for the majority of the past hundred years, so have the Conservatives dominated post-realignment Britain. In the 89 years since the 1922 election, the Conservatives have held power for 53. That's a 60 per cent record, much better than they were doing in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Labour frightened the middle class, and was less electorally competitive than the Liberals as the major progressive party. They had one period of fundamental reform following the Second World War, but couldn't sustain an appeal to the middle class until New Labour in the 1990s, which some social democrats equate with Tory lite.

When they did get into power, they did so through pragmatism and compromise that infuriated the true believers in their midst. They would quickly be sent back to the opposition benches, never winning two successive majorities until Blair.

Ralph Miliband, a social democrat intellectual and father of the current Labour Leader, wrote a book saying their shift to a compromising party of government undermined their earlier status as an electoral machine that pulled the Liberals to the left, and pulled the entire party system to the right. In essence, he argues Labour's buying into the parliamentary system preserved and strengthened the capitalist system, creating the conditions for neo-liberalism to become the dominant paradigm.

In contrast to this electoral struggle, the Conservatives, previously the party of the aristocracy, were able to rapidly gain share with the middle class, and become the dominant party in Britain. They won several successive majority governments, critical to sustaining conservative reforms and making them unassailable to quick reversal by Labour. Under Thatcher, Major and Cameron, Conservatives have prized austerity and fundamentally altered British society.

New Democrats rejoicing in their new poll standings should consider the implications of their success. If Britain is any guide, the result will be more Conservative majorities, not less. And for anyone who has progressive values, that's a bad thing.

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