In Britain, after the Labour Party’s by-election defeat May 6 in what was once a safe seat, attention focused on the erosion of support for Labour among the working class. But the real story is the dominance of the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson.
In the United States, the political drama centred on Representative Liz Cheney, whose own caucus expelled her from the Republican leadership last Wednesday because of her criticism of former president Donald Trump. But despite Republican internal strife, the GOP is favoured to regain control of the House after the 2022 midterm elections.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals appear to be coasting toward another election win, despite the federal government’s muddled response to the pandemic and record-high deficits. The Conservatives are no more popular under Leader Erin O’Toole than they were under Andrew Scheer.
Why are conservatives dominant in Britain, competitive in the United States – despite Mr. Trump’s chaotic election loss – and struggling at the federal level in Canada? Part of it is stiff-necked British resistance to assimilation with Europe; part of it is white resentment of non-white immigrants in parts of the U.S.; part of it is Mr. O’Toole’s inability to expand the Conservative Party beyond its Prairie and rural base.
But part of it is inertia, a factor that pundits and political analysts tend to ignore, but that may be the most powerful political force of all.
Conservative prime ministers have occupied 10 Downing Street for 51 of the 76 years since the Second World War, or two-thirds of the time. In that same period, Republicans held the U.S. presidency for 40 years and the Democrats for 36. The parties are evenly matched. In Canada, Progressive Conservatives or Conservatives have governed for only 25 years, a third of the time. Federally, Conservatives win only when the public grows exhausted or exasperated with the Liberals.
Political parties are often powerful or weak because they have traditionally been powerful or weak. Talent flows to or avoids a political party based on an expectation of its success. Smart leaders or thinkers detect economic or social shifts and position the party accordingly, leaving the opposition flat-footed.
Of course, there is more to it than that. We can talk about the roots of the schism between New Labour and Momentum; about the shift in the American South to the GOP over the past half century, even as Hispanic, Asian and suburban voters drifted to the Democrats; about the 1917 conscription crisis and how it destroyed the Conservative Party in Quebec, and Stephen Harper’s success in creating a new Conservative Party out of its Reform and Red Tory wings.
In the federal election of 2011, the Conservatives established a large, stable coalition of voters that combined the Prairie and rural Ontario base with suburban voters, many of them immigrants, in Greater Toronto and Vancouver. Some of us believed that coalition could endure.
But inertia struck back. The Liberals found a saviour in Justin Trudeau; the NDP faded; the Conservatives returned to opposition and internal strife. In the short term at least, we are back to the postwar status quo.
Does anything ever change? Of course it does. The Bloc Québécois rose and fell and rose again in Quebec. Brexit might have realigned voting coalitions in Britain – though it seems to only have made things worse for Labour. Some of us still believe that federal politics in Canada is evolving toward one dominant party of the centre-right and another of the centre-left, and that the Harper governing coalition remains available to the Conservatives, if they have the good sense to seize it.
And there is something seriously wrong with the U.S. Republican Party. The GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. Donald Trump is both symptom and manifestation of a know-nothing populism that could keep the Republicans out of the White House for a very long time.
Most important, demography can trump inertia. Shifts in the makeup of a population, in its age, in where it moves to and from, can transform the political landscape.
But inertia resists transformation. The Tories are strong in Britain and weak in Canada. The Republicans and Democrats are about equal in strength in the U.S. Things change, but not quickly, or easily, or soon.