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This week's remarkable election in the United Kingdom offers some sobering lessons for Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. Voters are angry at the status quo but also afraid of change. Political parties that cannot navigate these powerful, conflicting currents risk being pulled under.

In many developed countries, populist protest parties of both the left and right are popping up, attracting voters who feel betrayed by the established parties. In Great Britain, left-wing nationalists swept Scotland, while the anti-immigrant UKIP (UK Independence Party) managed to snare 13 per cent of the popular vote.

That same discontent with the old guard that drove many voters to the Scottish National Party and UKIP drove voters in Alberta away from the Progressive Conservative dynasty and into the arms of both Wildrose on the right and, in greater numbers, the NDP on the left, taking Rachel Notley all the way to government. The Conservatives, Liberals and NDP federally should take note.

But voters also fear change. They know how hard it has been for governments to dig out from under the recession. They know how precarious their own situation is: one interest-rate hike away from a problem paying the mortgage; one layoff away from unemployment.

David Cameron's Conservatives relentlessly pounded the message that a radical, left-wing Labour minority government under the untested Ed Miliband would dismantle all Great Britain's gains this decade – growth in the U.K. is the fastest of any G7 country – while handing one concession after another to the separatist SNP.

Expect Stephen Harper's Conservatives to relentlessly pound the message that a tax-and-spend Liberal minority government under the untested Justin Trudeau would dismantle all of Canada's gains this decade – low taxes and a balanced budget – while handing one concession after another to the socialist NDP.

To counter that message, the Liberals have proposed a tax cut of their own for middle-income earners (and a tax hike for the rich), and are frugal thus far in spending commitments. And the NDP under Thomas Mulcair is anything but radical.

Will the Conservatives' message of fear work here as it worked for Mr. Cameron in Britain? Or will voters reject the aging Conservative government for one of the parties on the left?

It has become a common quandary, says John Wright, senior vice-president of Ipsos Global Public Affairs. Elections in Ontario and Alberta, Great Britain and Israel and France and elsewhere have been determined by two variables, he says: "the splintering of the parties," and "whether the left shows up."

Disenchanted progressive voters showed up in Alberta this week and in Ontario last year, taking Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne to victory.

But they stayed home on election night in Britain, driving Labour's vote down below where polls had it. They did much the same in recent elections in France and Israel, Mr. Wright observes.

As populist protest movements undermine traditional brokerage parties, the question is which side suffers more. Mr. Miliband lost because the rise of the SNP did more damage to his coalition than the rise of UKIP damaged the Conservatives.

Similarly, parties of the right in Alberta (Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives) collectively received more votes than the NDP, but they lost because the left was united and the right divided.

A huge advantage for Mr. Harper going into this fall's election is that progressive voters are divided between the NDP and the Liberals. For that reason, Mr. Trudeau may wish to act, and decisively, on the coalition question.

Mr. Mulcair has already pledged co-operation with the Liberals in the event no party wins a majority. Mr. Trudeau insists he could and would govern without the help of the NDP. But with the Conservatives endlessly warning voters against what they will portray as a reckless and dangerous Liberal-NDP coalition, Mr. Trudeau will need to address how he would handle the NDP in a hung parliament.

If fear of a Liberal-NDP coalition motivates voters to support the Conservatives, Mr. Harper should prevail. But if revelations coming out of the Duffy trial or other contretemps increase voter anger, driving leftish voters to the polls and keeping rightish voters at home, Oct. 19 could be a dark night for Mr. Harper.

His prospects are balanced between anger at his government and fear of the alternative. The situation for the NDP and Liberals is equally precarious.

Jack Layton famously declared politics should appeal to positive emotions. "Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear," the NDP leader wrote. No doubt that is true. But there does not appear to be a whole lot of love and hope to go around these days, in the old country or here.