Votes and Homes: Why Electoral Reform Matters to Housing Policy in British Columbia

This summer will be an interesting one in BC politics, especially for Attorney General David Eby.  His department is overseeing the development of the rules and question for BC’s upcoming referendum on electoral reform.  Both will play a role in whether the NDP and Green’s efforts to introduce proportional representation to BC will be successful.  At the same time, as the MLA for Vancouver Point Grey, Eby has become the target of protests over the NDP’s new levy on properties worth more than $3 million.  While these issues may seem separate, they are connected.  BC’s current first past the post electoral system makes it essential for the NDP and Liberals to compete over swing districts, including well-off ones like Vancouver Point Grey.  A move to a more proportional electoral system will reduce the importance of these districts, and as a result, the political cost of some of the housing and affordability policies the NDP are pursuing.

Electoral systems shape different voters’ influence over elections.  Under first past the post, where voters live will determine their influence over the election result.  Voters in ridings that one party dominates have limited influence over elections.  No matter who they vote for, it is very likely the dominant party will win the riding.  This is not the case for voters in competitive, or swing, ridings.  In these ridings, the increased competitiveness means a voters’ decision to switch their support from one party to another is more likely to affect which party wins the riding.  In proportional systems, the total number of seats in the legislature a party depends on the party’s vote share across the province, and so where voters live does not change their influence over election results.

The way that electoral systems shape the influence of different voters will affect the political consequences of the NDP’s housing policies.  The party made gains in the last few elections by winning seats in the west and south of Vancouver and in the suburbs.  These ridings include Vancouver Point Grey and Vancouver Fairview (though this riding also has a significant number of low income voters).  The NDP’s future success may depend on the party making gains in similar ridings such as Vancouver False Creek.  Several swing ridings will have significant numbers of home owners likely to be affected by increases in property taxes and other policies designed to bring down housing prices.  Meanwhile, lower housing prices and other programs that make BC’s cities more affordable will disproportionately benefit voters in low income ridings, such as those on the east side of Vancouver (one might think of Vancouver Mount Pleasant and Vancouver Kingsway here).  These are ridings that the NDP already wins by large margins.  Essentially, policies that impose costs on well-off homeowners are likely to hurt the NDP in the swing ridings they need to win power, while winning them votes in ridings they already win by large margins.  These may be good policies, but they are risky politics.

Electoral reform offers the NDP a way out of this problem by reducing the importance of votes in swing ridings relative to those in low income NDP strongholds.  Under such a proportional system, NDP losses in places with large numbers of wealthy home owners, such as Point Grey, could be offset by gains in low income areas of the province such as Mount Pleasant.  This would be the case even if those gains came in parts of the province that they already win by large margins.

This challenge is not unique to British Columbia.  Low income voters in many countries tend to be geographically concentrated in working class urban ridings, while middle and high-income voters tend to be more spread out.  Under first past the post electoral systems, this produces a dynamic where key swing ridings tend to be more well-off than the average and median individuals in a particular country or province*.  As left-wing electoral coalitions shift to include alliances of low-income and well-off cosmopolitan urban voters the extent to which left parties are reliant on urban upper middle-class swing ridings is likely to only increase.  In turn, this will increase the political costs faced by left parties that try to put in place policies that benefit low income voters at the expense of high income ones.

It is unlikely that the NDP are pursuing electoral reform specifically because of the political impacts of their housing and affordability policies.  There is too much uncertainty around the prospects of electoral reform, and the policies are too far apart on the government agenda for this to be the case.  At the same time, these policies highlight the ways in which electoral reform can matter to politics in ways that go beyond determining the numbers of seats each party has in the legislature.  They shape the incentives parties have to respond to different voters and the political risks parties take by implementing different policies.  As a result, it is important to think about the way that electoral reform has implications for policies that impact housing and affordability.

* For more on this it is worth looking at Rodden, Jonathan (2010). “The Geographic Distribution of Political Preferences.” Annual Review of Political Science. 13:321-340.


Did the BC Liberals Get the Right Leader? Comparing the BC Liberal Candidates’ Success in Ridings to Liberal Margins

The race to replace Christy Clark as BC Liberal leader concluded this month with Andrew Wilkinson defeating Dianne Watts on the final ballot.  Both Wilkinson and Watts have connections to the Lower Mainland, where a large number of swing ridings from the last election are located.  Wilkinson is the MLA for Vancouver Quilchena while Watts was the MP for South Surrey White Rock Cloverdale prior to being mayor of Surrey.  This suggests that both have an ability to build Liberal support in one of the more competitive areas of the province.  It is worth examining the relationship between these candidates, as well as the others, with the success of the Liberals in different ridings in the past two elections.  While success in swing ridings in a Liberal leadership race will not necessarily translate into success in a general election, it demonstrates that the leader has support amongst the partisans that will play a vital role in winning the ridings that the Liberals will need in the next election.  The three strongest leadership candidates, Watts, Wilikinson, and Michael Lee all did quite well in the ridings that were competitive in the last election, suggesting that all three will have an important role to play if the Liberals are to be successful in the next election.

Like the federal Conservatives, the BC Liberals use a riding based points system to determine their leader.  Each riding in the province is worth 100 points and each candidate wins 1 point for every 1% of the vote they win in each riding.  The party also uses a preferential ballot.  To win a candidate must have at least 50% of all available points.  If after one round of counting no candidate has a majority of points, the candidate with the fewest points is eliminated and their votes are moved to that candidates’ voters’ second choices.  This system allows me to compare each candidate’s level of support in a riding to the BC Liberal’s margin of victory of defeat in the past two elections (with winning margins counted as positive margins and losing margins counted as negative ones).  Redistricting between the 2017 and 2013 election makes this comparison more difficult for the 2013 election, but fortunately Pundit’s Guide BC has estimated 2013 vote shares for the 2017 riding boundaries.

On the first ballot Michael Lee and Dianne Watts had a significant advantage in close ridings.  The two graphs below show the average support for each candidate in ridings that the Liberals either won by 10% or less or lost by 10% or less.  The first graph looks at ridings which were close in 2017.  The second looks at ridings in which the average margin between the 2017 and 2013 elections was close.  Lee and Watts are more or less tied in ridings that were close in 2017 while Watts is the stronger candidate by two percentage points in the ridings that had a 2017/2013 average margin that was close.  This suggests that it will be important for the Liberals to keep both active in the party in the run up to the next election.  Both were able to mobilize substantial amounts of support in ridings the party will need to win to be competitive in the future.

Support in Ridings Close in 2017

Support in Close Ridings (2017, 2013 avg)

Though the first ballot demonstrates that Lee and Watts did well in Liberal swing ridings, the final ballot shows that Wilkinson also has support in these ridings.  On the final ballot Wilkinson averaged a 1 percentage point lead in ridings that were close in 2017 and almost a 2 percentage point lead in ridings that had a close average margin between 2017 and 2013.  While Wilkinson certainly needs to reach out to Lee and Watts supporters in order to win in competitive ridings, he is not completely dependent upon them.

A comparison of Wilkinson’s and Watts’ support across all ridings shows divergent trends.  The graph below shows Wilkinson’s support was higher in ridings in which the Liberals did better in 2017 compared to ridings in which they did worse.  By contrast, Watts did better in ridings that the Liberals did in worse in than she did in ridings where the Liberals did better.  However, Wilkinson tended to do better than Watts regardless of how well the Liberals did in a riding.  There is a substantial gap between Wilkinson’s and Watts’ vote share in the ridings clustered around the 0 Liberal margin in the graph.  This further demonstrates that Wilkinson has substantial support in competitive ridings.  Watts’ vote shares are also substantial, and so her supporters cannot be ignored, but Wilkinson will not be reliant on them to win close ridings either.  Both sides will have to work together in order to be competitive.

Last Ballot Spport Compared to Liberal Success

Of the three strongest candidates not to make it to the last ballot (I omitted Sam Sullivan because of his low vote share across all ridings), Michael Lee stands out as the strongest in close ridings.  Lee’s support goes up as the Liberal margin of victory decreases, and there is a bit of a gap between Lee and the other two candidates in the ridings that the Liberals either won by a narrow margin or lost.  Both Mike De Jong and Todd Stone did better in ridings where the Liberals were stronger than they did in ridings where the party was weaker.  Stone’s average support only passes Lee’s in ridings where the Liberal won by over 30 percentage points, while De Jong is stronger than the other two candidates in only a handful of ridings.  This highlights the particular need for Wilkinson to reach out to Lee’s supporters.  They make up substantial shares of Liberal supporters in close ridings, while Stone’s and De Jong’s supporters tend to be concentrated in ridings that Liberals already win by substantial margins.

First Ballot Support Compared to Liberal Margin

The BC Liberals were lucky in that all three of their top candidates posted good showing in the ridings that they were close in in 2017 and 2013.  As such, a victory by any of the three candidates would have put them in decent position to contest the next election.  Assuming that the election is contested under a first past the post electoral system (which may not be the case), the party will need supporters of all three to work together in order to ensure the party is competitive in swing ridings across the province.


It’s Complicated: As British Columbia Embarks on a Debate Over Electoral Reform It Is Important to Pay Careful Attention to the Complexity of the Debate

This fall British Columbia will have a referendum on electoral reform.  The government is currently conducting consultations, and both advocates and opponents are making their voices heard on the matter.  Despite the subject’s complexity, nuanced viewpoints are disappointing rare in debates over electoral reform.  Advocates of proportional representation tend to suggest that it can fix all of democracies problems, from increasing voter turnout to increasing women’s and minorities’ representation, to making government’s more representative of the population.  Opponents suggest that proportional representation will ruin democracy, paving the way for the emergence of extremist parties and the creation of legislatures with so many parties that functional government becomes impossible.  Much of this debate misses the complexity that is involved with electoral reform.  No electoral system is perfect, all involve making trade-offs, and the extent to which an electoral system accomplishes any particular goals depends on the details regarding the way the system is designed.  British Columbians should pay careful attention to these trade-offs and details.

An essential thing to consider when debating electoral systems is the trade-offs that need to be made when deciding between systems.  Every electoral system has its costs and benefits.  Advocates of proportional representation often point to disproportionality as one of the central problems with first past the post, and are right to do so.  It is problematic that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals can win a majority government with 39% of the vote under a first past the post system.  The small proportion of the vote needed to win a majority creates further problems as it incentivizes parties to focus their campaigns disproportionately on a narrow groups of swing voters that live in swing ridings.  The fewer the number of voters needed to win a majority, the lower the incentive parties have to run broad-based campaigns that reach across the electorate.  By ensuring that a parties’ vote share equals its share of the national vote, proportional systems give parties incentives to reach out to swing voters across the electorate, not just to those that live in swing districts.

At the same time, first past the post electoral systems ensure voters have local representatives that they can vote out of office and increases the likelihood that majority governments will be elected.  Variations on proportional systems such as mixed member proportional or single transferable vote (STV) can create space for regional representation within proportional systems, but they either dilute regional representation by adding members of parliament (MPs) elected off of party lists or dramatically increase the complexity of the system making it harder for voters to understand.

Because it is rare that a party ever wins more than 50% of the popular vote, proportional systems inevitably reduce the likelihood of the election of a majority government.  There are merits to minority and coalition governments, as they force parties to work together in government.  At the same time, coalitions can be difficult to form if a large number of parties win election to a legislature (as has been the case in both Germany and the Netherlands after recent elections in both countries).  They can also be unstable, as Israeli coalitions often are.  In some cases, minority governments and coalitions work very well, reflecting the views of a broader range of voters better than majority governments do.  In others, they can be unwieldly and unstable.  It is hard to tell which will be the case until one sees how a particular set of parties works under a particular electoral system.

Opponents of proportional representation will often to point the fact that such systems make it easier for extremist, particularly far-right, parties to enter a legislature.  These claims are generally true as proportional systems usually make it easier for small parties of all types to win seats by reducing the number of votes a party needs in order to win their first few seats.  At the same time, one should not over-state the extent to which first past the post guards against such extremism.  The Front National, UK Independence Party (UKIP), and Donald Trump have all demonstrated that far-right parties and candidates can be successful in first past the post or similar systems (France uses a run-off system that is different from first past the post, but is not a proportional system).  Extremist movements that end up forming their own parties in proportional systems often find their ways into mainstream parties in first past the post systems.  The Canadian Conservatives, for example, saw far-right leadership candidates in Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney.  Significant numbers of Euroskeptic anti-immigrant voters in Britain that may have supported UKIP in a proportional system have found their way into the British Conservative party.  First past the post systems can make it harder for extremist movements to form their own parties and win seats in a legislature, but they cannot erase such views from society nor can they prevent them from having any influence on politics.

Finally, proponents of proportional representation often argue that such systems increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in legislatures.  This is only partially true.  Whether a proportional system increases the representation of women often depends on the design of the system and the importance different political parties attach to women’s representation.  It is certainly true that countries with proportional systems such as Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands have some of the highest proportions of women in their national parliaments in the world.  At the same time though, proportional systems in Ireland, Israel, and Slovakia have not kept those countries from having lower levels of women’s representation that non-proportional systems in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom (here is a full ranking of countries with their electoral systems noted).  Ethnic minorities in British Columbia and Canada might have a more difficult time getting elected to parliament if either switches to a proportional system.  First past the post creates districts in places like suburban Vancouver with large numbers of immigrant and ethnic minority voters.  The need to win these seats gives parties strong incentives to be responsive to minorities’ interests and to run minority candidates.  Under a proportional system the number of these ridings would be reduced (in order to allow for the list seats needed to make parties’ seats proportional) or would disappear entirely.

The details regarding how electoral systems work are also important.  There is a tendency amongst both advocates and opponents of proportional representation to divide systems into proportional and non-proportional systems with little reference to how different proportional systems work.  This is problematic because some of the effects of proportional systems will depend greatly on the design of the system.  The extent to which voters will be able to remove MPs they do not like and the level of party discipline will change depending on whether British Columbia adopts an open or closed list system.  Open lists provide voters with the opportunity to choose which MPs will enter parliament for a party, closed lists allow the party to make such a determination.  The decision whether to adopt a party list, mixed member proportional, or single transferable vote system will also shape the incentives MPs have to represent constituents in local ridings.  In list proportional systems, all MPs are elected off of a party list, giving them limited incentives to respond to be concerned with local issues.  In mixed member proportional, around half of MPs come from ridings similar to first past the post ridings, giving some MPs some incentive to be responsive to local concerns.  In single transferable vote, all MPs come from ridings that elect multiple members.  To get elected, MPs must compete, not only with candidates from other parties, but with their own parties as well.  The need to differentiate themselves from other candidates from the same party gives MPs in STV systems particularly strong incentives to be responsive to local concerns and makes it easy for voters to remove MPs they do not like.  Indeed, MPs elected under an STV system may even be more responsive to local concerns than those elected under a first past the post one.

Public debates over electoral systems are challenging.  They are highly complicated, require voters to make careful trade-offs, and require that voters understand highly technical details regarding how different electoral systems work.  At the same time, they are essential.  It is problematic to allow politicians to choose the rules that they compete under with no public input. One of the challenges that British Columbians will face in the run up to the referendum will be carefully understanding how each system works and the trade-offs involved with each electoral system.  In the interests of having a productive debate advocates of different systems should be cognizant of the importance of trade-offs and the details of the different systems when making the case for different electoral systems.


Right/Left Splits: Gains from the Smaller German Parties Came from the Expected Larger Parties

Last September’s German election produced interesting results.  The election created a Bundestag with 6 parties, more than any election since WWII.  This has made coalition formation difficult as the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) Angela Merkel failed to build a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens, and is now trying to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SDP).  Part of the reason that coalition formation in Germany is so difficult after this election is that both the CDU and SPD lost significant shares of the vote to small parties.  The CDU dropped from 41.5% of the vote in 2013 to 32.9% in 2017, while the SPD dropped from 25.7% to 20.5%.  In light of this, it is interesting to look at which smaller parties have benefited from the declines in the two major parties.  When one looks at where the CDU and SPD have lost votes, it appears that each of the smaller parties benefited from the larger parties’ decline, though the AFD did particularly well in districts where the CDU or their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost significant amounts of the vote.

I took advantage of Germany’s mixed member proportional system to examine the way that votes shifted from larger to smaller parties in the last election.  Like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Germany is divided into districts (known in some countries as ridings or constituencies) for elections.  Unlike in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, German voters get to vote both for a district representative and party that they prefer.  The candidate with the most votes in the district enters the Bundestag as the representative for that district, but additional members are also added to the Bundestag from party lists in order to ensure that each party’s total number of seats is equal to its share of the party of vote.  To examine shifts in vote share I looked at the way that voters’ party vote shifted in different districts, comparing the losses in the two main parties to the gains made by the smaller parties.  I used voters’ party vote and not their vote for district representative, because party votes are less likely to be subject to strategic considerations (district representative votes for weak parties are more likely to be seen as wasted than party votes) and because party votes are less likely to be influenced by the quality of the candidate being run in the district.  In all of my analysis, I look at the change in party vote share between the 2017 and 2013 elections.

The strongest differences with respect to where a minor party gained votes exist for the AFD.  The graph below compares the change in vote for the two largest parties to the change in vote for the AFD in each district.  Districts that saw AFD gains between 10 and 20 percentage points saw much larger declines in CDU/CSU vote shares (in black) than SPD vote shares (in red).  Where the AFD’s gains were weaker (between 5 and 10 points), the CDU/CSU’s and SPD’s losses where much closer to each other.  This suggests that the AFD is pulling more votes from the CDU/CSU than from the SPD.  This fits with the way that the AFD has challenged Merkel for her openness to receiving refugees during the Syrian refugees crisis.  At the same time, the fact that the AFD made gains in districts that saw similar CDU/CSU and SPD losses suggests that it is plausible that the AFD took at least some votes from the SPD.

Change in AFD, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote by District

The party with the next greatest divide in gains from the CDU/CSU and SPD is the far-left Die Linke or Left party.  The graph below shows that where Die Linke made gains, CDU/CSU and SPD losses where fairly similar.  CDU/CSU losses were greater than the SPD’s, but that is likely due the fact that the CDU/CSU losses in general where greater than the SPD’s.  This should not be seen as evidence that the Die Linke is drawing a large number of voters from the CDU/CSU.

Change in Die Linke, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote

Interestingly, the districts that Die Linke lost most in are also the districts that the CDU/CSU suffered their heaviest losses.  It is plausible, though more evidence would be needed to prove this, that the AFD has managed to appeal to disillusioned voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.  Voters who voted for Die Linke in 2013 out of disillusionment with the mainstream parties may have seen the AFD as plausible alternative to mainstream parties in 2017.  While Die Linke and the AFD have very different anti-establishment appeals, Die Linke’s is economic and anti-capitalist while the AFD’s is anti-immigrant and anti-European integration, it is plausible that anti-establishment voters would shift between the two parties.  This may have occured if AFD was able to increase the salience of immigration and European integration issues at the expense of the economy.  In such circumstances anti-establishment voters may shift from Die Linke as the economic anti-establishment party to the AFD as the anti-immigrant anti-Europe anti-establishment party.  This is supported by the graph below, which shows that the districts that saw the largest declines in the Die Linke vote also saw the largest gains for the AFD.

Changes in Die Linke and AFD Vote

It is finally notable that the differences between who the two mainstream smaller parties took votes from are less pronounced.  The first graph below shows that the FDP did slightly better in districts where the SPD lost more votes and where the CDU/CSU lost slightly less, but these differences do not appear to be particularly significant.  The second graph below shows that the size of SPD losses appeared to have no correlation at all with the change in the Green vote, though the party did do slightly better in districts where CDU/CSU losses where larger (the size of the Green gains in these districts however is only two of three points).

Change in FDP, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote by District

Change in CDUCSU, SPD, and Green Vote by District

The greatest damage done to the two German mainstream parties in 2017 was done by the AFD.  Their growth disproportionately affected the CDU/CSU, suggesting that they are a greater threat to the CDU/CSU than to the SPD.  At the same time, the SPD also lost votes in the districts where the AFD saw gains.  While the SPD should feel less threatened by the AFD than the CDU/CSU, it is not necessarily the case that they face no threat at all from the party.  Far-right parties around Europe have been able to take votes from anti-immigrant left-leaning voters who perceive immigration and the European integration as a threat.  This should lead the AFD to be able to take at least some votes from the SPD, even if they take a larger number from the CDU/CSU.  The gains that the AFD made at the expense of the CDU/CSU mean that, as Angela Merkel attempts to navigate her through coalition talks, she will have to pay particular attention to the threat the AFD presents to her party.


What We Don’t Know: Some Care Has to be Taken When Anticipating the Consequences of Electoral Reform

Electoral reform is on the political agenda again in British Columbia as the Green supported NDP government has committed to holding a referendum on proportional representation (PR) in 2018. As expected, this has produced contentious debate between advocates and opponents of PR.  The examples used by each side of this debate are predictable.  Advocates of PR point to Germany and sometimes Sweden as examples of how such systems can produce stable, effective, and inclusive governments.  Opponents point to countries such as the Netherlands and Israel as examples of how PR can produce large numbers of parties, unstable governments, and coalitions beholden to fringe parties.  There is some truth to both claims.  Debates over electoral reform require individuals to make guesses as to what will happen in future elections.  This, like much of politics, involves making decisions based on uncertain estimates as to what will happen in the future.

A common argument against proportional representation systems is that they lead to the creation of large numbers of parties, unstable coalitions, and governments that can only hold power if they satisfy the wishes of extremist fringe parties.  The Netherlands and Israel are often pointed to as examples of this.  The last Dutch election saw 13 parties win seats in parliament, the largest of which won just 22% of seats.  It then took 225 days to form a coalition government that included four different parties.  Israel’s last election saw 10 parties enter parliament, the largest of which has just 25% of seats, and features a coalition government with 6 parties.  The coalition includes a nationalist pro-settler party (Jewish Home), a secular nationalist party (Yisrael Beiteinu), two moderate right parties (Likud and Kulanu), and two religious parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism).

It is not clear whether proportional representation in BC or federally would create a party system like the Dutch or Israeli ones.  Proponents of PR point out that a threshold can be used to keep out the weakest of small parties.  A threshold of 4%, however, has not prevented Sweden’s last election from producing a parliament with 8 parties and a weak centre-left minority government coalition that is reliant on support from the centre-right to stay in power.  Indeed, coalition instability in PR systems is not as much a result of the entrance of really small parties as it is the weakness of the largest two parties.  The 5 or 6 parties that win between 5% and 15% of the vote are the parties that create the instability in both Dutch and Israeli coalitions.

The emergence of a large number of parties in PR systems is often driven by the extent to which there are a large number of political cleavages in the country.  This is particularly the case in Israel where divisions over left/right politics, security, ethnicity (both between Arabs and Jews and between Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi Jews), and degree of religious observance create space for a wide-range of parties that can all claim to represent different groups of Israelis.

It is hard to imagine that BC and Canadian federal politics would become as divided as Israel, but there may be enough divisions to substantially increase the number of parties competing in elections.  It is plausible that the BC Liberals breaking into a more centrist and fiscally conservative party and a more socially conservative, rural party.  One can also imagine a rural/urban split threatening the NDP’s cohesiveness.  At the federal level regional as well as ideological divides could threaten the stability of Canada’s parties.  The Conservative party could break into more fiscally conservative and socially conservative wings, similar to what was seen with the split between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform in the 1990s.  This could be exacerbated by divides between Western and Ontario/Quebec Conservatives, particularly over issues related to the accommodation of Quebec.  The NDP may also have problems holding together Quebec supporters that might have different views on multiculturalism than the rest of the country and voters that differ on the extent to which they want the NDP to move to the centre in order to win votes.  In both British Columbia and in federal politics it is not hard to imagine the emergence of a far-right party in a PR system given that almost every European country has seen the emergence of such a party.

On the other hand, advocates of PR often point to Germany as a case where PR has produced quite stable governments.  Germany is not an isolated case.  Indeed, many of the countries that are now used as examples of how PR can create unstable governments and party systems have had stable governments under such systems in the past.  Israel was governed by relatively stable Labour led coalitions from its creation in 1948 to 1977.  Italy, which now has so-called “pizza parliaments” with large numbers of parties, was governed by Christian Democrats from the end of WWII to the early 1980s.

There are good reasons to believe that both BC and Canada could end up like Germany.  Canadian parties have a long history of brokering regional and ideological differences.  They are also likely to have a strategic incentive to continue to do this.  Larger parties are more likely to be able to form government.  Even in a PR system, a group of left or right parties that are too fractured may end up conceding government to parties on the other side of the political spectrum.  It is entirely possible that even if regional break-away parties do form that they could be incorporated into permanent alliances with one of the major parties.  This has happened in Germany where the Christian Democratic Union is in a permanent alliance with the Christian Social Union (a party that only runs in Bavaria).  The two parties do not run candidates against each other and always work together in parliament and in government.  Similar arrangements might develop if the NDP breaks into Quebec and rest of Canada factions or if a Western faction were to break away from the Conservatives.

It is finally worth noting that this uncertainty over the future of Canadian parties and government is not limited to proportional representation systems.  Electoral systems do not have to change for party systems to.  Canada saw its party system fracture as a result of regional tensions in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It is entirely possible that debates over multiculturalism and religious accommodation could create divides between parties in Quebec and the rest of Canada that fracture the Liberal party or NDP, lead to the emergence of a new nationalist party in Quebec, or lead to the revival of the Bloc Quebecois.  The emergence of the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform party in 1993 demonstrates that the first past the post electoral system does not completely protect a party system from insurgent parties (even if it can often make life more difficult for them).  The ability that far-right Republicans such as Donald Trump to gain Republican nominations demonstrates that first past the post systems are not immune to far-right politics.  As much as one should be uncertain about how BC or Canadian politics might change if either adopted a proportional representation electoral system, there is also some uncertainty that would exist if either decides to keep a first past the post electoral system in place.

Uncertainty is a necessary part of politics.  It is impossible to know for certain what the effects of a change in electoral system will be, nor is it possible to say for certain that a first past the post electoral system will ensure stable governments and keep far-right parties out of politics.  With respect to proportional representation there are plausible cases to be made that the adoption of such a system will lead to a stable party system and stable governments similar to Germany (as PR advocates argue), or that such system will lead to more fractured government and party system similar to the Netherlands or Israel (as opponents of PR argue).


Just How Conservative Is Alberta?

The NDP’s 2015 Alberta election win surprised many. The Social Credit and then the Progressive Conservatives had ensured that right wing parties had governed Alberta since 1935. Alberta’s politics have been complicated by vote splitting on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Through most of the 1990s and 2000s the Alberta Liberals and NDP split the non-conservative vote, making the left look weaker than it actually was. In 2015 the opposite was the case. The Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance split the right wing vote making the NDP look stronger than it was. With the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance uniting to form the United Conservative Party, and a Liberal resurgence looking unlikely, it is probable that just two parties will dominate the 2019 Alberta election. This makes understanding exactly how many centre-right and non-conservative voters there are in Alberta particularly important. A break down of the vote for centre-right and centre-left parties going back to 1982 shows that Edmonton tends to lean towards non-conservative parties while the rest of the province votes for centre-right parties. This being said, centre-left parties have consistently won substantial shares of the vote outside of Edmonton.

To look at the break down of the non-conservative and right wing vote in Alberta I compared average vote shares across ridings for centre-left and centre-right parties in 5 regions of the province: Calgary, Edmonton, Northern Rural Alberta, Central Rural Alberta, and Southern Rural Alberta. A list of which ridings fit into which regions can be found here (Ridings and Regions). The Alberta Party, the Liberals, and the NDP vote shares were combined to create a left (or non-conservative) vote share for each riding. I take an inclusive approach to categorizing parties as left parties because of the extent to which Alberta politics has often pitted centrist and leftist non-conservative parties against dominant right parties. The Progressive Conservative, Wildrose Alliance, Alberta Alliance, Social Credit, and Western Canadian Concept parties were combined to calculate the centre-right votes (each of these parties won a significant vote share in at least one election between 1982 and 2015 though several have since become defunct).

The two graphs below show the average riding vote share of left and right parties in the five regions from 1982 to 2015 (the graph for right parties is essentially a mirror image of the graph for left parties). The most striking feature of the graphs is the strength of non-conservative parties in Edmonton. Non-conservative parties take an average of at least 50% of the vote in the city in every election except for 1982 and 2012 (and it is notable that in 2012 Allison Redford positioned the Progressive Conservatives as a centrist alternative to the more right wing Wildrose Alliance). When the Progressive Conservatives have been particularly unpopular, in elections in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the early 2000s, and 2015, the non-conservative vote share in Edmonton has broken 60%.

Combined Left Vote

Combined Right Vote

In contrast to Edmonton, the rest of the province has consistently voted for right wing parties. Only in 1989 in Calgary and 1993 in Northern Alberta do non-conservative parties average over 50% of the vote outside of Edmonton. The success of the conservative parties outside of the capital city fits with most people’s perceptions of Alberta politics as being particularly conservative.

The strength of the conservative vote outside of Edmonton should not be overstated, however. There are a substantial minority of non-conservative voters in every region outside of Edmonton (as there are a substantial number of conservative voters in Edmonton). With the exception of 1982 and 2012 the left vote outside of Edmonton tends to be either higher than or around 30%. In other words, in most elections in Alberta slightly fewer than 1/3 Albertans outside of Edmonton vote for a non-conservative party. Even though left parties have struggled to win seats in many of these regions, they are far from homogenously conservative.

These vote shares have important implications for the future of Albertan politics. They show that both the Progressive Conservative/Wildrose Alliance dominance outside of Edmonton and the NDP gains there in 2015 are, in part, artefacts of the way that first past the post electoral treats parties when they split the vote with a similar party. When the NDP and Liberals were splitting the non-conservative vote there was not enough non-conservative support to elect MPs outside of the centre of Calgary and the odd seat in Lethbridge. However, when the non-conservative vote unified behind the NDP and the conservative vote split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance, there was enough support to elect a substantial number of MPs. Though the left vote share outside of Edmonton went up in 2015, it was not any higher than it had been in the early 1990s. The NDP made historic gains outside of Edmonton because they were able to unify left voters and because conservative voters were divided, not because the NDP was able to dramatically increase the left vote share outside of Edmonton.*

The implications for this for 2019 are that the NDP will struggle to hold in to many of its seats outside of Edmonton. A united Conservative party will end the vote splitting that handed the NDP a substantial number of rural and Calgary seats in 2015. This being said, the fact that the left vote (barring a sudden resurgence of the Liberals) is likely to remain unified behind the NDP should offer the party some protection. 30-40% of the vote outside of Edmonton, if it is distributed correctly, should allow the party to hold on to at least some seats outside of the capital. Conversely, even with the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance unified, the strength of left support in Edmonton should allow the party to hold on to many of its seats there. Though the United Conservatives are well placed to challenge the NDP for government, the absence of a vote split on the left should prevent the party from dominating the province the way the Progressive Conservatives did through much of the 1990s and 2000s.

* It should be noted that one of the reasons there is a spike in the non-conservative vote in 2015 is because it was very low in 2012. It is important not to look just at the increase in the vote between 2012 and 2015 but also at where the non-conservative vote was in 2015 relative to elections prior to 2012.



Tougher Than One Might Think: Trudeau May Have a Difficult Time Keeping His Majority in 2019

The election of Jagmeet Singh as leader of the NDP this past Sunday set the line-up for the 2019 election. Both of the major national opposition parties have selected new leaders, as has the Bloc Quebecois. To this point, it has often been assumed that the Liberals stand a good chance of maintaining their majority in the 2019 election. They have been doing well in the polls, the NDP has struggled to attract national media attention, and Andrew Scheer looks unlikely to be able to run the kind of charismatic campaign that Trudeau did in 2015. The Liberals’ path to a majority in 2019, however, is more difficult than it first appears. After a very poor result in 2015 that was in part a result fatigue with their time government, the Conservatives are due for a bounce-back election. At the same time, the selection of Jagmeet Singh as leader puts the NDP in a good position to compete for the support of many of the progressives that gave the Liberals their majority in 2015.

Winning back-to-back majority governments is a difficult task. Since 1953, only two Prime Ministers have done this, Jean Chretien in the mid-1990s and Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. Both successes came under fairly unique circumstances. Chretien was fortunate to face little in the form of national opposition. The split on the right between the Reform/Canadian Alliance combined with the historic weakness of the NDP allowed Chretien to take between 98-101 seats in Ontario between 1993 and 2000. Brian Mulroney swept to power in 1984 on half the popular vote and was able to hold on to power in 1988 by casting himself as the pro-free trade candidate against a anti-free trade opposition that was divided between the Liberals and the NDP. It is notable that while Mulroney held on to his majority, he saw his share of the popular vote decline from 50% in 1984 to 43% in 1988.

Justin Trudeau’s circumstances are not nearly as favourable. Unlike Mulroney, Trudeau does not have much of a cushion to work with. Trudeau won his majority with just 39% of the popular vote. Since 1900, only Chretien in 1997 has won a majority with a lower vote share. To add to this, it has been a century since a Prime Minister has been able to increase their vote share after winning a majority government for the first time (Robert Borden did so in 1917, largely because his support of conscription won him the overwhelming support of English Canadian voters).* Majority governments have trouble increasing their support because they will inevitably be unable to follow through on all of the promises they made during an election, and that is bound to alienate at least some of their supporters. Governing also requires making difficult decisions that will make at least some people unhappy. Indeed, after the post-election spike in Liberal support, current polls have them a little under 39%, slightly lower than where they ended up in the 2015 election. As the new Conservative and NDP leaders become more well-known, and as being in government forces the Liberals to make more controversial decisions, one might expect that it is more likely that Liberal support over the next two years will fall rather than rise. Given the Liberal vote share in 2015 and where they are in the polls now, any substantial drop in support is likely to put their majority in jeopardy.

Trudeau also cannot benefit from a split right vote, nor NDP weakness, both of which were instrumental in Chretien’s victories. A united Conservative party under Scheer should be able to regain some of its support. Since 1957, a united right party in Canada has won 31% of the vote or less in just three elections, 1968, 2004, and 2015. This suggests that there is plenty of room for the Conservatives to grow in 2019. While Scheer does not have the charisma of Trudeau, he has a policy profile and approach to politics that looks a lot like the one Harper used to consistently grown the Conservatives vote share between 2004 and 2011. In 2019 he will also be free of the some the baggage the Conservative accumulated over their time in government. While this may not be enough to put the party government, one should expect the Conservatives to take back a significant number of seats.

Trudeau also has to contend with a serious left wing threat in the NDP. Despite the disappointment with its performance in 2015, the party still managed almost 20% of the vote. This is a much stronger party than the one Chretien faced in the 1990s, when the NDP fluctuated between 7% and 11%. Even when Trudeau was polling at close to 50% in 2016, the NDP was closer to the 15% that it won under Jack Layton in 2004 then to the 11% that it won under Alexa McDonough in 1997. Barring a significant collapse, the NDP should be strong enough in 2019 to do at least one of two things. If Singh is able to get the party back to 20% (or higher), he should be able to push the Liberals to a minority by taking seats from them. If the NDP stays around where they are in the polls, the strength of the party should still draw enough non-Conservative votes from the Liberals to allow a resurgent Conservative party to take seats from the Liberals.

It is worth noting that Jagmeet Singh is particularly well positioned to challenge the Liberals. He is an Ontario politician with strong support in the Greater Toronto Area and a history of fighting for the rights of visible minorities. This is likely to make him a strong candidate in the suburban Toronto and suburban Vancouver ridings that the Liberal party needed in 2015 to win their majority. Throughout the 2000s the Liberals and NDP have been fighting over the support of urban progressive voters. This fight is likely to continue in 2019, and with Singh heading the NDP, it is far from clear that the Liberal can win it to the same degree that they did in 2019. This makes it particularly likely the NDP will draw enough votes from the Liberals to reduce them to a minority.

In 2019 the Liberals will have to fight a two front election. On one hand they will have to contend with a resurgent Conservative party led by a Harper-like politician that does not have all of the baggage of the near decade of Harper government. On the other, they will face a progressive NDP well-positioned to challenge the Liberals in many of the urban and suburban ridings the Liberals need to win in order to maintain their majority. When one combines this with the likely decline in support that comes to most parties after a leader’s first majority government, it is hard to see anything but a difficult road to a majority for the Liberals in 2019.

* Jean Chretien increased in vote share in 2000 after winning a majority government in 1997. His vote share, however fell in between his first majority win in 1993 and his second in 1997.