This is a note I wrote before last Monday’s election. In some ways, it’s been superseded by more recent events. In others, however, I think it’s still somewhat pertinent (even if I didn’t really think, before May 2, that the worst-case scenario I mention towards the end was going to come to pass). In any case, I’ll write a follow-up post tomorrow offering my reading of the election results, and talking about the importance of riding-by-riding analysis (and, I suspect, campaigning).
The Election No-one Wanted?
Jeffrey Simpson had a fairly interesting [and in retrospect, clairvoyant] column in the Globe and Mail on April 30 about “The ‘Strange Death’ of Liberal Canada” (http://bit.ly/mOinGI). He deftly paints a picture of the history and the decline of the Liberal Party over the past 30 years. So far, so good. But it strikes me that he’s oddly obtuse in his analysis of the left-of-centre vote, and seriously tone deaf in his reading of the current political situation.
Here are the central paragraphs, epitomizing all that:
The arching coalition of Liberal Canada, therefore, had been shrivelling for years, even if “the actors were unaware” of the unfolding decline. Mr. Ignatieff and his advisers convinced themselves that the anti-democratic tactics of the Harper Conservatives and economic uncertainties post-recession had made the electorate ready for a change, although there was little evidence of such a readiness….
The “approaching catastrophe” wasn’t what Mr. Ignatieff and his advisers had in mind when they precipitated an election the country mostly didn’t want. That they might be replaced by the NDP as the alternative to the Conservatives never crossed their minds, for when had that party climbed above 20 per cent in the polls?
Mr Simpson is certainly right in his description of the deterioration of the Liberal national “coalition,” but he doesn’t ask, rather strangely, where voters that parted ways with the Grits went, and why. I’m not a political scientist and my knowledge of Canadian political history is shaky, but it seems fairly obvious to me that the Liberals, as a centre-left party, have traditionally relied on left-wing voters compromising their ideals in order to support the candidate who, in a first-past-the-post system, was likely to come closest to representing their political views. That’s not exactly strategic voting. It’s an ingrained awareness that in many ridings a vote for a less centrist candidate is probably a wasted vote. And while many will still choose to stick to their ideals, more voters are likely to flock to the centre in order to have at least a solid share of their views represented.
In the previous couple of elections, the Liberals lost votes less to the NDP or the Conservatives than to apathy: voters simply stayed at home, declining to support a party they’d grown weary of. In 2006, when Harper first got the largest share of the vote, he didn’t so much poach voters from the Liberals as attract new voters — the Grits lost some support, but the overall centre-left numbers held steady. Two years later, the picture was rather different: as the overall turnout declined, neither Conservatives nor NDP lost significant numbers of supporters, but Liberal voters stopped voting altogether (roughly a million fewer Canadians voted in 2008, and over 800,000 of those were Liberals). These stay-at-homers are an interesting lot: presumably they’re the true Liberal base — so centrist that voting for the Harperite Conservatives isn’t really an option for them, but not left-wing enough that voting NDP would be a palatable alternative. Disappointed with their own party, they had no other way of registering their disappointment than not registering any opinion at all.
Who then voted for the Libs in 2008? Presumably the same loose assortment of Canadians as before: centrists not annoyed enough to stay at home and leftists unconvinced that the NDP could win enough seats to avoid a Harper majority.
The recent polls suggest, at least to me, two things: the stay-at-home centrists haven’t come back (they’re still committed to their comfy sofa of apathy). And the gathering orange surge has convinced left-leaning Liberal voters that their actual social democratic political identity now has a chance of being more fully represented in parliament; thus they increasingly feel that moving to the NDP does not mean throwing away their vote. (This doesn’t fully explain the NDP surge, of course, especially given the party’s apparent success in attracting at least some former Conservative supporters).
My larger problem with Mr Simpson’s argument, however, is that he seems to take it for granted that “the country mostly didn’t want” an election — that the Liberals were wrong in their judgment that the “electorate [was] ready for a change.” I’m fairly certain he’s mistaken on both counts. But he’s wrong in a very Liberal way: that the majority of Canadians don’t seem ready to throw their support behind the Liberals as the force of change doesn’t mean that there isn’t a desire for political change in the country. He almost gets there in the end, when he offers the NDP as a newly viable alternative to the Tories, but stops short of facing up to what all polls now show: that an overwhelming majority of Canadians would vote for parties other than Harper’s, and a majority of those voters would support the NDP.
In sum, it sounds as if Mr Simpson is ready to equate a lack of enthusiasm for the Liberals with a lack of enthusiasm for this election or for change. The polls and, more tellingly, the advance voting figures suggest the opposite is true: that Canadians are keen to vote this year, and that real change might in fact be in the air. It’s entirely possible, of course, that the outcome of the election won’t reflect any of this — the vote in Ontario might split in such a way that the Tories gain seats, and it’s not even inconceivable (though unlikely) that they could win a majority of seats with an even smaller share of the popular vote than Chrétien in 1997 (and with much less of a mandate, given that Chrétien’s government still had the support of a centre-left popular majority).
But however the distribution of seats works out, the polls suggest that while we might be witnessing the impending end of Liberal Canada, liberal Canada is doing just fine. Nor is this development all that surprising. After the consolidation of votes on the right after 2004, a centrist position necessarily was going to lose appeal to voters on the left. Canada is not the US, after all. There, a Democratic party governing from the centre (if that) has long been the only viable alternative to hard-right Republicans. As Canadian Conservatism is taking on an ever more Republican appearance, though, the obvious, clearly demarcated alternative the NDP can offer has become more and more attractive, while the centre has shrunk. Put differently: the starker and less compromising the profile of the Tories, the less appealing the necessarily conciliatory and accommodating centrist approach.
On Monday, we’ll know what that means in practice.
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