Leadership Dilemmas: The NDP is More Reliant on Quebec, but the Conservatives have Leadership Selection Rules that Give More Weight to the Province

Both the Conservatives and the New Democratic Party are in the midst of leadership races. The Conservatives will choose a new leader this May while the NDP will hold their leadership election in October. These leadership contests will shape Canadian politics for the next couple of years, helping to determine the direction of the two major federal opposition parties. In particular, the leadership races will affect the way that both opposition parties will approach Quebec. The parties have to decide on the extent to which they will challenge the Liberals in that province during the 2019. The choice of a leader with a background in Quebec politics or who places an emphasis on issues important to the province is necessary if either party wants to compete with the Liberals in Quebec. While winning in Quebec is much more important to the long-term competitiveness of the NDP, the Conservatives have a leadership selection process that does more to encourage candidates to appeal to the interests of Quebecois voters.

It is rare that the Liberals win elections without strong support in Quebec. In Canada’s history, the party has only won government four times and majorities three times without winning a majority of seats in the province. Because the Liberals are weak in Western Canada, they need a large number of Quebec seats to win elections. Outside of the 1990s, when the party took almost every Ontario seat, the Liberals have never been dominant enough on Ontario to win governments on the support of that region alone. Because the NDP are also fairly weak in Western Canada (at least outside of British Columbia) they need to be successful in Quebec in order to move beyond third party status. It is no coincidence that the party won official opposition status when they won large numbers of Quebec seats for the first time in 2011. The Conservatives’ strong Western support makes Quebec far less essential to their success than for the Liberals or NDP. That being said, a Conservative party that is competitive in Quebec would present a serious challenge for the Liberals, and potentially undermine the electoral coalition the Liberals need to win government.

Despite the parties’ need to win votes in Quebec, the NDP’s rules for leadership elections leave a danger that a candidate with little support in the province could become leader. The party uses a one-member one-vote ranked ballot system. NDP members have equal voting power regardless of which region of the country they come from. As a result, regions with particularly large numbers of NDP members will be particularly influential in the leadership election, and regions with few members will have little influence over who will become leader. This could be a problem for the NDP in Quebec because it does not have a long history of success in the province, and as a result, is not likely to have a large number of members in the province. Prior to 2011 the party have never held more than one seat in the province and, despite the fact that the federal NDP is closely linked to its provincial counter-parts, the Quebec NDP was just re-registered as a provincial political party in 2014 and has never been a serious factor in provincial elections.

It is likely that Quebec will be under-represented amongst NDP voters when the party picks its new leader in October. Regions that have had a more established NDP presence are likely to make up a greater share of the party membership and thus a greater share of the leadership race voters. A leadership candidate that builds a strong base of support in places where the NDP has been historically strong, such as British Columbia and Ontario, could win the leadership on the strength of the disproportionate number of NDP members who likely live in those regions. The result could be an under-emphasis of the importance of selecting a leader who is fluently bilingual and who has a strong understanding of Quebec politics.

The Conservatives’ leadership election is more likely to select a leader who is more sensitive to the needs of different regions. Unlike the NDP’s one member one vote rules, the Conservatives use a system that weights votes by riding. Every riding is given the same weight in the leadership contest regardless of how many Conservative members live in it. While this increases the voting power of individuals living in ridings with few Conservative members, it also increases the likelihood that the Conservatives will choose a leader that reflects the interests of different regions in the country. It is not sufficient for a Conservative leader to build a strong base of supporters in places such as the prairies and Southern Ontario where there are large numbers of Conservative members. Thus Conservatives leadership hopefuls have demonstrate an appeal in regions that are not traditionally Conservative, like Quebec.

This electoral system makes it more likely that a leader with appeal in less traditionally Conservative parts of the country will be elected leader. A candidate like Maxime Bernier, if he could build a coalition of Quebecois and Ontario Conservatives, could win the leadership and then challenge the Liberals in ridings where the Conservatives have not traditionally been strong. A candidate favoured only by Western and Southern Ontarian voters might not have the same ability to reach beyond Conservative strongholds and grow the party, and therefore might have difficulty winning in enough ridings to win the leadership race. The Conservatives’ leadership election rules are designed to disadvantage a leader with limited ability to reach beyond the parties’ regional bases of support.

There is an irony in the Conservative and NDP leadership races in that the party the more reliant on winning votes in Quebec has a leadership selection system that does less to force leadership candidates to reach out to Quebecers and win their support. Unless the NDP has been able to translate its success in 2011 into a large membership base in the province, it is likely that the NDP leadership that Ontarians and British Columbians will have a very large say in who becomes leader of the party. That may result in a leadership race where issues related particularly important to Quebec are less prominent in the race than they should be. In contrast the Conservatives have a selection process that forces candidates to reach out and win votes in regions where the party has not been traditionally successful, like Quebec. The result is that the Conservatives are more likely to select a leader that has broad-based regional appeal.


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