Stalemate: On the By-Elections

Last night’s three by-elections produced…the status quo. The Conservatives held their two seats, and the NDP held their one.

Nonetheless, there’s good and bad news for every party in the results:

Conservatives
Good News: They held their 2 seats, winning convincingly in Durham, and still pulling 37% in Calgary-Centre with a controversial candidate.
Bad News: Their vote share dropped substantially in Calgary-Centre, supporting the idea that it could become competitive. They lost a significant share of votes in Victoria, as well, dropping to a distant third.

NDP
Good News: They held on to Victoria, and held their second place standing in Durham, gaining vote share to put further distance between them and the third place Liberals.
Bad News: Their vote share was down 13% in Victoria and they nearly lost what should have been a safe seat. They lost 11% in Calgary-Centre, finishing a distant fourth with less than 4% of the vote. Even though they were a clear second in Durham, they’re still nowhere near competing to win.

Liberals
Good News: They finished a strong second in Calgary-Centre, up 15% in vote share from 2011. The comments from David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau may have stalled their momentum, if they had any significant impact at all, but they didn’t cause the vote to crater. Harvey Locke finished on the high end of where the three polls conducted had him placed. Vote share-wise, they at least stopped their bleeding in Durham and Victoria.
Bad News: They got fewer votes cumulatively in the three ridings than the Greens, and were not a factor in either Durham or Victoria (where they finished third and fourth, respectively). There’s an argument to be made, as Colby did, that they simply turned out the loyal base in Calgary-Centre.

Greens
Good News: They finished a strong second in Victoria, nearly tripling their vote share from 2011, and a strong third in Calgary-Centre, where they more than doubled their share.
Bad News: Not much, actually. Both Donald Galloway (Victoria) and Chris Turner (Calgary-Centre) are strong candidates with local profile, so it would remain to be seen if they could hold their gains without these candidates running again in 2015.

3 Things We Might Have Learned
By-Elections Can Rarely Be Extrapolated for Broader Trends
It’s tempting to look for trends (A Green Wave in Western Canada? Stalled NDP growth? Liberals hit their ceiling? Conservatives drop votes?)

There may be local trends to watch, though. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the Greens could be growing a beachhead on Vancouver Island (Liz May’s riding is next door), in Calgary, the Liberals still have life, and Chris Turner has local appeal, and Durham is rock solid Tory country.

The Political Climate is Still Unsettled
2011 may yet prove to be a realignment election, but further movement to solidify that was absent from last night’s result. The Liberals held their share in two ridings, and nearly doubled it in another. The Green Party saw the major growth last night, not the ascendant NDP. As mentioned, they themselves nearly lost an incumbent seat, and barely factored in another.

What I take this to mean is that we’re in an unsettled period, and while a two-party CPC-NDP system may be the end result, it’s still too fluid to call.

The Vote-Splitting and Unite-the-Left Arguments Miss the Point
In Calgary-Centre particularly, vote splitting was named as the cause of the Conservative Party victory. Let me be unequivocally clear: no party lost because of vote splitting. They lost because of a failure to appeal to and/or turn out enough voters. No party of the left will win unless they understand this.

As the Conservative Party experiment teaches us, 1+1 does not = 2. I put together a table of votes by party from 1984-2011, combining the ‘right’ and ‘left’ vote. For the latter, there’s a column for it with and without the Green Party. As you can see, it took three elections for the CPC to reach the combined vote of the PCs and Canadian Alliance from 2000. The party has never reached the vote share earned by the PCs in 1988. 1993, in fact, saw a major shift from the NDP to the Reform across Western Canada, which would seem incomprehensible if voters made decisions strictly on ideological grounds. This piece makes a good argument that last night, the Greens gained, more than anyone else, from Conservative losses. Rather than being seen as a third pillar of the progressive/left, the Greens, like the Bloc, probably pull from all across the spectrum, or at worst, being a safe place to park a protest vote.

There is some merit to the argument when examined another way. Rather than looking at votes in raw numbers, we need to examine voting coalitions. Our system, for better or worse, rewards brokerage parties – those that appeal to a broad spectrum of interests. When I have argued in previous posts that no progressive/left-centre party can form a majority government, it’s based on the fact that none of them have a broad enough coalition. Merger may bring this about, but it’s likely that voters from one or both previous parties would park their votes elsewhere, or stay home. The same would happen with attrition. Strategic voting, or dividing ridings won’t accomplish this, but brokerage will.

The way to a progressive government in this country is for one of the three current options to find a way to appeal to enough citizens and interests groups to form a coalition that can appeal to 40-45% of voters on a regular basis. The big lesson for me from last night is that the window for either the NDP, Liberals, or Greens to accomplish this is still wide open.

The Left’s Calgary-Centre Challenge

Tomorrow, three by-elections occur across Canada. In two – the Conservative stronghold of Durham, and Victoria, where the NDP have won comfortably the past three elctions – the incumbent party is expected to win by a large margin. The third, Calgary-Centre, has unexpectedly turned into a hotly contested race.

Calgary, as a city, last elected a non-conservative MP (PC/Reform/Alliance/CPC) in 1968. The closest thing to a disruption occured in this riding in 2000, when the non-Canadian Alliance vote coalesced around Progressive Conservative Party leader Joe Clark, boosting him to victory.

Now, the riding appears to be close. The Conservatives opened the door to a challenge by nominating a controversial candidate in Joan Crockett, and exacerbated it by shielding her from most public forums. All three opposition parties nominated strong candidates in their own right – the Liberals with notable conservationist Harvey Locke, the NDP with Dan Meades, the Director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, and the Greens with notable author Chris Turner. (Personal disclosure: I have some acquaintance with Harvey Locke, and serve on a board with his wife).

Two polls from Forum Research show a potential three-way race with Crockett ahead, Locke just behind, and Turner as the stalking horse in third. A poll from Return on Insight shows Crockett just ahead of Locke, with Turner comfortably in third, but far behind.

While I would love to see Harvey Locke (or Chris Turner) win this seat, safe money is still on Crockett. While by-elections do often produce abnormal results, one has to figure the floor for a Conservative candidate in this riding is in the mid-30s even with a weaker candidate. If you have the third and fourth place candidates pulling in around 30% of the vote (in ROI) or higher (in Forum), that leaves about 30-35% of the vote, if the Conservatives hit their floor. In other words, not a lot of space for another candidate to pull ahead.

This is a problem that will continue to repeat itself, until the three left of centre parties sort themselves out. I expect this to happen over the next two election cycles through attrition or merger. If three survive as viable entities, it will be because at least one retreats to becoming a largely regional entity.

Win or lose tomorrow, the Calgary-Centre by-election points to some key challenges centre-left parties, no matter which ones survive or emerge, need to overcome to be a true threat to government.

Calgary Tower
Calgary-Centre is a bellwether for progressive hopes in the west.

The Need to Stop Beating Up Your Own
The most biting attack of this campaign was a Chris Turner mailer where…he attacked Harvey Locke. Echoing the Conservative “he didn’t come back for you!” attack on Michael Ignatieff, Turner chastises Locke for spending many years away from Calgary. These are far harsher words than he has for Crockett at any point. Reminiscent of the PC/Reform battles in Ontario through the ’90s, the centre-left is likely to continue beating itself up in order to try to become the alternative. In the meantime, the Conservatives will be able to largely coast into office until this is sorted out.

Someone suggested to me that Locke and Turner are drawing strengths from two different constituencies (more established liberals vs. young civic activists), and while this may be true, the broader point is that it is unlikely that any non-Conservative candidate can win regularly without the support of both.

The Need to Be Competitive Across the Country
To their credit, Liberal Party leadership candidates have grasped the need to reach out to the west, and Alberta in particular. The NDP have made inroads in Edmonton, winning one riding in 2008 and holding it in 2011. The province is not only influential because of its role in the economy, but because of its fast growing population. It will gain another 6 seats prior to the 2015 election.

It is still possible for a party to win a majority based on strength elsewhere in the country (Ontario, Quebec, and BC remain seat-rich), but it’s hard to see any party but the Conservatives winning a majority without at least some seats from the prairie provinces, Alberta in particular.

Another consideration is this – the need to simply make this area of the country more competitive. At the moment, the Conservatives can effectively bank at least 24 of 28 seats in Alberta prior to the writ drop (that’s being generous by including Calgary-Centre, along with NDP-held Edmonton-Strathcona, and once Liberal/NDP-held Edmonton Centre and Edmonton East). That means that the party can redirect advertising dollars and human resources elsewhere, both organizers and its leader (and leading cabinet ministers). While other parties need to defend their home turf, so to speak, the Conservatives can focus on swing ridings and areas of growth. Simply making at least Edmonton and Calgary more competitive would help centre-left parties across the country in that respect.

As an aside, it’s striking how few centre-left MPs of significance Alberta has produced in the past 80 years (if not longer), aside from Anne McLellan. While many prominent Liberals or CCF/NDPs have carved out notable careers at the provincial level or as Mayor of Calgary or Edmonton, none have made a successful breakthrough to the federal level. While the province gets labeled as a bastion of conservatism, that list of prominent centre-left politicians would include Laurence Decore, Grant Notley, Grant MacEwan, Nick Taylor, Ivor Dent, Jan Reimer, Al Duerr, and Dave Bronconnier, to name a few. Every other province can point to both prominent progressive and conservative politicians it has produced, even if it reliably supports one party (or ideology) over others.

The Need to Win Across the Country
Having said all that, Calgary-Centre is precisely the type of riding that a centre-left party will need to win in order to compete for and win government on a regular basis. It’s demographics largely resemble areas that support centre-left parties across the country, and provincially, it includes parts or all of ridings that have elected Liberals in recent elections, such as Calgary-Buffalo and Calgary-Currie.

Without a major realignment, it’s hard to see any centre-left party winning government except, as I said earlier this year, in case of a charismatic leader who disrupts voting patters or when scandal and voter fatigue catch up to government.

In figuring the road to a majority government for the NDP, Liberal Party, Green Party, or some combination thereof, it’s hard to see how that happens without winning 3-6 seats in each of the prairie provinces.

Some pundits are predicting a historic upset, and I do hope to see it change hands. However, what I think is more likely is that Calgary-Centre can the launching pad for progressive inroads in the west. In this respect, Edmonton-Strathcona is a model. While most remember “Liberals for Linda”, and how the progressive vote coalesced around her as she squeaked out a win in 2008, fewer seem to remember that she effectively kept campaigning from the 2006 election onward. The NDP also targeted that riding with regular mailings and appearances. If the Liberals, Greens, or NDP are serious about winning Calgary-Centre, they can’t give up after tomorrow night, should they be unsuccessful. If they do, it will start inching back towards the status quo. Tomorrow’s by-election should be the start of a consistent, steady campaign to build inroads and support so that it’s a true race come 2015, and if it doesn’t change hands then, that it’s poised to soon afterwards. Making the necessary inroads to win support in Western Canada is going to be a long process. Done right, tomorrow night can be a catalyst for that.