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The ghosts of Canada’s 1993 Conservative wipeout hang over Britain’s election campaign

British politician Nigel Farage says he’s an admirer of how Preston Manning was instrumental in engineering the downfall of the former Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1993. In Clacton-on-Sea, he’s giving Manning’s blueprint a try.

In a faded British seaside resort, the story of Canada’s Reform Party gets a replay

Britain's Reform UK Party Leader Nigel Farage attends a campaign event in Clacton-on-Sea, Britain, June 18, 2024.

Rural Alberta may be a continent away from the faded British seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea, but Nigel Farage believes both places will be remembered for starting political revolutions.

Already a familiar face to Britons, Farage has injected some drama into an otherwise staid British general election that the Labour Party under leader Keir Starmer appears well on its way to winning.

Farage, instead, has set his sights on the Conservatives, transforming his political party, Reform UK, into a rising political force that appears to be siphoning off their votes.

"What we want to do is replace [the Conservatives] with something more positive," Farage told CBC News at a well-attended political rally earlier this week in Clacton, where he's running to be the next member of Parliament.

Reform UK is just the latest in a series of political vehicles invented by Farage over the past three decades that have aimed to disrupt Britain's political status quo.

He was the former leader of the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party that pushed for Britain to leave the European Union. After Britain voted to leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum, he created the Brexit Party to push for a no-deal Brexit.

Britain's Reform UK Party Leader Nigel Farage takes a selfie with a supporter following a campaign event in Clacton-on-Sea, Britain, June 18, 2024.

Though successful at securing seats in the 2019 European Parliament elections, the party didn't win any in the last U.K. general election that same year.

In 2021, after the final terms of departure from the EU were finalised, the Brexit Party was reborn as Reform UK. Farage has had seven failed attempts at securing a seat in Britain's Parliament, but his eighth attempt may be his best chance yet.

Since 2020, Reform UK has attracted a couple of high-profile defections from the governing Conservatives, but the July 4 vote will be its first major electoral test.

Likely best known for his anti-immigration policies, Farage has praised the political skills of Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though he said he "doesn't like him as a human being."

He also counts himself as a big admirer and friend of former U.S. president Donald Trump.

And, as he told CBC News in an interview in Clacton this week, he has great respect for former Canadian politician Preston Manning as well.

Modelled after Manning

"Huge, huge, huge," he said, when asked about how important the former leader of Canada's Reform Party has been in shaping his current campaign.

Farage's often-stated ambition is for Reform UK to eventually replace the mighty British Conservative Party, which has run the country for the last 14 years. He said his blueprint for doing so is modelled after what Manning did in Canada.

Campaign posters for Nigel Farage in Clacton.

Founded and led by Manning as a Western protest movement, Reform won its first seat in Canada's Parliament in a by-election in Alberta in 1989.

Manning campaigned on a populist agenda, which included creating an elected Senate, abolishing official bilingualism and broadly reducing the size of government. In the 1993 federal election, Reform stormed to prominence, winning 52 seats and replacing the Progressive Conservatives as the voice of Western Canada.

The Progressive Conservatives, which only nine years earlier under Brian Mulroney had won the largest majority in Canadian history, were reduced to just two seats. Even Prime Minister Kim Campbell lost her riding.

'Our Canadian cousins'

"I met Preston a few years ago," Farage told CBC News. "I watched what [Reform] did, and I set the Brexit Party up for a reason to complete the Brexit process and we were very successful — and [then] I rebranded it Reform UK, thinking very much of our Canadian cousins.

"In the end they sort of 'reverse took over' the old Conservative Party — they are the model. That's the plan."

After failing to break out from its Western protest roots, Manning transformed Reform into the Canadian Alliance, but he lost the leadership in the process.

Stephen Harper, who worked closely with Manning in Reform, eventually took over the party and led a merger with the remnants of the PCs, forming a new Conservative Party, going on to serve as prime minister of Canada for nine years.

Farage has not been shy of his ambitions to be prime minister by 2029. He said he intends to follow a similar blueprint as the Canadian Reform Party to usurp the British Conservatives, who he says have "betrayed' their voters.

"They've done it again and again and again, and in the end relationships break down," he said.

A packed auditorium at the Prince's theatre in Clacton came out to Nigel Farage earlier this week. He says his Reform UK is drawing large crowds as it seeks to overtake Britain's Conservative party as the voice of those on the political right.

But just how transferable Reform's Canadian experience is to U.K. politics is debatable.

While there are undoubtedly similarities between the trajectory of Farage's Reform and Manning's Reform, there are also key differences, said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

"This [Reform UK] insurgency does not have a geographical base in the same way that Reform in Canada had," he told CBC News.

That means that while Reform UK may end up attracting voters from across the country, in Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, without a concentration of votes, the party may not win many seats.

A high rate of 'Leave' voters

Also, even the worst-case scenarios for Rishi Sunak's Conservatives still have them surviving this election with dozens of members of Parliament — far from the wipeout that Canada's Progressive Conservatives experienced in 1993.

Clacton-on-Sea, an economically depressed community of 50,000, would seem to be a good fit for Reform UK. During the Brexit referendum, the area had one of the highest rates of "Leave" voters in the country.

It's also one of the oldest, whitest and poorest parts of England, demographics where populist messaging has tended to resonate.

Pamela and Kevin Denny on the promenade in Clacton-on-Sea. The couple says they used to back either the UK Labour party or the Conservatives but this election intend to support Reform UK.

On a pier jutting out into the North Sea, there's a ferris wheel and amusement rides, with faded and torn Union Jacks fluttering from flag poles.

Almost every person who spoke to our CBC News team said they intended to shift their vote from Conservative to Farage this election.

"Nigel is a breath of fresh air — he's someone you can believe in," said Pamela Denny, who was out with her husband, Kevin Denny, walking their dog along the boardwalk.

'It's got to change'

Both Pamela, historically a Labour supporter, and Kevin, a Tory voter, told us they would back Reform.

"Immigration, especially with the boats [crossing the English Channel] … needs addressing," she said. "You can't have the rest of the world arriving here because there's not enough infrastructure."

"Hope is dwindling with the other two parties and it's got to change," she said.

Kevin and Jane Cripps near the waterfront in Clacton. The couple says they intend to support Reform UK because illegal immigration is straining the country's ability to cope.

Many locals told CBC News they knew Farage from his decades-long crusade to get Britain out of the European Union — or from a stint on the reality TV show I'm a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, where he had to compete against other personalities to survive being stranded in a jungle.

"I met him in a pub, he was brilliant," said Kevin Cripps, who's on a disability pension. "He's a cracking man, and I mean, he's more for the people. He's a people person. He's got the gift of the gab … he's funny, he's a comedian. You can't help but like the guy."

Visits to local pubs have tended to play an outsized role in Farage's various political campaigns.

During his speech to supporters in Clacton, he joked that he had made a significant "self-sacrifice" by visiting 48 pubs in the constituency to talk to people.

"I sense we are the conversation around the country," he told the enthusiastic crowd.

'A lot of Farage on TikTok'

Local teenagers visiting the amusement arcades in Clacton said it was Farage's prolific social media videos that caught their attention.

"I've seen a lot of Farage on TikTok," said 19-year-old Mitchell Canfield. "I agree with a lot of the things that he says."

While a slew of recent polls have all pointed to a Labour blowout amid heavy Conservative losses — including the possibility that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak might not win his own seat — the picture is less clear for how Reform UK might fare.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to farmers as he campaigns on a farm near Barnstaple in North Devon, Britain, June 18, 2024. Public opinion polls show Sunak's party is headed for an historic loss in the July 4th election.

One Sky News breakdown of recent polling suggested Reform might win five seats. Another poll done for the Daily Telegraph said Reform support is spread so thinly that the party may not win any at all.

Bale, the politics professor, said because the U.K. election lacks drama, there may also be a tendency to overstate Farage's appeal.

More charisma than the others

"He is an incredibly good communicator, whatever you think of his politics," he said.

"And I think that obviously marks him out in some ways from the leaders of the two main parties who, whatever they are, couldn't be called charismatic."

Farage has an immense following on social media platforms, such as TikTok, where he counts more than 750,000 followers.

WATCH | Shadows of a Canadian election hang over U.K. vote:

Seismic U.K. election shift looming — memories of Canada 1993

1 day ago

Duration 8:09

Polls suggest the U.K.’s ruling Conservatives could face a major defeat in the upcoming general election, igniting comparisons to what happened in Canada in 1993. The National’s Adrienne Arsenault asks reporters Chris Brown and Rob Russo to break down the unlikely Canadian connection and what it tells us about the electorate now.

Ironically, Farage's greatest political success to date has come in the European Parliament, where he was elected and served for 21 years as part of the UK Independence Party, and later, the Brexit Party.

After Britain formally left the EU, Farage retired from politics in 2021, saying his job was done. But he changed his mind shortly after Sunak called the July 4 election.

At the Clacton event, he entered the Prince's Theatre to Eminem's hit, Without Me, the lyrics "Guess who's back, back again?" blaring from the sound system.

"I've come back out of retirement because I genuinely believe that Britain is broken and that Britain needs reform. Nothing works anymore," he told the crowd.

The pier at Clacton-on-Sea, where Nigel Farage is hoping to get elected to Parliament on his eighth try.

Reform UK's platform calls for sweeping tax cuts, a freeze on most immigration, scrapping all net zero environmental goals and removing so-called "woke" ideology from schools, such as the teaching of transgender issues.

But one of Britain's top independent fiscal watchdogs has labelled Farage's platform "problematic".

The Institute for Financial studies says all of his promises would cost far more than any new money Reform predicts will come in.

For Farage's supporters, however, such criticism is easily dismissed as more talk from an establishment that has repeatedly failed to deliver, especially on cutting immigration.

"Hope is dwindling with the other two parties [Labour and Conservatives]," said Pamela Denny, from the Clacton seaside promenade.

"It's got to change. Otherwise, people just won't go out and vote."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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