Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Five Lessons from the By-Elections

Last night voters in Durham, ON, Calgary Centre, AB and Victoria, BC voted to replace their outgoing MPs. While the outcomes of the three by-elections were expected the vote totals were surprising. After reviewing the result and reading way too many columnists opine on the topic here are five lessons I think we can take away from last night.

Lesson 1 – By-Elections Don’t NECESSARILY Portend Future Events

By-elections are normally aberrations. They are a microcosm of political life taken in a snapshot. To begin with, turnout is dismally low. In each by-election less than half of the population voted. Averaging out all three and I believe you end up with a number in the mid-30% range. When the next general election comes around and that other (sadly only) 20% more of the public shows up it is unlikely to repeat in the same proportions.

Voters are not like political junkies and pundits. The provincial parties and federal parties blur in their minds, they are not always clear what the outcome of their by-election will be, nor do they recognize the political spectrum so sacred to obsessives. Unless a strong campaign is run, coupled with prominent local media the issues and the fact that there is an election may not permeate people’s everyday concerns about bills, work and the Grey Cup. For example, the provincial Liberals are in very different situations in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. Could that have played some role in the outcome? I think it may have.

Lesson 2 – The Left is Not Rallying Behind a Single Party

In the 2011 federal election Stephen Harper (CPC – Calgary Southwest) and the Conservatives won about 39% of the popular vote. Left-wing, or progressive voters saw that and with understandable disgust wondered how 61% of the population could vote for cente, left-of-centre or left-wing parties and yet we ended up with a right-wing government. I am not about to decry vote-splitting, fear not.

It is both the NDP and Liberal’s (and presumably Greens as well) dream to unite about 40% of the left-of-centre vote, as the Liberals did in the 1990s and 2000s, and form government again. It does not appear that the NDP and Liberals are making much headway on that goal if you study last night’s results. Instead it seems like they are building strength in respective regions and fighting for dominance in others. The NDP can win seats in Edmonton, and the Liberals can win seats in Calgary. BC looks like Orange country, while Ontario seems to be slipping into the Red zone.

Lesson 3 – The Greens May be the New NDP

The Greens are a small party with dispersed support across the country with a popular and effective leader. They are motivated by clear goals and are dedicated to the cause. This also describes the NDP before 2011. The other similarity is that the NDP was (and remains) very good at by-elections. Smaller, more cash-strapped parties like the old NDP and the Greens have trouble during general elections. They do not have the finances to do big events, and support local candidates as much as their big rivals. During a by-election though they can turn all their die-hards to a singular goal, pour money in and fight tooth and nail to win over votes. The NDP have two great examples of that. The Ontario NDP elected Catharine Fife (ONDP – Kitchener-Waterloo) in a long-held Tory seat, and Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) won his seat in a by-election in 2007 ending a NDP drought there for decades. The Greens have done, and will continue to do the same.

There’s something else here though, and I realized it when I was talking to a friend about voting. She lives in Durham and so I was busy nagging her to vote. She said she had a hard time choosing and I quipped, “When in doubt, vote Green”. It’s a simple answer but it also signals an important shift. The NDP used to be the party of protest and I think the Greens are steadily usurping that title from the Loyal Opposition. The NDP is now part of the establishment, and the Liberals still do not feel like outsiders. The Greens are a great place to park one’s vote and show displeasure in the status quo.

Lesson 4 – The Greens have Fertile Ground in Western Canada

While the Greens do not like to talk about whether or not they are a left- or right-of-centre party they do propose a number of reforms that would be put on the right side of the political spectrum. I think socially progressive, fiscal conservatives would find it easier to jump from Conservative to Green. The Greens’ positioning probably offers an appeal to the old Red Tories. Remember, Ms. May began her career in Brian Mulroney’s government. I think the Greens also offer a fresh alternative to British Columbians and Albertans. Over the past year environmental issues have been very prominent in Western Canada and Elizabeth May (GPC – Saanich – Gulf Islands, BC) has acted as a highly-skilled opposition politician. Both the NDP and Liberals are trying to straddle the line of appealing to a broader Alberta base and maintaining their green/environmental roots.

The Greens may adopt a similar strategy to the Conservatives while they were building towards their majority. The Greens can target ridings with constituencies that are attracted to their brand and establish “beachhead ridings”. Once they are won they can use them to expand outwards and repeat until a number of seats are considered “Safe Green seats”. This is how the Conservatives pushed into the 905 suburbs and broke into fortress Toronto. May’s seat borders Victoria, where the Greens nearly won last night. I would not be surprised if the Greens continue to make a strong showing there and elsewhere on Vancouver Island.

Lesson 5 – Urban Alberta Cannot be Counted on to Stay Blue

The addition of six new seats to Alberta in the redistribution process means that there are now ridings that are less rural and generally more urban. If you took a riding of Calgary Centre’s composition and put it in Ontario it would not be a safe Conservative seat. From my reading on the topic Calgary Centre sounds a lot like ridings in Mississauga to me. Those ridings recently flipped to Conservative but have a long history of voting Liberal before then.

The seat redistribution offers real targets in Edmonton and Calgary for the NDP, Liberals and perhaps now the Greens. Without the more right-wing influence of rural areas or suburbs they may start to break towards the progressive parties. If in 2015 the Conservatives win with 40+% of the popular vote almost all those Alberta seats are safe (perhaps Linda Duncan (NDP – Edmonton-Strathcona, AB) will survive), but if the Tories begin to slip a few seats will flip.


As I used to tell my students when I was teaching Civics, Canada does not have one election, we have 308 elections. In 2015 we will have 338. Each community is unique and though patterns can be identified the composition of local interests, demographics, candidates, political histories, and provincial forces will shape the outcome. If in 2015 Ontarians are experiencing bad times under a Hudak government the Harper Conservatives will suffer as a result, likewise for New Democrats in BC under Adrian Dix, or the inverse could be true.

In politics anything can happen. It’s that uncertainty that compels political junkies, pundits and ‘experts’ to try to find patterns. Ultimately we know nothing for certain, but I think those five lessons might have a little more permanence beyond last night.

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