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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The Green Threat (Part 3): Consequences for this Election

In my last two posts, I looked at what a Green surge would mean for the NDP in two scenarios. One where the NDP does as well as they were in April 18th polls, and a second where they did as poorly as in the 2013 election. Both analyses suggested that a Green surge would have a limited impact on the outcomes of the election. The NDP would lose some seats on Vancouver Island, but unless the vast majority of the increase in the Green vote comes as a result of NDP defections, in neither scenario do the Liberals pick up a substantial number of seats. This is not to say that a Green surge cannot contribute to a Liberal victory, but rather, that it will only do so if the election is already very close. Potential strategic voters should be aware of this when deciding how to approach this election.

The first danger that the NDP faces is that the Green party will win enough seats to deny them a majority in spite of a win over the Liberals. The previous posts suggest that this is unlikely to happen. Neither suggests that the Green party is likely to take more the 10 seats (all on Vancouver Island from the NDP). Indeed, most election forecasters would likely be surprised if the Green party managed to take that many. Yet, only three times since 1945 (1952, 1979, and 1996) has the difference between first and second in a BC election been less than 10 seats. One of those elections, in 1952, used a different electoral system and another, in 1996, saw the party with the second most votes win the most seats. BC’s first past the post system tends to give whichever party wins the plurality of the vote a healthy advantage over the second place party. If the NDP defeats the Liberals by a substantial margin, it is unlikely that loosing a handful of seats on Vancouver Island will prevent them from forming a government.

It is also worth considering the danger that voters switching to the Green party will allow the Liberal party to win seats by splitting the anti-Liberal vote. The last two posts suggest that, while this certainly matters in some ridings, defections from the NDP to Greens are unlikely to affect the outcome of most ridings. Where the Greens are strongest, on Vancouver Island, they tend to be stronger than the Liberal party. In most ridings on the Island, defections from the NDP to the Greens are more likely to a Green victory than a Liberal one. Many seats off the Island are either safe Liberal or NDP seats. In safe seats, the gap between the two parties is too large for a surge in Green support to take enough votes from the NDP to give the Liberals the riding.

It is important to note that in highly competitive seats, particularly those that the NDP are trying to take from the Liberals, a Green surge may end up costing the NDP seats. There is thus some merit to anti-Liberal strategic voting in some parts of the province. Anti-Liberal voters in ridings that have historically been close, or where it looks like a New Democrat might be able to unseat a Liberal, should consider backing the NDP. It is unlikely, however, that most voters live in those kinds of close ridings. Anti-Liberal voters in safe ridings should not be concerned that a vote for the Green party will hand the Liberals an extra seat.

There are two important points from previous posts that should be highlighted. The first is that the election needs to be very close for the growth in Green support to have an impact on the result. It is very possible that it will be that close. The NDP have only won the popular vote in the province twice (in 1996 they won a third election despite losing the popular vote). Even though they are leading in the polls, the NDP has to deal with the fact that they are fighting an election in a province where historically most voters have supported other parties. This does not mean that one should discount the likelihood of NDP victory, but one should also not be surprised if the election ends up being closer than the polls currently predict.

The second important point is that strategic voting is a lot less likely to have an impact on the election than is often assumed. In certain, very competitive ridings, strategic voting can affect which party wins. In a large number of ridings, however, the margins between the two strongest parties are simply to big for strategic voting to change anything. In these ridings, anti-Liberal voters ought to back the party they prefer regardless of which one is stronger. They should pay careful attention to the competitiveness of their ridings when deciding whether or not to vote strategically.

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The Green Threat (Part 2): A Green Surge Would Have Changed Little in the 2013 Election

In my last post, I looked at how the rise of the BC Greens might affect the NDP if they manage to hold on to their current levels of support. Polls in British Columbia are not always as reliable as one would hope, and with the main leadership debate still to come, there is plenty of time for the polls to change. In this post, I will look at what would have happened if a Green surge similar to the one happening now occurred in 2013. Where in my last post I looked at what would have happened had the parties had their current poll numbers, in this post I look at what would have happened had the Liberals and NDP won vote shares similar to their 2013 numbers. Together, these posts provide a sense of the possible outcomes of two different scenarios. This one provides a look at a case where the Liberals are ahead by a substantial margin and the last post a scenario where the NDP has a slight lead. A Green surge in the last election would have changed very little.

To look at the impact a rise in the Green vote I use April 18, 2017 polling data from CBC’s poll tracker to estimate party’s vote shares in each riding. Rather than estimating the support for the Liberals and NDP though, I take their 2013 results as is. I consider two scenarios when reducing Liberal and NDP support to account for Green growth. First, I consider a scenario where the Greens get 60% of their increase from the NDP and 40% of their increase from the Liberals. Second, I consider a scenario where the Greens get 80% of their increase in support from the NDP and 20% from the Liberals. This takes into account two different cases, one where the Greens draw only a slightly higher share of their increase from traditional NDP supporters and a second where the overwhelming majority of Green growth comes at the expense of the NDP. As in the previous post, it is important to note that these are crude estimates. They are designed to demonstrate the potential impact of a rise in Green support on the other parties, not to give a definitive account of which parties would have won which exact seats.

In the first scenario, the effect of the rise in Green support is small and largely confined to Vancouver Island. When only 60% of the growth in Green support comes at the expense of the NDP, only 5 seats change hands. Only one of those, in Burnaby/Coquitlam, is not on the Island. In this scenario, there are also 8 seats whose competitiveness changes. These seats either go from being safe seats (the winner no longer has a 5 percentage point lead over the second place finisher) to competitive ones, or from competitive to safe seats. All of these seats are on the Island (the riding in Burnaby Coquitlam was competitive both before and after the rise in Green support was estimated).

Seat Changes Due to Growth in Green Support (2013 Result)

The impact of the Greens is more significant in the scenario where they draw 80% of their increase in support from the NDP. Under these circumstances, 9 seats (or 11% of the BC legislature at the time) would change parties. Again, these changes are largely confined to Vancouver Island. Only two seats off the Island (both in Burnaby/Coquitlam) would have elected a different MLA. A substantial number of seats, 14, would see a change in competitiveness, though most of those would also be on Vancouver Island.

The likelihood that a Green surge would lead to the NDP losing a large number of seats to a Liberal party taking advantage of vote splitting is also limited. Of the 5 seats that the NDP would lose if the Green party got 60% of their increase from the NDP, 4 would be won by the Green party. The Liberals would take only the seat in Burnaby/Coquitlam. If the 80% of the Green rise would have come from the NDP, the Liberals would take an additional two seats. There would also be two tied races, one between the Greens and the NDP, and one between the Greens, Liberals, and NDP. In both scenarios, the Greens and not the Liberals are the main beneficiaries of a rise in Green support.

Gains by Parties Due to Green Growth

Had the Green surge that is happening now occurred in 2013, not much would have changed. Vancouver Island would have elected more Green MLAs, and would have been more competitive, but for the most part, the rest of the province would have elected the same candidates. This is not to say that a rise in Green support cannot work to the advantage of the Liberals, but the Liberals and NDP have to very close in support in order for that to happen. In 2013, the gap between the two major parties was large enough that a rise in Green support would have had a relatively small impact on the election result.

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The Green Threat (Part 1): 2017 Polling Numbers suggest the Greens are Unlikely to Prevent an NDP Victory

Polling in the BC election is showing a remarkable increase in support for the provincial Green party.   The party that won less than 9% of the vote in 2013 and 2009 is now polling at around 20% across the province and over 30% on Vancouver Island. The potential for the Greens to significantly increase their vote raises important questions about what effect a Green surge would have on the NDP. If the Greens draw large numbers of left wing voters to them, vote splitting between them and the NDP could allow the Liberal party to pick up significant numbers of seats. It is thus important to examine where the Green party is having success, and test the its potential impact on NDP electoral prospects. In this post, I look at what would have happened in 2013 had polling numbers been where they were April 18, 2017.  If the NDP can establish a solid lead over the Liberals, they should be protected from a Green surge. In a close election, however, a strong Green party is likely to be a problem for the NDP.

To examine the impact of the Green surge I compared aggregate polling data from CBC’s Poll Tracker to the results for the 2013 election. I looked at the numbers the tracker has estimated for three regions (Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and the North/Interior) and compared them to the results the party received in 2013. I then adjusted the riding scores to account for the difference between 2013 and current polling numbers. For example, if a party is polling 5 percentage points above where they were in 2013 in Vancouver, I would add 5 percentage points to the parties’ vote percentage from 2013 in Vancouver ridings. This is a very crude measure of party support in different ridings. Unfortunately, however, without riding level polling, it is impossible to account for how popular opinion is spread across ridings in a particular part of the province. I classified ridings as safe if the gap between the first and second place party was more than 5% and competitive if the gap was less than 5%. For the 2017 numbers (though not for 2013) I also count any riding that looks would switch parties as unsafe, even if it looks like the margin between first and second place is higher than 5 percentage points. I do this because of the uncertainty surrounding polling, I am more confident in the 2013 analysis that uses actual election results. It is finally important to note that there has been redistricting between the 2013 and 2017 elections. This means that predictions for individual ridings for 2013 will not necessarily be accurate for 2017. This analysis can provide a general sense of where the election is competitive, but the exact numbers presented should be taken with a grain of salt.

A look at the 2013 results shows that the Liberals had a large number of safe seats. Of the 49 seats the Liberals won in 2013, 40 were by more than 5 percentage points. In contrast, the NDP won by more than 5 percentage points in only 26 seats, and the two parties were within 5 points of each other in 16 seats. The Greens were largely a non-factor. They won one seat in Victoria by a fairly margin and were competitive with both the Liberals and NDP in another.

2013 Safe Seats by Party

Adjusting to match 2017 polling numbers shows some remarkable changes. The Green party is somewhat more significant. It still has only one safe seat, but the 2017 numbers would have been made the Green party competitive with the NDP in 6 seats and competitive with both the Liberals and NDP in an additional one. The big change, however, is the number of seats in which the Liberals and NDP would have ended up competing against each other. There are 31 seats in which 2017 polling numbers would have put the Liberals and NDP within 5 percentage points of each other or in which the 2017 number would have changed the party that won. The NDP would have only needed to win 14 of these seats (in addition to holding on to their 29 safe seats) in order to win a majority government. In these 31 competitive seats, the NDP would lead the Liberals by an average of 42% to 38% and would have had the highest predicted vote share in 17. These number suggested that if the 2013 election had finished with the numbers the parties are polling at today, the surge in Green support would not have prevented the NDP from winning a majority.

Seats that Would Have Been Competitive with 2017 Numbers

An examination of how this would have broken down regionally demonstrates that the Green threat is generally limited to Vancouver Island. In the Capital Region (Victoria and the surrounding area), the NDP would have had no safe seats, and would have had to compete with the Green party to win each of the 4/5 seats it won in 2013. Off the Island though, the NDP has significant numbers of safe seats in the regions were the Greens are most likely to be competitive in Vancouver and Burnaby. The bigger gains to be made by the NDP are in areas where the Green party is weakest, Northern and Interior British Columbia, and the suburbs around Vancouver.

Seats that Would Have Changed Hands by Region

New Democrats should be concerned by the regional distribution of seats they would need to take from the Liberals in order to compensate for losses to the Greens. They would have to pick up competitive seats in regions such as the North Shore, Richmond/Delta, Langley/Abbotsford, and the Okanagan, where they have been historically weak. The party would also have to do well in Central British Columbia, a region where the Liberals have had an average lead of 8 percentage points over them in elections between 1991 and 2013. Even though aggregated numbers suggest that the NDP would have been able to survive a Green surge, doing so requires the party to have success in areas of the province where they have struggled in the past. As such, the rise of the Greens presents the party with a significant threat.

A Green surge would have a decisive impact on an election in two scenarios, both opf which are ver plausible. The first is a situation in which the NDP and Liberal seat shares end up being quite close. In this case, losses on Vancouver Island may keep the NDP from forming the government. The second, is a scenario in which the Liberals and NDP numbers end up converging, and even the small numbers of voters that the Greens might pull from the NDP in the Interior and suburbs of Vancouver could allow the Liberals to win those seats. In this vein, it is important to note polls have the NDP and Liberals within the margin or error of each other, and that a significant number of the competitive seats are in areas of the province that have been traditionally Liberal. In a close election, a Green surge may prevent an NDP victory, and this very well may be a close election. At the same time, if the NDP can win with a 4 or 5 percentage point lead over the Liberals, they should be able to protect themselves from losing as a result of vote splitting with the Greens.

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The Declining Left: Mainstream Left Parties across the Industrialized World Are Seeing Declining Vote Shares

The results of Dutch elections this year have brought liberals and progressives a great deal of relief. Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom was defeated by the centre-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy) led by Mark Rutte. Lost in the discussion of this election has been the poor performance of the Dutch Labour party. Once a significant competitor for government, the party won less than 10 of the 150 seats available in the Dutch parliament and just over 5% of the vote. The Labour party is not likely to be the only mainstream left party that will see its vote decline this year. In France, the Socialist Party looks unlikely to make it through the second round of Presidential elections, despite the fact that current President Francois Hollande is a member of the party. Mainstream left party vote share has been declining across industrialized countries from 1980 through to today.

To understand trends in mainstream party vote share I looked at left and right party support in elections across a number of industrialized countries. Included were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I chose these countries because they have had reasonably stable party systems, at least compared to countries such as Belgium and Italy. In addition, unlike France, Japan, and New Zealand, they did not experience major electoral reform (a change from majoritarian to a proportional system or vice versa). I compared the share of mainstream parties’ vote, the vote for all left parties (social democratic or communist), and the vote for all left parties and green parties. I did this for elections from 1945 to 2016.

A look at the vote share of mainstream left parties shows a steady decline in vote share that runs from 1980 to 2016. The graph below shows the average vote share of the largest left party. Mainstream left parties start with an average vote share around 35% in 1980. By 2016, they were averaging just over 25% of the vote. Mainstream right parties have seen a similar decline, going from an average of just over 33% of the vote in 1980 to around 24% in 2016. Their support is, however, is much less stable over the full 1945-2016 period. Mainstream right support was well below 30% through a good portion of the 1950s and again around 1970. There is no evidence that mainstream centrist parties are taking advantage of this decline in mainstream left and right support. Support for the largest centrist or liberal party has been relatively stable, at 12% to 14%, over time.

Left, Right, and Centre Party Vote Share

There is also little evidence that the decline in the mainstream left support has benefited other left parties. The graph below shows that average vote share of all left parties put together declines at a similar rate to mainstream left parties. In 1980, the average country saw left parties combine to take 40% of the popular vote. By 2016 left parties as a whole were only averaging 30%. There is evidence that some of the decline in left support has gone the green parties. Combining left support with green party support makes the decline less steep. At the same time, the fact that there still is a decline shows that the weaker showings by left parties are simply a product of the rise of green parties.

Left and Green Parties

The decline of the left has been consistent across different countries. The graphs below show the trends in mainstream left support in Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom), Nordic countries, and in the rest of Europe. Of the three Anglo countries I looked at, two have seen significant left party declines. In Australia, Labour party support has fallen from the 40%-50% range in the 1970s to around 35% in the 2010s. In the UK, Labour support fell below 30% in 1980, rebounded over the 1990s, and then collapsed again in the 2000s. Of the Anglo countries, only Canada has seen growth in mainstream left support. Depending on what happens to the NDP in the next decade, that growth could be short lived.

Mainstream Left Parties in Anglo Countries

Nordic countries, which tend to see higher support for left parties, have not been immune from the decline. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have all seen their largest left parties lose support over the past three decades. The two countries that entered the 1980s with the strongest left parties, Norway and Sweden, have also seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Having a strong left in past, and in the case of Sweden, one that has consistently formed governments, has not protected the mainstream left from the drop in support that taken place over recent decades.

Mainstream Left Parties in Nordic Countries

Finally, the four continental European countries that I looked at mirror the trends in Nordic countries. Austria and Germany, which had the strongest mainstream left parties of the four, have seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Both parties have seen their largest left parties go from over 40% of the vote in 1980 to under 30% by 2016. The decline in the Netherlands and Switzerland is less pronounced, but mainstream left was weaker in those two countries to begin with. This graph also does not include the most recent Dutch election, in which Labour party vote share fell to just over 5%.

Mainstream Left Parties in Europe

The decline of the mainstream left has important implications for progressive politics in Canada and across the industrialized world. The NDP used to be able to look at other mainstream left parties as a potential model of how they might be successful well. The weaker the mainstream left becomes, the less viable an option this seems to be. The NDP can no longer look to the British Labour party, the German SDP, or the Swedish Social Democrats as examples that they can follow.

Across the industrialized word, the mainstream left parties need to start re-evaluating their positions and their approaches to electoral politics. That the decline in mainstream left support is affecting a variety of parties across different countries suggests that this is not a problem that can be solved by a party trying to renew itself or try to reconnect with voters. Rather, it suggests that are broader changes occurring across countries that are weakening the appeal of mainstream left parties. Progressives need to try to determine what these changes are and how they might respond to them. In doing so, they should look for trends that cross national borders. The weak performances of mainstream left parties are not isolated events. They are challenges that progressives must try to grapple with if they hope to be successful in future elections.

*Election data comes from ParlGov.

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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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Growth Potential? The NDP Is Consistently More Popular in Provincial Elections than in Federal Ones

In federal politics the NDP has been the perennial third party. With the exception of 2011 election, the federal party has never finished better than third. The party’s lack of success is surprising given the extent to which elections in many other democracies developed into competitions between a major centre-left party like the NDP and a centre-right party. Australia, Britain, France, and Germany all have centre-left parties that have been far more successful than the NDP has been. What is perhaps more striking is that one does not need to even look outside of Canada to find centre-left parties with more success than the NDP. The NDP, and its predecessor the CCF, have had success at the provincial level. New Democrats should look carefully at provincial elections in order to determine what they need to do be successful as well as what conditions need to be present for them to be able to compete for government.

The graph below shows the difference in vote share between the CCF/NDP in provincial elections and federal elections. The lines show the average difference between the provincial party’s vote share in a province and the federal party’s vote share in all provinces and in just Western Canada and Ontario*. In every year since the 1940s, except the years surrounding the 2011 election, the difference is positive with the provincial parties outperforming their federal counterparts§. Outside of the maritimes, where the NDP provincial parties have been particularly weak, the difference is even more pronounced. In Ontario and Western Canada the NDP has not done as well federally as provincial since the 1940s. The gap between the federal parties since the early 1980s has been large, for most years over 10 percentage points.

Difference Between NDP Provincial and Federal Vote Share

The difference between the federal provincial parties’s success can be demonstrated by looking at British Columbia and Saskatchewan. In Saskatchewan the NDP, then called the CCF, made their first electoral breakthrough by winning government in 1944. Since 1944 the party has competed with various centre-right for government. In British Columbia the NDP has only governed three times, but has consistently been one of the two largest parties in the provinces. In neither province did the party’s provincial success fully translate into success for the federal party. The graph below shows that in Saskatchewan the federal party only matched the provincial party in support in 1980 and 2011. Outside of those years there were often gaps of 5 and 10 percentage points between the provincial and federal parties. In British Columbia the story is similar. There is some overlap between federal and provincial parties in the 1960s, but other than that, the provincial NDP and CCF do better than the federal party. Like in Saskatchewan, this gap is often 5 or 10 percentage points. In neither Saskatchewan nor British Columbia have the NDP been able to translate provincial success into federal success.

Federal and Provincial NDP Vote Share in Saskatchewan

Federal and Provincial NDP Vote Share in BC

In Canada’s largest province, Ontario, the CCF and NDP never had the kinds of success they did in Saskatchewan or British Columbia (though the party won government in 1990). The gap between the provincial and federal CCF and NDP in the province is thus smaller, but is still substantial. In the 2000s the federal party managed to do as well as the provincial party, but before that, the provincial party was significantly more successful. The decline of the federal NDP in Ontario in the last federal election suggests that the province could be returning to an electoral trend that sees the provincial party outperform the federal one.

Federal and Provincial Vote Share in Ontario

While it is clear that the NDP does better in provincial elections than in federal ones, it is not fully clear why. One potential explanation is that the kinds of issues important to federal elections are different than the ones important to provincial elections. Federal parties, unlike provincial ones, have to grapple with issues such as national unity and Quebec’s place in Canada. Historically the NDP has had difficulty positioning itself on Quebec issues while the Liberals have been able to cast themselves as the party that both defends national unity and Quebec’s place in the rest of Canada. It is notable that the election that sees the federal NDP start to match its provincial success is the 2011 election, the same election in which the party won a large number of seats in Quebec for the first time. This would suggest that the NDP has to be able to demonstrate it can position itself favourably on Quebec issues if it wants to compete for government in federal elections. The fact that the party was able to retain a significant number of its seats in Quebec in 2015 suggests that the party does have a potential to establish itself as credible on Quebec issues. If it manages to do this, it may be able to make a stronger case to provincial New Democratic voters with respect to the parties’ national competitiveness as well as its ability to deal with the issues that are of importance to the federal government.

A second explanation of the NDP failure to convert provincial support into federal support is the different party system that exists at the federal level. In the provinces that the NDP has had the most success in they have faced little competition for centre-left votes. In British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba the provincial Liberal party positioned itself as the centre-right free-market party as the CCF or NDP emerged. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba this led the Liberals to be replaced by centre-right parties in the Conservatives and (later in Saskatchewan) the Saskatchewan party. In BC the Liberals have become the main centre-right party, competing with the NDP for government. In the only province the NDP currently governs, Alberta, the Liberal vote completely collapsed leaving the NDP with no competition on the centre-left of the political spectrum. The NDP does not have to compete with the the Liberals for centre-left votes in any of these provinces. In contrast, the federal NDP faces stiff competition from a Liberal party that has made at least some progressive appeals targeted at centre-left voters. The Liberals under both Justin and Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and McKenzie King included appeals to social justice or to the expansion of social programs in their election campaigns. These appeals have forced the federal NDP to compete for centre-left votes in way that they often do not have to at the provincial level. So long as the federal Liberal party positions itself as a progressive party, the NDP will face more difficult competition at the federal level than in any of Canada’s western provinces.

A final explanation of the NDP’s weaker federal results lies in the ability of provincial parties to adjust their positions to reflect the ideological spectrum in their province. The Alberta NDP for example can take positions to the right of the British Columbia NDP in order that its views reflect an Albertan political spectrum that is to the right of the one in British Columbia. The federal NDP, in contrast, has to balance the concerns of provinces with very different political spectrums. This is far easier for a party like the Liberals to do because of their centrist position and because of their ability to pivot to non-left-right issues such as Quebec’s place in Canada and national unity. Because the NDP is a social democratic party they do not have the same ability to pivot away from left-right issues. As a result, when the party adjusts its left-right position to try to appeal to British Columbians or Quebecers it risks alienating voters in Alberta, Saskatchewan and some parts of Ontario. Unlike its provincial counter-parts, the federal NDP cannot tailor its left-right positioning to the electorate of a particular province.

The NDP, and its predecessor the CCF, have consistently been stronger in provincial elections than in federal ones. One of the challenges for the federal party is to convert provincial support into federal support. The extent to which it will be able to do so will depend on the extent to which each of the above explanations is responsible for the differences in vote share between the provincial and federal parties. It will also depend on the ability of the NDP to focus federal elections on the left-right issues on which it is most credible and to assert itself in place of the Liberals as Canada’s federal progressive party.

*A linear trajectory has been calculated between elections in order to allow for a comparison of provincial and federal elections that occur in different years.

§Quebec is excluded because it does not have a provincial NDP.

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