The Liberals Win Round 2: The Liberals Take an Important Step Towards Becoming Canada’s Centre-Left Party

October 19th might go down as one of the more anti-climatic election nights in Canadian history. Canadians who were expecting a tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives discovered very quickly that the Liberals were on route to their first majority government in 12 years. The Liberal victory is important to party’s future. After its 2011 third place finish, there were many Canadians that wondered if the party had a future in Canadian politics. In both the 2011 and in this election the Liberals ended up in a fight with the NDP over who would be the stronger of Canada’s centre-left parties. They lost this competition in 2011, if they had lost it a second time they would have had a difficult time convincing progressive Canadians to back them in future elections. The Liberals are now Canada’s strongest centre-left party, but the NDP should not be relegated to third place for the long-term quite yet. The Liberals have to run a centre-left and not a centrist government if they want to avoid an NDP resurgence.

One of the striking things about the 2015 election was how poorly the Conservatives did. This was their worst election since Harper took power, as the party won just 32% of the vote and 99 seats. It is unlikely that the party will continue to do this poorly in the future. The Conservatives were likely hurt by the poor economy and the inevitable drop in popularity that governments face after a long time in power. In only two elections since 1968, 1968 and 2004, has the centre-right won fewer votes than they did in this election. During the 1990s, 34%-37% of the voters backed either the Progressive Conservatives or Reform/Canadian Alliance. Between 2006 and 2011 Harper won the support of 36%-40% of voters. That suggests that 2015 is a low point in Conservative support and that they are due for a rebound in the next election. This will likely cost the Liberals some of the gains they made in this election. Some of the centre-right voters who were tired of the Harper government will likely move back to the Conservatives. To hold on to their government the Liberals will have to find votes on the centre-left in order to compensate for these losses.

The NDP, despite suffering large losses, is also far from dead. The party is actually fairly close to its 2008 election results. In 2008 the NDP won 18% of the vote and 37 seats, while in 2015 it won just under 20% of the vote and 44 seats. This may well be the third best result they have ever achieved, behind just 2011 and 1988. This should not take the sting out of the NDP defeat. The party needed to build on its success in 2011, or at least remain close to the Liberals in overall support, to cement its position as a competitor for government. The fact that it has fallen far behind the Liberals carries the significant risk that, in future election, progressive voters will see the Liberals instead of the NDP as the party best positioned to keep the Conservatives out of power. Justin Trudeau’s support for an alternative vote electoral system does not help the NDP’s prospects either, as the party would have difficulty competing with the Liberals under such an electoral system (for more on this see my previous post). The party, however, has been in this position before. It has a strong and committed base on the left of Canadian politics that will help it survive its 2015 losses and, with the Liberals winning a majority, it will have the freedom to critique Liberal policy from the left. If the Liberals are not careful, the NDP could end winning back many of the centre-left voters that propelled the NDP to official opposition status in 2011.

The threats that the Liberal party faced from both the right and left through the 2000s, thus, remain after this election. This may be, however, a different Liberal party. The Liberal governments of the 1960s and 1970s were based in part on large majorities in Quebec. In the 1990s they were based on complete dominance of Ontario. The Liberals did well in both provinces in 2015, winning 2/3rds of Ontario seats and half of Quebec seats, but this is not the 75% to 90% of seats that the Liberals would win in Quebec under Pierre Trudeau nor is it the near 99% of seats that Jean Chretien would win in Ontario. The mere 36% of the popular vote that the Liberals won in Quebec this election suggests that the party’s seats in the province may be particularly vulnerable if any of the other parties sees even modest growth in their support in Quebec. The Liberal party may have returned to government 2015, but they did not establish the kind of regional bases that have allowed the Liberals to dominate Canadian politics through much of the 20th century. They are far more reliant on ideologically progressive centre-left voters, as opposed to voters thinking about regional politics, than they have been in the past.

The Liberals have to be very careful about the way they govern if they want to retain their position as Canada’s major centre-left party. They cannot be a party that campaigns from the left and governs from the right, as they have been in the past.  They no longer have a strong regional base that can protect them from NDP incursions on their left flank. With the Conservatives likely to take votes from them on the centre-right of the political spectrum, the Liberal have to use their government to convince Canadians that they are a strongly centre-left party that will pursue progressive policies and keep the Conservatives out of the power. If they are successful they can make the NDP look irrelevant and compensate for likely losses on the centre-right by making gains on the left. If they fail, they could find themselves back where they were through the 2000s, a shrinking party being squeezed by parties attacking it from both the right and the left.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority in this election was a major accomplishment. After the 2011 election the Liberals looked like a party struggling to remain relevant to Canadian politics. Spending part of August in third place did not help this. The party also faced a tough campaign with the Conservatives attacking the party on its right flank and the NDP on its left. Trudeau successfully avoided being squeezed in the middle by moving his party to the left and creating a competition between the Liberals and NDP to be the stronger of the two centre-left parties. He then managed to win the competition for centre-left votes and set his party up as the one best able to keep an unpopular Conservative government out of power. Trudeau’s reward for such a strong campaign has been the first election that has ended in a Liberal majority since 2000. If Trudeau wants to hold on to this majority he needs to convince those that voted strategically in order to end almost a decade of Harper governance to stick with the Liberals even when an election is not about getting rid of an unpopular Conservative government. He will also need to reach out to those that voted NDP so that he can compensate for losses to a Conservative party that will likely be stronger than it was in this election. This will require an extensive effort on the part of the Trudeau government to bring in strong progressive policies. If the Liberals are to be successful in future elections, they must not only run to the left, they must govern from it as well.


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