Who Benefited from the Collapses? A Comparison of Labour and Conservative gains from UKIP and the SNP

This June’s British election saw a surprise as Theresa May’s Conservatives, who were expected to increase their majority at the beginning of the campaign, lost their majority and almost lost government altogether. The election was seen as a success for Corbyn’s Labour party and an utter failure for May’s Conservatives. What is notable, however, is that the vote for both the Conservatives and the Labour party went up compared to 2015. May’ proportion of the vote was 5.5 percentage points higher than Cameron’s in 2015 while Corbyn’s was an impressive 9.6 points higher than Milliband’s. In contrast, both the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) lost large numbers of votes. May did not lose the Conservative majority because she won fewer votes than Cameron, she lost because Labour was able to increase their vote share to a greater degree than the Conservatives were.

This suggests that Labour was able to take votes from the collapsing UKIP. UKIP had a disastrous election, losing its only seat and dropping over 10 percentage points in the popular vote. Part of the narrative around Labour’s rise and UKIP’s collapse is that Labour was able to win back working class, anti-immigrant voters who defected in 2015. A look at where UKIP lost votes and where Labour and the Conservatives made gains, however, suggests that the Conservatives benefited more from UKIP’s decline than Labour did. The more UKIP lost in a riding, the closer Conervative gains where to Labour ones.

The graph below shows compares the gains of both Labour (in red) and the Conservatives (in blue) to UKIP losses. Each x marks the change in percentage points for either Labour or the Conservatives in a particular riding, while the line provides the overall trend. Labour tended to pick up votes in a riding regardless of whether UKIP suffered significant losses. There is a slight increase in the Labour vote share as UKIP losses increase, but it is only slight. In contrast the steeper trend line for the Conservatives shows that the more UKIP lost in a riding the more successful the Conservatives were. Where UKIP lost 0-10 percentage points the Conservatives tended also to lose support (though there were a substantial of ridings where UKIP losses were close to 0 and the Conservatives made substantial gains). In contrast, almost all of the ridings in which UKIP lost more than 10 percentage points saw Conservative gains, many of them quite substantial.

Labour and Conservative Gains Againt UKIP Losses

This is not to say that Labour did not make gains in ridings in which UKIP suffered substantial losses. Like the Conservatives, Labour only suffered losses in a couple of ridings in which UKIP lost over 10 percentage points of the popular vote. There is, however, a much larger gap between the two parties in the ridings where UKIP losses are low. The more UKIP losses in a riding, the closer the Conservatives come to catching up to the Labour party’s gains. In the vast majority of ridings the Conservative gains never fully catch up to Labour’s gains (though the one riding in which UKIP saw losses of over 30 percentage points, Clacton, saw a much larger Conservative gain than a Labour one).  The gap between Conservative and Labour gains is much smaller, though, in ridings where UKIP lost over 15 percentage points than in ridings where the UKIP vote dropped by fewer than 15 percentage points.

While this suggests that Labour might have taken votes from UKIP, the UKIP decline was more important to Conservative success than Labour success. The fact that Labour made large gains regardless of whether riding saw a substantial UKIP collapse suggests that Labour was able to take votes from other parties (or that they were able to mobilize large numbers of previous non-voters). Indeed, UKIP’s collapse may have done more to hurt Labour than to help it. Had UKIP not lost large numbers of votes, the Conservatives may not have been able to make the gains that they did in the ridings where UKIP vote declined by more than 10 percentage points. A larger gap between Labour and Conservative gains in these ridings may have handed a number of seats that Conservatives won over to Labour.

The same dynamics do not appear to apply to the SNP in Scotland. The graph below shows that the Conservatives made substantially larger gains than Labour regardless of how much the SNP lost in a riding. Labour did slightly better in ridings where the SNP did worse as compared to ridings where SNP losses where limited, but the increase in Conservative vote share appeared to be unaffected by SNP losses. The result is a reasonably consistent gap between Conservative and Labour gains throughout Scotland.

Labour and Conservative Gains Against SNP Losses

The Labour party’s success in the 2017 election was remarkable. It is particularly notable that Labour did not need to see large UKIP losses in a riding in order to make significant gains. This suggests that, while Labour probably did win over some former UKIP voters, they also had other sources of support. The Conservatives, meanwhile seemed to be much more reliant on making gains from UKIP losses, suggesting that the fortunes of UKIP have a much greater impact on the Conservatives than on Labour.

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The Moderates, the Social Conservative, and the Far-Right Candidate: A Look at How the Different Conservative Leadership Candidates did in Different Ridings (Part 2)

The Conservative party’s leadership race produced two significant candidates whose extreme views are likely to concern progressives. On one hand, Kellie Leitch’s anti-immigrant rhetoric scared many into believing that the far-right anti-immigrant movements that have been on the rise in Europe and North America were making their way to Canada. On the other hand, Brad Trost raised concerns about the potential for the strong social conservatives that had a great deal of influence over the Reform party and Canadian Alliance would start to influence the Conservatives. In contrast, Michael Chong’s centrist campaign attracted the support of many progressives seeking to influence the race, while Erin O’Toole ran a campaign that was more conservative than Chong, but less extreme than Leitch or Trost.

In my last post I looked at how the two strongest candidates, Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier, fared in the swing ridings the Conservatives will need to win if they want to get back into government. In the post I will compare Leitch, Trost, Chong, and O’Toole’s results in these ridings. This comparison can provide some indication of which of the weaker candidates Scheer should make a special effort to include within the party leadership. Like with the last post, it is important to remember that the general electorate will be very different than the electorate that voted in the leadership race. At the same time, the leadership race results can give some indication of which candidates are better organized and in a better place to deliver votes in the ridings that are likely to determine the next election results. A look at the different candidates’ success suggest that O’Toole and, to a lesser extent, Trost, are the stronger candidates in swing ridings.

The graphs below show the relationship between the support each of the four candidates won in the leadership race and the Conservative margin of victory or defeat in 2015 (the first graph) or average margin between the 2015 and 2011 elections (the second graph). While Chong and Leitch do the best in ridings that Conservatives did the worst in, their support drops quite quickly as the Conservatives get closer to winning a riding. In both the graph that looks at the 2015 margin and the graph that looks at the average margin O’Toole is the strongest candidate by the point at which Conservatives are within at least 25 percentage points of winning a riding. Brad Trost moves to being the second strongest of the four shortly after. Both Chong and Leitch are especially weak in the ridings in which the Conservatives had the largest margins of victory.

Relationship Between 2015 Margin and First Ballot Vote

Relationship Between Average Margin and First Ballot Vote

That Chong and Leitch did so poorly in both competitive ridings and Conservative strongholds suggests that, while they were able to generate a lot of news coverage, they were not able to build strong bases of support in the ridings that the Conservatives need to win elections. This suggests that the inclusion of both O’Toole and Trost in key leadership positions is more important to success than the inclusion of Chong and Leitch. Chong’s moderate campaign, while it caught on with progressives, failed to win over many Conservatives in swing ridings or strong holds. Leitch’s anti-immigrant rhetoric also failed to gain traction with these voters.

It is particularly worth looking at the different levels of support the Leitch and Trost were able to win. As an anti-immigrant candidate, Leitch represents the nationalist conservativism that is rapidly growing in much Europe and the United States, while Trost represents a more traditional social conservativism, which has been common in past conservative parties in Canada such as the Reform party or Canadian Alliance.

The two graphs below show that Trost’s social conservativism is more popular in swing ridings and conservative strong holds that Leitch’s anti-immigrant conservativism. Each red x represents Trost’s support in a riding in the first leadership ballot while each green x represents Leitch’s support. In both the graph that looks at 2015 margins and the graph the looks at the average 2015 and 2011 margin, there are far more red xs in the top middle of the graphs than green xs. This indicates that there are a large number of close ridings in which Trost did well in the leadership race than ridings in which Leitch did well.

Support for Leitch and Trost on the First Ballot (2015 Margins)

Support for Leitch and Trost on the First Ballot (Avg Margins)

In my last post I wrote about how, despite the close race for leadership, Andrew Scheer, had been stronger than Maxime Bernier in the swing ridings that the Conservatives need to win in order win future elections. Of the next four candidates, it appears that O’Toole and Trost are the strongest candidates in swing ridings. Both of these results bode well for moderate and traditional Conservatives in Canada. Compared to Bernier’s libertarian candidacy, Scheer’s looked very similar to Stephen Harper’s. Amongst the other four candidates, the more moderately conservative O’Toole and socially conservative Trost did significantly better than the very centrist Chong or the anti-immigrant Leitch. These results suggest that in swing ridings and Conservative strongholds the next Conservative campaign will look a lot like previous campaigns and that the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of Leitch’s campaign and the centrism of Chong’s will have a less prominent role in Conservative politics.

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The Right Leader? A Look at How the Different Conservative Leadership Candidates Did in Different Ridings (Part One)

A couple of months ago the Conservatives chose Andrew Scheer as their new leader. They did so using an electoral system that gave equal weight to Conservative members across all ridings. In the leadership race, candidates received points based on the percentage of vote that they won in each riding. Candidates were eliminated until one, Scheer, had won at least 50% of the available points. This system is designed to ensure that the leader the party chooses has support across the country, not just in Conservative strong-holds. An examination of where Scheer won votes shows that he did better in ridings that were more Conservative than in ridings that were less Conservative. At the same time, he was still more popular than his closes rival, Maxime Bernier, in the ridings that were swing ridings for the Conservatives in the last two elections.

The two graphs below show the percentage of the vote that Andrew Scheer won in each riding on the final ballot count (which included just Scheer and Bernier) compared to the margin of Conservative victory or defeat in 2015 and to the average Conservative margin in 2015 and 2011. Both graphs show that as the Conservative margin of victory increases, so does support for Scheer. Initially one might see this as concerning for the Conservatives. To win an election, the party needs to reach beyond their base of support and win votes in ridings that they lost in 2015. Electing a leader with support primarily in safe seats could limit their ability to do that.

Support for Scheer on the Second Ballot (2015)

Support for Scheer on the Second Ballot (2015:2011 Average)

The upward sloping relationship between Scheer support and Conservative margin of victory is less of a concern if one looks just at the ridings that have a Conservative margin of victory around 0. These are the crucial swing ridings that Conservative have to win if they are to get back into government in 2019. In these ridings Scheer performs remarkably well. The trend line in his support crosses the 50% mark very close to the point at which the Conservative margin of victory goes from positive to negative, suggesting that round half of voters in such ridings preferred Scheer to Bernier.   The large number of ridings in and around 0 with respect to the Conservative margin of victory in which Scheer had more than 50% of support on the last ballot also suggests there are a substantial number of close ridings in which Scheer had a great deal of support. While the graphs show that Scheer is more popular in Conservative strongholds than in the rest of the country, they also suggest that he is reasonably popular amongst Conservatives in swing ridings as well.

Bernier’s support follows the opposite trend. The larger the Conservative margin of victory, the worse Bernier did on the final ballot. The trends in both the graph that looks at 2015 and the graph that averages 2015 and 2011 show that Bernier did the best in ridings where the Conservatives did the worst. This may not, however, suggest, that Bernier has a better ability to expand Conservative support to new ridings than Scheer. The ridings in which Bernier did the best are ridings where the Conservatives lost in 2015 and in 2011 by quite large margins. He does ok in the swing ridings clustered around a margin of victory of 0, but there is no indication that he did any better than Scheer. While Bernier is unlikely to alienate Conservatives in swing ridings, it does not appear that he is particularly popular amongst them either.

Support for Bernier on the Second Ballot (2015 Average)

Support for Bernier on the Second Ballot (2015:2011 Average)

The strength of Scheer in safe Conservative ridings and swing ridings is confirmed when one looks at average support in both sets of ridings. The two graphs below show the average support for Bernier, Scheer, and a few of the other stronger candidates in ridings where the Conservatives won by at least 10 percentage points in 2015 and in ridings where the Conservatives averaged a 10% percentage point win between the 2015 and 2011 elections. While Bernier led after the first ballot count in both groups of ridings, when he was competing against only Scheer on the final ballot, he lost by an average of just over 10 percentage points.

Support in Ridings Won by 10% or More (2015)

Support in Ridings Won by 10% or More (2015:2011 Average)

Bernier did better in swing ridings (defined here as ridings where the margin of victory for the Conservatives was between -10% and 10%), but still lost to Scheer by a substantial margin on the final count. Rather than the gap between the two candidates in these ridings being 10 percentage points, it was 5. These graphs make clear that Bernier was able to make the race for leadership close because of his strong support in ridings that Conservatives lost by substantial margins in 2015 and 2011. In ridings where the Conservatives have strong support, or where the Conservatives where competitive, Scheer was the preferred candidate.

Average Support in Close Ridings (2015)

Average Support in Close Ridings (2011:2015 Average)

One should take these analyses with a grain of salt. Having strong support amongst Conservatives in a riding does not necessarily mean that a candidate will be able to win over non-Conservative voters in the riding. It will be interesting to see whether Scheer will be able to turn his support in the leadership race in close ridings into support for the Conservatives in the next election. Support in the leadership race, however, should matter to the 2019 election. Leadership candidates have to build organizations in ridings to win votes, sign up new members who they hope will not only support them in the leadership race but in the general election as well, and motivate Conservative supporters to volunteer and to vote in the general election. The results of the leadership race suggest, that when it comes to swing ridings, Scheer is in a slightly better position to do these things than Bernier is.

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The Declining Importance of the Left/Right Spectrum and its Consequences for Left Parties

Two weeks ago, liberals and progressives around the world breathed a sigh of relief as Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen by a healthy margin in the French Presidential election. The victory of a pro-European, pro-immigration centrist re-assured many concerned that last year’s Brexit referendum and American Presidential election were harbingers of a global rise in far-right populism. While Macron’s victory is indeed reassuring, it is also notable that the run-off portion of the French election was fought not between a traditional centre-left candidate and centre-right candidate but between a centrist globalist and a far-right nationalist, neither of who came from France’s traditionally strong political movements. This fits with a broader trend in politics in which the traditional left-right divides that have structured politics in industrialized countries since the second world war have declined in importance. As this has occurred, issues surrounding national identity and globalization have become more important. This has presented a significant challenge to traditional left parties.

Like all political movements, left parties are a coalition of groups with somewhat different interests. Many left parties are alliances of working class and socially progressive voters. They have been able to appeal to working class voters by championing wealth redistribution, promising increased funding for a wide range of social programs, strong minimum wage laws, and protection of unions’ rights. They have been able to appeal to socially progressive voters by supporting feminist, multicultural, LGTBQ, and anti-racism movements. When traditional left-right issues have dominated politics this coalition has been stable.

The increase in the salience of immigration and globalization, however, threatens the left coalition’s stability. Significant numbers of working class voters see increased immigration as a threat to their jobs and access to social services. Far-right parties have been able to take advantage of this perceived threat. Both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen had success in working class areas that had previously supported left parties. These working class voters perceive globalization as a threat to their well-being. On the other side of left parties’ traditional alliance, socially progressive voters are largely supportive of immigration and, in many cases, stand to benefit from increased global integration. The British Labour party, in particular, faces a challenge when it comes to finding a balance between the positions its pro-globalization and anti-globalization voters support. Both a significant number of Labour ridings that voted to leave the European Union and a significant number voted to stay.

Left parties that have to compete on both the traditional left-right and the immigration/globalization dimensions of politics end up caught between a rock and a hard place. If they take strong anti-immigrant and anti-globalization positions they risk losing their socially progressive pro-immigrant voters as well as moderate urban voters that benefit from globalization. Increasingly these voters have options beyond traditional left-wing parties. Across Europe, green parties have emerged as socially progressive pro-immigration and multicultural parties that stand ready to benefit if left parties fail to defend issues important to their socially progressive voters. The success of the Dutch Green-Left party in this year’s election (they finished 5th with more votes than any of the other left parties) highlights this. Increasingly, moderate liberal parties such as Emanuel Macron’s En Marche or the Dutch D66 appear to be viable options for moderate left voters unhappy with a traditional left parties’ opposition to globalization.

If, however, left parties take strong positions in favour of globalization or free trade, they risk losing significant numbers of working-class anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters to far-right nationalist parties. It is not an accident that far-right parties from France, to the Netherlands, to Sweden link their anti-immigrant views to concerns over employment or over a country’s ability to continue to fund generous social programs. These claims, however misguided they are, are attempts to win over working class voters that have traditionally supported left parties. Recent elections in Europe and in the United States suggest that they have been successful in doing so.

The difficulty of holding their traditional electoral coalition together can explain why left parties have been struggling in recent elections. Neither of Europe’s most recent elections were kind to left parties. In the Netherlands the Labour party finished in 7th with only 6% of the vote, a decline of 19 percentage points from their total in the prior election. In France, the Socialist party Presidential candidate failed to win more than 7% of the vote and was never considered a serious threat to win the Presidency. In Britain, there is little indication that the Labour has much of a chance of winning government. This is all part of a broad trend that I wrote about earlier this year where left parties’ vote shares have be declining steadily of the past four decades. The more important to elections immigration and globalization become, the more difficulty left parties are likely to have holding their traditional electoral coalitions together, and the more likely the decline in left support is to continue.

The changing political environment will force left parties into some difficult decisions about what they want to be. They will have to face a choice about what side of immigration and globalization issues they want to come down on. Whichever side they take, they are likely going to lose a significant group of voters. This will make it more difficult for left parties to try to challenge for government on their own. Rather, they will have to build alliances with other, and in many cases, stronger parties. Left parties that decide to hold on to their socially progressive positions will have to work with moderate liberal parties. These moderate liberal parties are winning pro-immigration and pro-globalization voters from both left and right parties, and will likely force the traditional left parties that collaborate with them to move somewhat to the right in order to accommodate some of their voters. Traditional left parties that decide to take anti-immigrant or anti-globalization are likely to lose some of their more socially progressive and moderate urban voters to green and moderate liberal parties, and will struggle to find allies amongst other parties. If left parties are going to maintain their socially progressive values and continue to influence government, they are likely going to have to work with moderate liberals such as Emmanuel Macron.

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How Much of the Election Could Green Voters Have Changed?

In the wake of a very close election in BC it is worth considering the effect that strategic voting might have had. The rise of the Green party had many leftists in the province concerned that the Greens and NDP might split the vote and allow the Liberals to win several ridings. After the election, it is possible to check to see which ridings might have changed parties had there been more or less strategic voting. A look at the results shows that, because the election was so close, strategic voting could have changed the result. It is important, however, not to overstate strategic voting’s impact. Had the seat difference between the Liberals and NDP been in the range of 5-10 seats, it is unlikely that such voting would have mattered.

The first question that arises with respect to strategic voting, is whether the NDP could have taken more seats from the Liberals had more Green supporters switched their support to the NDP. To test this, I looked at the percentage of Green voters that would have needed to move to the NDP in order for the NDP to match the Liberals’ vote percentage in any particular riding. When doing this I assume that the remaining Green voters stick with the Green party.

The graph below shows that a large number of Green voters would have had to move to the NDP in order to have anything more than a minimal impact on the number of seats that Liberals won. The NDP would have added only two seats to their total had 20% of Green voters switched to them, and only 3 more seats had 40% switched. In addition to this, Green switching to the NDP would have increased the safety of two ridings, Coutney Comox and Mission Maple Ridge, that the NDP barely won and which could switch to the Liberals after absentee ballots are counted or after a re-count. The NDP would have had to win 80% of the Green vote in order to flip 10 seats. For this to happen, the overwhelming majority of Green voters would have had to both prefer the NDP to the Liberals and would have had to decided to vote strategically.

Green Vote Needed to Increase NDP Seats

It is also worth considering the impact that individuals who strategically voted in this election might have had. To do this I looked at the number of NDP seats that the party would have lost had various percentages of NDP voters chosen to vote for the Greens instead.

This analysis also shows that strategic voting had a limited impact on the result. If the NDP lost 5% of its vote, it would only lose two seats. These are the two extremely close seats that may still change hands when absentee votes are counted, Courtney Comox and Mission Maple Ridge. If the NDP lost 10% of its vote, it would lose 3 seats, and if it lost 20% of its vote it would lose 8 seats. If 20%-30% of the NDP vote came from Greens voting strategically, strategic voting affected a large number of seats in this election. Otherwise, Green strategic voting only affected the outcome in couple of seats.

Seats the NDP Would Lose if Their Voters Switched

Because this election was so close, even things that had a small effect on election results mattered. When one or two seats that are decided by less than 1 percentage point make the difference between a majority and a minority government there are a large number of things that affect an election. In such a close race, strategic voting in close ridings matters. In Courtney Comox, Mission Maple Ridge, Coquitlam Burke Mountain, Richmond Queensborough, Vancouver False Creek, and Fraser Nicola the decision over whether to strategic vote mattered. In most other ridings, however, it likely did not.

This has two major implications. First, voters should be very careful to check the competitiveness of their ridings before strategically voting. In a close election, a strategic vote in a close riding can have a critical impact on the election result. In most ridings, however, a strategic voter may not be getting much out of such a vote. Second, moving to an electoral system such as a ranked ballot or run-off that allows voters to, in effect, cast a sincere and a strategic vote (by expressing multiple preferences on her ballot) are unlikely to change election results all that much. Unless 30% of NDP voters are actually Green supporters strategically voting for the NDP, there are few ridings where the Greens would be competitive under a ranked ballot or run-off system. Strategic voting is not a magic bullet that can fix the disproportionality of first past the post electoral system, nor is it a powerful force denying smaller parties like the Greens seats.

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A Divided Electorate: Even though the Overall BC Result was Close, Few Ridings Were

The 2017 BC election was very close, so much so, that it is still unclear as to whether Liberals have won a majority or whether the province is in a minority situation. Absentee ballots from close ridings such as Courtney-Comox and Maple Ridge Mission will determine whether the Liberals will win the 44 seats needed for a majority. There is a paradox in this election’s results though. Despite the fact that the overall race was very close, few ridings were. This election had more uncompetitive ridings (where the margin victory was greater that 10 percentage points) than the 2013, 2009, or 2005 elections. This highlights a problem in BC politics as it gives politicians an incentive to narrow the focus of their campaigns to a small proportion of the electorate.

The graph below shows the percentage of all ridings that were competitive in each of the last four elections in BC. The blue bars show the percentage of ridings where the difference between the first and second place candidates was 5 percentage points or less and the red bars the percentage of ridings where it was 10 percentage points or less. It is remarkable, that if the current results hold, only 8 percent of ridings (7 total) were decided by a 5 percentage point margin. This was the case even though the rise of the Green party threatened to make several previously safe NDP seats on Vancouver Island competitive. Three of these ridings were very close. Coquitlam Burke Mountain, Courtney Comox, and Maple Ridge Mission have margins that are currently within 1 percentage point, and the winner in these ridings may change after absentee votes are counted or after a re-count. Richmond Queensborough, Vancouver False Creek, Fraser-Nicola, and Vancouver Fraserview were also had margins of five percentage points or less on election night. The margin of victory in most other ridings, however, was fairly substantial

BC Competitive Ridings

The large number of ridings that are uncompetitive is concerning. Parties have incentives to tailor both their campaigns and their policies to competitive ridings. A party has little incentive to be highly responsive to the interests of individuals in ridings it has no chance of winning. Similarly, a party has a reduced incentive to take into account the interests of those who live in ridings that it is almost certain to win. Increasing one’s margin of victory in a safe seat has no impact on a party’s strength in the legislature. As the number of competitive ridings becomes smaller, parties have an increasing incentive to narrow the focus of their campaigns and policies to the few ridings that will determine the outcome of the election. This leaves more and more voters’ interests unaccounted for. In particularly close elections like this one, where a few very close ridings can determine who forms government, parties’ campaigns can end up being highly targeted at swing ridings. This hurts the representation of voters who live in safe seats.

An examination of where competitive ridings are in the province highlights how this can be problematic. The graph below shows the percentage of races in each region that had margins of victory of 5 percentage points or less in different parts of the province*. It demonstrates that there is a great deal of variation in competitiveness across regions. In Burnaby and New Westminster half of the races between 2005 and 2017 had margins of victory of 5 percentage points or less. In Victoria proper (excluding suburbs such as Saanich or Oak Bay), no races in any of the past four elections have been that competitive.

Percent of Ridings With 5% (2005-2017)

When one looks at ridings that had margins of victory of 10 percentage points or less, there is still a great deal of regional imbalance. Suburbs around Vancouver (Burnaby and the area around Coquitlam- PoCoMo in the graph), Chilliwack and Fraser Valley, the ridings surrounding but not in Victoria (Saanich and Oak Bay), as well as the Southern ridings in Vancouver are all reasonably competitive. Other parts of the province such as Langley and Abbotsford, Victoria proper, and the North part of Surrey are almost completely uncompetitive.

Percent of Ridings With 10% (2005-2017)

The distribution of competitive ridings has implications for public debate and policy. Parties have little incentive to emphasize issues and to pass policy that speak to parts of the province that are not competitive. It can be a challenge, for example, to try to get parties to properly address something like the fentanyl crisis when it disproportionately affects uncompetitive seats in the Northeast of Vancouver. In contrast, policies on toll bridges that affect competitive ridings in and around Coquitlam and Maple Ridge can end up getting a great deal of attention. The fewer competitive ridings there are in the province, the more public discourse and public policy will be distorted in favour of those that live in competitive parts of the province.

The drop in the number competitive ridings in the 2017 BC election is concerning. This, coupled with how close the election was, increases the extent to which parties will target their policy commitments towards the interests of those that live in competitive seats. This can lead to problematic policy making that ignores important issues in the province.

* Election data and the ridings that are included in each region are taken from BC pundits guide.

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Strategic Dilemmas: The Anti-Liberal Vote in the BC Election

Polls in the final two weeks of the BC election show a close race, with the difference between the Liberals and NDP within the margin of error. These polls also show a strong Green vote, at between 14% and 24%. The fact that this is a close race with a strong third party raises questions about whether anti-Liberal voters should vote strategically. In some ridings, strategic voting can indeed play an important role in preventing vote splitting and keeping the Liberals from winning seats. There are, however, many ridings in which strategic voting is not likely to affect the election result.

Strategic voting comes at a cost. Voting has both an instrumental and an expressive value. In addition to determining the strength of the different parties in the legislatures, elections provide an indication of parties’ public support. Elections are an opportunity for voters to send a message to politicians about the types of policies they prefer. When individuals vote strategically that message becomes less clear. New Democrat leaders that see large numbers of Green voters switch to their party may take that as an indication that many Greens prefer the NDP platform. As a result, the NDP may feel its policies on issues like the environment are sufficient to capture views of a large number of BC voters.

This has real implications for the policies that parties pursue. A strong Green party sends a signal to both the NDP and the Liberals that the two party’s policies on issues like the environment are insufficient to win the support of a substantial number of voters. The threat that a strong Green party can take votes from a party like the NDP can force the NDP to adopt some of the Green’s policies. If too many Greens vote strategically, the party will look weaker than it actually is and like less of an electoral threat. This reduces the likelihood that the NDP will try to co-opt Green policies. Thus, strategic voting costs voters the ability to send a clear message to the politicians they elect. This is not to say that individuals should never strategic vote, but rather that they should only do so when the impact such a vote has on election results outweighs the costs of such a vote.

Whether a strategic vote is worth the cost, depends on the kind of riding a voter lives in. It makes little sense to vote strategically in a safe riding where the gap between the two largest parties is too big for a shift in Green votes to one party to affect the election result. A large number of ridings in BC fit this description. In 2013, 61 seats (72% of all ridings) were won by a margin of over 10 percentage points. In 2009, which was a closer election, 64 seats (75%) were won by that margin. In these ridings, there are usually not enough strategic voters to change the result, and voters should be wary of casting such a vote.

It also makes little sense to strategically vote in a riding in which the Greens and NDP are competing with each other. In these ridings a vote for the Green party is more likely to lead to the Greens winning a seat than the Liberals winning one. A strategic vote in such a riding does a lot of harm because it could deny the Greens a seat and the ability to influence policy in the legislature. In ridings in the area around Victoria, where the Greens are particularly strong, anti-Liberal strategic voting makes little sense.

Where strategic voting can matter is in ridings that are close races between the Liberals and NDP. These are the cases where a vote for the Greens has a real chance of leading to the election of the Liberals, and where Greens that prefer the NDP to Liberals should consider voting for the NDP. There may be fewer of these ridings that people sometimes believe. In 2013, there were 15 ridings (18%) in which the two strongest parties were separated by 5 percentage points or less (and in one of these ridings all three parties were competitive).  In 2009, there were 19 ridings (22%) that were won by less 5 percentage points or less.

The decision over whether to strategic vote is complicated. Strategic voting can only have an impact on election results in close races, and most ridings are not close races. Individuals considering strategic voting should pay careful attention to the competitiveness of their ridings. Such voting in a safe seat is likely to cost voters their ability to express their views on policy in exchange for little influence over election results.

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