Just How Conservative Is Alberta?

The NDP’s 2015 Alberta election win surprised many. The Social Credit and then the Progressive Conservatives had ensured that right wing parties had governed Alberta since 1935. Alberta’s politics have been complicated by vote splitting on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Through most of the 1990s and 2000s the Alberta Liberals and NDP split the non-conservative vote, making the left look weaker than it actually was. In 2015 the opposite was the case. The Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance split the right wing vote making the NDP look stronger than it was. With the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance uniting to form the United Conservative Party, and a Liberal resurgence looking unlikely, it is probable that just two parties will dominate the 2019 Alberta election. This makes understanding exactly how many centre-right and non-conservative voters there are in Alberta particularly important. A break down of the vote for centre-right and centre-left parties going back to 1982 shows that Edmonton tends to lean towards non-conservative parties while the rest of the province votes for centre-right parties. This being said, centre-left parties have consistently won substantial shares of the vote outside of Edmonton.

To look at the break down of the non-conservative and right wing vote in Alberta I compared average vote shares across ridings for centre-left and centre-right parties in 5 regions of the province: Calgary, Edmonton, Northern Rural Alberta, Central Rural Alberta, and Southern Rural Alberta. A list of which ridings fit into which regions can be found here (Ridings and Regions). The Alberta Party, the Liberals, and the NDP vote shares were combined to create a left (or non-conservative) vote share for each riding. I take an inclusive approach to categorizing parties as left parties because of the extent to which Alberta politics has often pitted centrist and leftist non-conservative parties against dominant right parties. The Progressive Conservative, Wildrose Alliance, Alberta Alliance, Social Credit, and Western Canadian Concept parties were combined to calculate the centre-right votes (each of these parties won a significant vote share in at least one election between 1982 and 2015 though several have since become defunct).

The two graphs below show the average riding vote share of left and right parties in the five regions from 1982 to 2015 (the graph for right parties is essentially a mirror image of the graph for left parties). The most striking feature of the graphs is the strength of non-conservative parties in Edmonton. Non-conservative parties take an average of at least 50% of the vote in the city in every election except for 1982 and 2012 (and it is notable that in 2012 Allison Redford positioned the Progressive Conservatives as a centrist alternative to the more right wing Wildrose Alliance). When the Progressive Conservatives have been particularly unpopular, in elections in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the early 2000s, and 2015, the non-conservative vote share in Edmonton has broken 60%.

Combined Left Vote

Combined Right Vote

In contrast to Edmonton, the rest of the province has consistently voted for right wing parties. Only in 1989 in Calgary and 1993 in Northern Alberta do non-conservative parties average over 50% of the vote outside of Edmonton. The success of the conservative parties outside of the capital city fits with most people’s perceptions of Alberta politics as being particularly conservative.

The strength of the conservative vote outside of Edmonton should not be overstated, however. There are a substantial minority of non-conservative voters in every region outside of Edmonton (as there are a substantial number of conservative voters in Edmonton). With the exception of 1982 and 2012 the left vote outside of Edmonton tends to be either higher than or around 30%. In other words, in most elections in Alberta slightly fewer than 1/3 Albertans outside of Edmonton vote for a non-conservative party. Even though left parties have struggled to win seats in many of these regions, they are far from homogenously conservative.

These vote shares have important implications for the future of Albertan politics. They show that both the Progressive Conservative/Wildrose Alliance dominance outside of Edmonton and the NDP gains there in 2015 are, in part, artefacts of the way that first past the post electoral treats parties when they split the vote with a similar party. When the NDP and Liberals were splitting the non-conservative vote there was not enough non-conservative support to elect MPs outside of the centre of Calgary and the odd seat in Lethbridge. However, when the non-conservative vote unified behind the NDP and the conservative vote split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance, there was enough support to elect a substantial number of MPs. Though the left vote share outside of Edmonton went up in 2015, it was not any higher than it had been in the early 1990s. The NDP made historic gains outside of Edmonton because they were able to unify left voters and because conservative voters were divided, not because the NDP was able to dramatically increase the left vote share outside of Edmonton.*

The implications for this for 2019 are that the NDP will struggle to hold in to many of its seats outside of Edmonton. A united Conservative party will end the vote splitting that handed the NDP a substantial number of rural and Calgary seats in 2015. This being said, the fact that the left vote (barring a sudden resurgence of the Liberals) is likely to remain unified behind the NDP should offer the party some protection. 30-40% of the vote outside of Edmonton, if it is distributed correctly, should allow the party to hold on to at least some seats outside of the capital. Conversely, even with the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance unified, the strength of left support in Edmonton should allow the party to hold on to many of its seats there. Though the United Conservatives are well placed to challenge the NDP for government, the absence of a vote split on the left should prevent the party from dominating the province the way the Progressive Conservatives did through much of the 1990s and 2000s.

* It should be noted that one of the reasons there is a spike in the non-conservative vote in 2015 is because it was very low in 2012. It is important not to look just at the increase in the vote between 2012 and 2015 but also at where the non-conservative vote was in 2015 relative to elections prior to 2012.

 

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Tougher Than One Might Think: Trudeau May Have a Difficult Time Keeping His Majority in 2019

The election of Jagmeet Singh as leader of the NDP this past Sunday set the line-up for the 2019 election. Both of the major national opposition parties have selected new leaders, as has the Bloc Quebecois. To this point, it has often been assumed that the Liberals stand a good chance of maintaining their majority in the 2019 election. They have been doing well in the polls, the NDP has struggled to attract national media attention, and Andrew Scheer looks unlikely to be able to run the kind of charismatic campaign that Trudeau did in 2015. The Liberals’ path to a majority in 2019, however, is more difficult than it first appears. After a very poor result in 2015 that was in part a result fatigue with their time government, the Conservatives are due for a bounce-back election. At the same time, the selection of Jagmeet Singh as leader puts the NDP in a good position to compete for the support of many of the progressives that gave the Liberals their majority in 2015.

Winning back-to-back majority governments is a difficult task. Since 1953, only two Prime Ministers have done this, Jean Chretien in the mid-1990s and Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. Both successes came under fairly unique circumstances. Chretien was fortunate to face little in the form of national opposition. The split on the right between the Reform/Canadian Alliance combined with the historic weakness of the NDP allowed Chretien to take between 98-101 seats in Ontario between 1993 and 2000. Brian Mulroney swept to power in 1984 on half the popular vote and was able to hold on to power in 1988 by casting himself as the pro-free trade candidate against a anti-free trade opposition that was divided between the Liberals and the NDP. It is notable that while Mulroney held on to his majority, he saw his share of the popular vote decline from 50% in 1984 to 43% in 1988.

Justin Trudeau’s circumstances are not nearly as favourable. Unlike Mulroney, Trudeau does not have much of a cushion to work with. Trudeau won his majority with just 39% of the popular vote. Since 1900, only Chretien in 1997 has won a majority with a lower vote share. To add to this, it has been a century since a Prime Minister has been able to increase their vote share after winning a majority government for the first time (Robert Borden did so in 1917, largely because his support of conscription won him the overwhelming support of English Canadian voters).* Majority governments have trouble increasing their support because they will inevitably be unable to follow through on all of the promises they made during an election, and that is bound to alienate at least some of their supporters. Governing also requires making difficult decisions that will make at least some people unhappy. Indeed, after the post-election spike in Liberal support, current polls have them a little under 39%, slightly lower than where they ended up in the 2015 election. As the new Conservative and NDP leaders become more well-known, and as being in government forces the Liberals to make more controversial decisions, one might expect that it is more likely that Liberal support over the next two years will fall rather than rise. Given the Liberal vote share in 2015 and where they are in the polls now, any substantial drop in support is likely to put their majority in jeopardy.

Trudeau also cannot benefit from a split right vote, nor NDP weakness, both of which were instrumental in Chretien’s victories. A united Conservative party under Scheer should be able to regain some of its support. Since 1957, a united right party in Canada has won 31% of the vote or less in just three elections, 1968, 2004, and 2015. This suggests that there is plenty of room for the Conservatives to grow in 2019. While Scheer does not have the charisma of Trudeau, he has a policy profile and approach to politics that looks a lot like the one Harper used to consistently grown the Conservatives vote share between 2004 and 2011. In 2019 he will also be free of the some the baggage the Conservative accumulated over their time in government. While this may not be enough to put the party government, one should expect the Conservatives to take back a significant number of seats.

Trudeau also has to contend with a serious left wing threat in the NDP. Despite the disappointment with its performance in 2015, the party still managed almost 20% of the vote. This is a much stronger party than the one Chretien faced in the 1990s, when the NDP fluctuated between 7% and 11%. Even when Trudeau was polling at close to 50% in 2016, the NDP was closer to the 15% that it won under Jack Layton in 2004 then to the 11% that it won under Alexa McDonough in 1997. Barring a significant collapse, the NDP should be strong enough in 2019 to do at least one of two things. If Singh is able to get the party back to 20% (or higher), he should be able to push the Liberals to a minority by taking seats from them. If the NDP stays around where they are in the polls, the strength of the party should still draw enough non-Conservative votes from the Liberals to allow a resurgent Conservative party to take seats from the Liberals.

It is worth noting that Jagmeet Singh is particularly well positioned to challenge the Liberals. He is an Ontario politician with strong support in the Greater Toronto Area and a history of fighting for the rights of visible minorities. This is likely to make him a strong candidate in the suburban Toronto and suburban Vancouver ridings that the Liberal party needed in 2015 to win their majority. Throughout the 2000s the Liberals and NDP have been fighting over the support of urban progressive voters. This fight is likely to continue in 2019, and with Singh heading the NDP, it is far from clear that the Liberal can win it to the same degree that they did in 2019. This makes it particularly likely the NDP will draw enough votes from the Liberals to reduce them to a minority.

In 2019 the Liberals will have to fight a two front election. On one hand they will have to contend with a resurgent Conservative party led by a Harper-like politician that does not have all of the baggage of the near decade of Harper government. On the other, they will face a progressive NDP well-positioned to challenge the Liberals in many of the urban and suburban ridings the Liberals need to win in order to maintain their majority. When one combines this with the likely decline in support that comes to most parties after a leader’s first majority government, it is hard to see anything but a difficult road to a majority for the Liberals in 2019.

* Jean Chretien increased in vote share in 2000 after winning a majority government in 1997. His vote share, however fell in between his first majority win in 1993 and his second in 1997.

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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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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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