Reflection on the Election

Poring over the entrails leads me to a couple of observations.

First, as is usually the case, the change in the distribution of seats which commands headlines is an imperfect reflection of the change in the distribution of votes.

The NDP breakthrough in Quebec was remarkable and historically important and unprecedented, but so was the NDP surge in English Canada.  The NDP’s 30.6% share of the national vote was based on 43% of the vote in Quebec, and a very high 28% share of the vote in the rest of Canada. 

Strikingly, limited seat gains outside Quebec poorly reflects the actual change in the NDP vote, Between 2008 and 2011, the NDP share of the national vote rose from 18.2% to 30.6%, a gain of more than 12 percentage points which is a huge shift.

The vote shift in Quebec from the Bloc to the NDP which produced huge seat gains was dramatic but accounts for only 4 percentage points of that extra 12 points, with an extra small bit coming from the shift from the Liberals to the NDP in Quebec.

So, a big and somewhat neglected story is the major shift of the vote from the Liberals (and Greens) to the NDP in English Canada, especially vote rich Ontario and BC,  The NDP vote share in Ontario (40% of the country) rose from 18.2% to 25.6%; and it rose in  BC from 25.0% to 32.5%. Those are big gains.  This seems to have come mainly at the expense of the Liberals plus probably gains from the Greens whose share of the national vote fell from 6.8% to 3.9%, and whose share of the Ontario vote fell even more, from 8.0% to 3.8%.

But the big vote increase in English Canada translated into only modest seat gains: 3 extra seats in BC plus 6 extra  downtown Toronto seats, plus two extra seats in Atlantic Canada, offset by a loss of two incumbent seats in the Soo and Winnipeg to the Conservatives.  

The NDP vote also rose significantly from 25.6% to 32.3% in Saskatchewan but this produced no seats. It rose in New Brunswick from 21.8% to 29.8%, but produced just the one incumbent seat. The NDP vote share was more or less unchanged only in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba.

Second, the very weak Quebec results for the Conservatives in terms of both seats and votes also somewhat conceal just how well they did in English Canada, above all in Ontario. There seems to have been a significant shift of Liberal votes, not just to the NDP, but also to the Conservatives in Ontario – where the Conservative share of the vote rose from 39.2% in 2008 to 44.4% as the Liberal vote fell from 33.8% to 25.3%. The Conservative share of the vote also rose a bit in BC and more so in Saskatchewan.

Many Ontario residents who voted Liberal in 2008 – viewed by some on the left as part of a progressive anti Harper majority  – seem to have shifted to Harper late in the campaign, likely in reaction to the big shift to the NDP.

To my mind, those remaining Liberal voters in 2011 are not self-evidently going to turn NDP in a future election. If the party disintegrates – which is a big if – they will shift to both the NDP and the Conservatives.

The bottom line for me is that the NDP, if they are to gain a majority, will have to retain the new Quebec base and turn about 50 of their many second place finishes in English Canada into wins.

The primary task must be to win votes from the Conservatives.

We fool ourselves if we think the Conservatives won only because of a divided opposition. The sobering reality is that they are formidably strong from Ontario to BC.


  • Denise Freedman

    Not being a statistician, though I seem to play the part at university, I can only observe that what Andrew Jackson has described is the age old problem of the NDP: because of the way its supporters aggregate in ridings, for whatever reason, it always fails to live up to what one might have expected in wins, unlike the old parties for the same support.

    It is unclear why this is, but it might well be an important thing to explore and explain, since it is unlikely there will be proportional representation in the next federal election.

    Chris in a comment to another post has, I believe, pointed out the failure of those of us who call ourselves progressive, whether formally NDP, or independent.

    The reason why the Conservatives won so decisively–and why my friend was so frightened he voted for them–is they have defined not only what is “fiscally responsible” but also what is “fiscally possible.”

    That all that is possible is to “make things a little easier for your family.” (This is the NDP take on incrementalism.)

    It is very clear few, even progressives, believe it is possible, “fiscally possible” to end inequality, to build affordable housing, to do all the things even the NDP has now abandoned talking about; maybe the MP’s who are coming to Ottawa, especially the ones from Quebec, still believe not only IN these things, but that THEY CAN BE ACHIEVED.

    Whose fault/achievement is this vastly successful framing?

    Much of it, to be sure, is ‘slop over’ from America; the belief that only rich individuals know what to do; only rich persons can do it; and each of the rest of us can be rich, if only we ‘free’ everyone from all those pesky things like minimum wage, single-payer health care, environmental and labour regulations, etc etc.

    Because there is no possibility any nation as a collective can do this. What was it Margaret Thatcher said, ‘there is no society, only individuals and their families.’

    What has slowed this apparently inexorable process down in Canada–but it is the way globalization works, though this is not necessarily so–is a somewhat long tradition for collective action, not perfect, to be sure, but one that gave us a few things which most ‘responsible’ people believe we couldn’t afford.

    Or maybe, if we got rid of them, we might have the money to afford something–the $100 billion given in tax breaks in 2000.

    Most, even most who will read my comment, have long accepted the narrative that the ‘science’ of economics, or the ‘logic of household finance’ is the way the world works.

    Can anyone here tell me the NDP will be the centre of the challenge to this narrative?

    Please, can someone tell me the NDP will raise the challenge to this narrative?

    Will anyone raise the challenge to this narrative?

  • “because of the way its supporters aggregate in ridings, for whatever reason, it always fails to live up to what one might have expected in wins, unlike the old parties for the same support.”

    While the NDP underperformed in most of Canada, they overperformed in Quebec, so nationally they got 33% of the seats with 30.6% of the vote. For once, that did not happen to the NDP.

  • Statistics are nice. What we might really need to know is what makes someone think that the Cons will be responsible and honest stewards, who will do their best to benefit all of us, in the face of so much contrary evidence. Just how did they achieve this particular sleight of hand?

  • Andrew makes excellent observations about the NDP’s under-reported progress in English Canada. It is true that a huge vote gain produced only a modest seat gain.

    However, the NDP’s 44 seats in English Canada are more than it won nationally in any previous election and more than the Liberals won nationally this time. That seat total would have been perceived as a significant success had it not been overshadowed by far greater success in Quebec.

  • The voter turnout is the question that needs attention. The Conservatives were polling between 34 percent and 37 percent on the eve of the election. They received 40 of the vote, so they got their vote out. The NDP vote certainly came out, I have no stats for this, but the numbers Andrew refers seem higher than what was predicted in the days before the vote, except in Quebec.
    The reality is that there are a lot of Conservative voters, and always have been in English Canada. Without Quebec the Cons would have won most of the federal elections in Canada. Making the NDP the default choice can only happen by mobilizing the 38 percent of non voters.

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