Ghosts of Elections Past Part III: What’s Next for the Liberals?

In the first two Ghosts of Elections Past posts I made the case that the split in the right vote between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Canadian Alliance played a part but was not sufficient to keep the Liberals in power in the 1990s, and that the collapse of NDP played a crucial role in Liberal victories. The overall point of these posts was to make the case that the 1990s were an outlier in Canadian electoral history, and that the Liberals lost their place as the dominant party in Canadian politics when they lost their ability to win a majority of seats in Quebec in 1984. This begs the question of what place the Liberals will occupy in Canadian politics in the future. The more Canadian politics turns into a left-right competition, the more precarious the Liberals’ position is. It is difficult for centre parties to survive in a party system where both the centre-right (the Conservatives) and the centre-left (the NDP) push to the centre and squeeze votes from the Liberals. Polling in this election, however, suggests that the Liberals have remained competitive, and indeed are in what is more or less a statistical tie for the lead in polls. There are three possibilities with respect to the role that the Liberal party may play in the future. The Liberals could be a meaningful competitor for government in three party races, they could replace either the NDP or Conservatives as Canada’s predominant centre-left or centre-right party, or they could end up as a perpetual weak but important centrist third party.

The Liberals and Three Party Competition

Current polls suggest that the 2015 election could be the first in which all three major parties have a reasonably good chance of winning the election and forming government. This is unexpected given the two-party competition that majoritarian electoral systems are supposed to create. The regional nature of Canadian politics could allow it to sustain three-party competition despite the pressures of majoritarian electoral systems. Canadian elections could very well become a series of different sets of two party competition in different regions. The NDP and Liberals might end up competing with each other in urban regions such as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, the Liberals and Conservatives in suburbia, and the NDP and Conservatives in the West. In such competition voters’ decision to vote strategically depends on the region that they live in. Voters in some regions would be choosing between whichever of the Liberals and NDP are closer to their views, others would be choosing the Liberals and Conservatives, and yet others might end up choosing between the NDP and the Conservatives. Each party would have its own regional base that allows it to secure a substantial number of seats in parliament and from which it could expand and challenge for government. An increase in support amongst undecided voters could plausibly lead any of the three parties to form government so long as each party’s regional base is reasonably equal.

This competition would have important consequences for Canadian politics. The fact that all three parties are competitive for government may strengthen the support of parties even in ridings in which a given party is uncompetitive. The national coverage that each party would get as a result of being competitive for government would increase parties’ support even in ridings where they are not competitive. Where ridings cross between regions (rural/urban or urban/suburban ridings for example), there could be an increase in the number of three party races. This is likely to reduce the percentage of the vote that a candidate needs to win a riding and, as a result, lead smaller changes in vote shares to have large influences over the number of seats that each party wins. An increase in support by 2% means more in a riding where 35% is needed to win than it does in a riding where 45% is needed to win. Three party competition would likely lead to more disproportionality between and votes. When parties under three-party competition would win a majority government (which would be rare) they would do so with low levels of popular support.

Three party competition would likely to lead to an increase in the number of minority governments in Canada. With each party taking at least 20%-25% of the vote, it would be difficult for any party to win the 35%-40% needed for a majority. As a result parties would have to learn to cooperate within parliament, perhaps even forming coalitions to ensure some degree of government stability. Sustained three-party competition would mean a shift away from the norm of majority governments in Canada (though Canada has had series of minority government that last for up to a decade in the 1960s and 2000s).

The Liberals Replace the NDP or Conservatives

The other alternative scenario in which the Liberals continue to compete to form government has them replacing either the NDP or the Conservatives as Canada’s centre-left or centre-right party. In the past the Liberals have been able to hold the centre of Canadian politics by using non-left/right issues, such as Quebec’s place in Canadian politics to gain the support of non-centrist voters and protect themselves against left and right parties moving to the centre. Through most of the 20th century the NDP’s and Progressive Conservatives’ policies on federalism and language/culture made the parties uncompetitive in Quebec and allowed the Liberals to win the support of Quebecers across the political spectrum. Without that protection, the Liberals might be able to respond to the threat of being squeezed in the middle of the political spectrum by moving out of the middle of the political spectrum. This would involve determining which of the NDP or Conservative is weaker and then challenging that party for either centre-left or centre-right votes. It would, however, mean conceding the other side of the political spectrum to whichever party the Liberals decide not to challenge.

On a policy level this appears to be what the Liberals are doing in this election. They have put forward policies that are on the centre-left of the political spectrum, tried to make the case that the balanced budget commitment by the NDP makes the NDP a right-wing party, and Justin Trudeau spent most of the debate on economic issues attacking Thomas Mulcair for being not left-wing enough. This is all consistent with a Liberal strategy that has them conceding the centre-right of the political spectrum to the Conservatives and competing to be the stronger of the two centre-left parties. This is likely to lead to the success of the Conservatives in the short-term as the Liberals and NDP split the centre-left vote. In the long-term though, the strategy could work for the Liberals if they manage to consistently outperform the NDP electorally. In that case their new, more left-wing policy profile should help convince voters to switch to the Liberals in order to keep the Conservatives from forming government.

For this strategy to work, the Liberals have to win their battle with the NDP for centre-left votes. If they consistently finish behind the NDP, they run the risk of appearing irrelevant, nothing more than an NDP with less chance of forming government. The Liberals do not have the same history of being a centre-left party and they do not have the same core support on the left of the political spectrum as the NDP, so they may be at a disadvantage when competing for left votes. At the same time, current polling suggests that they are holding their own in this competition, though not clearly winning it. If the Liberals can outperform the NDP over the next few elections the may be able to cement themselves as Canada’s new centre-left party. If not, they run a high risk of becoming irrelevant to Canadian politics.

The Liberals Fall to Third Place

If the Liberals fail to replace the NDP, or just decide to remain in the centre of the political spectrum, they are likely to end up as the third party in Canadian politics. It is possible that the Liberals could survive in the centre of the political spectrum. Because under first past the post parties need only around 40% of popular vote to form a majority, neither the Conservatives not the NDP have the incentive to move the exact centre of the political spectrum. The parties are unlikely to move to the exact centre, leaving some voters closer to the Liberals than either of those parties. Because these voters are unlikely to be evenly distributed across ridings, this should leave the Liberals with some seats that they can win on a regular basis. At the same time, the NDP and Conservatives are unlikely to stay far enough to the left or right to leave the Liberals enough centrist voters to win government. A centrist Liberal party is likely to end up like the German Free Democrats or British Liberal-Democrats, both of whom at times influence policy and at times end up fighting just to remain in parliament (the FDP indeed was shut out of the German parliament in the last German election).

A centrist Liberal party could have a meaningful impact on Canadian politics, playing king-maker in minority government situations. The Liberals’ position in the centre of the political spectrum would allow them to make deals with either the NDP or Conservatives and extract policy compromises from whichever party offered them the best deal. They would not be likely to win government, and their influence over policy would be far less than it was over most of the 20th century, but they would still matter to Canadian politics.

These next few elections will be critical in determining the role that Liberals play in Canadian politics in the future. If elections turn out to be three-way races, Canadian politics may end being more fractured than they have ever been before. If the Liberals replace the NDP, Canada could see two-party electoral competition between the Liberals and Conservatives for government. Finally, if the Liberals fail to replace the NDP, or move back to the centre of the political spectrum, Canada could see two-party competition between the NDP and Conservatives with the Liberals playing a more limited role in politics.


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