Majority government between a ROC and a hard place

How many times has Québec gone one way and the rest-of-Canada (ROC) went the other? Quite a few, in fact. There are different campaigns playing out in different languages, with different traditions, and different versions of history. It’s pretty tough to knit Québec and ROC into one coherent national campaign.

Pierre Trudeau famously took 74 out of 75 seats in Québec in 1980 and formed a majority government without winning a seat west of Winnipeg. That was after Joe Clark had formed a minority PC government in 1979 after being almost completely shut out in Québec. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority in 2011 based almost entirely on his dominance of English Canada.

What does current polling tell us about the potential for a majority government?

Let’s take a look at results in ROC and Québec since 2004 and layer in the latest aggregated polling from CBC.

Rest-of-Canada (ROC) popular vote results

Federal election results in ROC 2004-2019 plus 2021 polling (Sept 14)

In 2004, the Conservatives and Liberals were basically tied in ROC, when Paul Martin formed a minority government. They diverged in 2006 with the Conservatives gaining an upper hand and achieved their own minority. The gap widened in 2008, though the Conservatives still fell short of a majority as ROC gains could not overcome Conservative weakness in Québec. In 2011, the Conservatives received almost a majority of the votes (47%) in ROC while the Liberals plunged to an historic low. While Jack Layton had an uptick in ROC, the big story was a transfer of Liberals to the Conservative column. The Justin Trudeau Liberals made a dramatic comeback in 2015, edging the Conservatives in ROC, supplemented by their gains in Québec. The Conservatives won ROC in 2019, yet failed to win government, and the gap between the two parties in ROC, so far, in 2021 election polling is about the same. Bear in mind that the Conservatives have done well in ROC because they do so well in Alberta. This election, they are running about 20% lower in Alberta (yet will likely hold almost all of their seats), while they are doing better in Ontario relative to the Liberals – that’s a better and more efficient situation seats-wise. The NDP trajectory is surprisingly flat. Even the Layton breakthrough election of 2011 did not see a groundswell in ROC, with the vote staying below 27%.

Current polling showing PPC at 7% in ROC is obviously a significant development and, if it holds, could deny the Conservatives key seat gains and an opportunity to widen the gap with the Liberals. Conversely, late-stage polarization could funnel NDP and Greens to the Liberals. The final days in ROC may well be a furious flurry of strategic voting arguments. Right now, current polling results do not give either party a clear shot at a majority.

How about Québec?

Québec popular vote results

Federal election results in Québec 2004-2019 plus 2021 polling (Sept 14)

Compared to ROC, Québec has been more volatile since 2004. From 2004 to 2015, it was marked by a steady decline in support for the Bloc Québécois. Its lowest points in 2011 and 2015 coincided with majority governments held by Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau respectively.

The Liberals also declined from 2004 to 2011, but roared to first in 2015 which helped enable a Liberal majority. The Grits held their vote in 2019 while the Bloc was revived at the expense of the NDP. The NDP trajectory goes to show how much the Jack Layton breakthrough depended on Québec, and how far the NDP’s prospects have fallen there since. With the relatively flat trajectory in ROC for the NDP, the current scenario fully returns the NDP to its tradition of being a non-contending party and occasional balance of power. The Conservatives enjoyed a bump up to its highest level during this era in 2006 when the Paul Martin Liberals were shown the door and the Bloc was starting to wave. As the Conservatives governed, they saw their small beachhead dwindle to below 20%. The 2021 election shows a potential uptick for Les Bleus but not likely to materialize in beacoup de circonscriptions.

While interpreting Canada’s regional realities is a lot more complex than just “ROC” and Québec, it is clear that in order to form a majority government, a party needs to win big in one, or win both by at least a little.

The psychologies at work in Election 44

With Election Day looming, the Liberals and Conservatives are basically stalemated.  The uncertainty of the outcome and the momentum changes are gruelling for those involved in the campaigns. I cannot help but channel my own past experiences and think of the various psychologies that must be at work in the war rooms and among grassroots supporters.

For the Liberals, about a week before the election call, they had the jaunty bounce of those who read positive poll results and gleeful reports of their opponents’ demise.  The pundit/Twitter consensus dictated that a majority was to be had, that the Conservatives were “in trouble”, and that the Liberals should “go now” to “get a mandate” – all of this very enticing. 

Who knows whether there were voices inside the room that expressed caution, advocated for going earlier, or later.  In the days leading up to the August 15th election call, Afghanistan was careening out of control.  It’s hard when you have set out a campaign plan, signalled to the world that this is your intention, then face the prospect of pulling back from your plan when the plane is almost in the air.  At some moment, the Liberal campaigners must have considered whether the election call should be postponed.  But the hawks prevailed.

I can relate to that.  The Liberal campaign team has been through the wars.  A pitch-perfect come-from-behind win in 2015, a jarring 2019 re-election effort that was preceded by the JWR / SNC Lavalin controversy, blown sideways by blackface, followed by the onslaught of COVID, social movements of “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter”, and the sorrow unleashed by the identification of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School.  They have collectively faced a lot of situations in elections and in government, and Afghanistan was the latest in a long list. Camaraderie, loyalty, and trust is built through tough and challenging times. Plus, let’s face it, Justin Trudeau is a political unicorn – he is a brand unto himself.  Every Canadian has an opinion about him, love him or hate him, and when you have that ability to command attention, it’s very unique.  The braintrust was undoubtedly confident in him, themselves, and pushed on.  

Hon. Bob Rae ended up in power after a disastrous summer snap election call

We know now the Liberals did not get their campaign off to an auspicious start, facing a hotter than usual national media corps that had Afghanistan on split screen, demanding to know “Why now?”  The Liberals didn’t give a good answer.  Immediately, some conjured up ghosts of David Peterson’s Ontario Liberals of 1990 who called a summer election at the seemingly high heights of his powers only to suffer a humiliating and decisive defeat to Bob Rae’s NDP.  

What is clear that two weeks into this campaign, the Liberals had an increasingly sticky problem.  Voters were shifting, particularly in Ontario.  Some excited pollsters proclaimed the Conservative “freight train” was on its way to a majority.  Pretty bold.  In the Liberal war room, confidence and experience could well have translated into slower reaction to events unfolding around them.  However, with confidence and experience, the ability to marshal resources to turn the campaign in another direction could make for a major impact.  That brings about memories about past campaigns like 2004 when Paul Martin entered the campaign period as the odds-on favourite, but was pressed hard by upstart Stephen Harper and the newly re-united Conservatives.  David Herle, Martin’s campaign manager, spoke on his podcast Curse of Politics about hitting the panic button in 2004 when Liberal polling numbers dipped below 30%.  The old plan was thrown into the garbage and a new plan was drawn up.  Martin’s Liberals rallied, went negative, dug up some primo opposition research, and formed a minority government.  

Lots of campaign lessons here. Waiting for the next edition of this campaign classic

I was involved in the B.C. election campaign in 2017 where our team was stocked with experience and had an ample supply of confidence.  The start of this federal campaign was eerily familiar.  A flat start followed by (speaking for myself) a slow-to-realize reckoning about what was happening.  The voters were moving with their feet while our campaign heads were up in the clouds.  We scrapped and fought to get back on a better footing, but every time we made a step forward, or had a plan we thought would work, we had a setback to stall us.  We simply could not pull away from our competition nor could they pull away from us.  Similar feeling in 1996 in B.C. where we were way ahead, then we were way behind, and caught back up to even.  For the final two weeks, we could not generate momentum and neither could our competition.  That feeling you are looking for is when, no matter what you do, it comes up roses, is Momentum.  The campaign office buzz gets louder.  Everyone is walking faster, with more urgency.  Lawn signs fly out of the office.   I can only imagine that the second and third weeks of this campaign were challenging for the Liberals – they didn’t have that feeling.  They were imploring support, rather than receiving it. 

What about the Conservatives? I have been involved in and seen campaigns where there was no faith in the campaign team, the leader, or any prospect of victory.  It really comes down to a key distinction – does the campaign team and leader believe in themselves, or is the effort truly doomed?

On the eve of the election call, the Conservative campaign was roundly crapped on for running a juvenile social media ad that was a takeoff of a scene from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  What were they up to? The political intelligentsia pounced on the perceived amateurism and a Conservative MP was compelled to call out his own national campaign team (never a good sign).  Meanwhile, the video got over a million hits.  Whether the Conservatives were playing 4-D chess or screwing around is beside the point.  The team could have fallen apart amidst caucus and internal discord. Instead, it looks like the Wonka controversy served to reinforce the Conservative campaign’s “us against the world” mentality.

The internal infighting is often the result of insecurity and not believing in the plan as grassroots supporters are influenced by media commentary. There’s nothing that rankled me more than to hear defeatists. “We should try to save our core seats” was a common refrain. My uncle, a WWII veteran, not to mention a candidate for Pearson in ’65, talked about those who got “hemorrhoids on their way to Halifax”, meaning some people weren’t really up for a fight.  Or you hear complaints about the campaign team not being up to the job.  In fact, I read about my job performance in the Vancouver Sun one day: “some Liberals must be wondering whether McDonald is over his head in this campaign”.  I’m sure the columnist had been hearing from a few Schadenfreudians.  There’s a lot of them when you’re losing, but they are hard to find when you win.

Yes, you gotta be audacious to win

You gotta ignore the whispers, even when they’re loud, because battle-scarred politicos know that anything is possible.  If you have been around long enough, you have seen it happen.  I was part of efforts that were more like comets than campaigns – Sharon Carstairs’ Manitoba breakthrough in 1988, Gordon Wilson taking the B.C. Liberals from obscurity to Official Opposition, and watched from afar as Justin Trudeau went from third to first in 2015, and, last month, Nova Scotia’s PC’s taking power after being leagues under water months earlier.  Conventional wisdom is often wrong.  How many more times does that need to be proven? Most pundits and media experts play it safe.  They stick to the consensus.  Smart politicos understand and have a pulse for voters and know that they can move quickly, decisively, and sometimes imperceptibly, especially during the writ period.  Erin O’Toole and his campaign team likely believed, and likely still do, that they could win. Smaller parties, like the NDP, the Greens, and the Peoples Party cling to the hope of anything is possible as well.  Need I say it? Campaigns Matter!

As the campaign moved through its first week, the Conservatives would have been feeling good.  They launched successfully, including a smooth platform unveiling.  While the Liberals stumbled, Erin O’Toole had a clear path to introduce himself to Canadians.  The Conservatives were doing some things differently – the platform, charting a path for middle ground, and communicating and touring in a new way.  Likely, they were feeling, “Our plan is starting to work.”  They were probably feeling that on the ground too. As the first week rolled into the next, the public polling numbers were creating an environment that Conservative prospects were being taken more seriously, which made the Liberal call of the election a bigger story.  Had Justin blown it? A nice run of momentum started to unfold that must have felt like uncharted territory.  Who knows what Conservative internal polling numbers showed, but public poll numbers are avidly read by grassroots supporters and the 99% of headquarters staff that don’t see the closely guarded internal tracking. Things were looking up! The Conservative inside voice: “Do we dare to dream? Are we allowed to have nice things?

Many campaigns go through phases, which makes sense.  As one party gets the upper hand, the main rival normally does everything in its power to push back.  In situations where a government has been in power for a long time, it’s harder for an incumbent government to push back when ‘time for a change’ is in the air.  It has to be compelling.  As much as the national media has its inherent biases, they like a big story more. Justin Trudeau blowing the election is a big story.  An exciting horse race is a bigger story than a dull pre-determined outcome, like the Chrétien re-elections in 1997 and 2000.  With Conservatives on the rise, and Liberals on the ropes, what’s gonna happen next? Is this the end of Justin, or will he prevail again? Stay tuned for more!

The Liberals have amped up the attacks and found one that seemed to hurt – on guns.  Frankly, I’m not even sure of the details of the issue.  All I heard was that the Conservatives had a policy, and they flip-flopped mid-campaign.  That is never a good idea.  It’s a tough spot – they likely felt they were taking water in urban and suburban ridings that they targeted for victory in the GTHA and Metro Vancouver, and among attainable younger and female voters. They must have come to believe that they could not persevere with the current policy so decided to course-correct.  One wonders how that decision was made, on what timeline, and who was in the room?  Was it decided by ‘committee’, were they forced by candidates threatening to speak out, was it a Leader directive?  Whatever the case, it created a new problem – a perception that the Leader is a flip-flopper when under pressure.  They may have believed their plan would work and talked themselves into it, perhaps without getting an outside read on it.  Whether or not voters even care about the gun issue or how the Conservatives responded, it will be having an effect on the Liberal war room by putting wind in their sails, and on the Conservatives who may have the sinking feeling that they were outfoxed by the Liberals on an attack that they had to know was coming. They should have been able see that big red missile from one coast to the other.

In 2013, the BC Liberal campaign seized on a mid-campaign flip flop by the NDP leader.  Similarly, it was an issue that everyone could see coming but the NDP tried to finesse it.  The narrative became not that issue – oil pipelines – but leadership. The leader was a weathervane.

We are at that point now in this election where it’s truly up for grabs – everyone knows it – with the final French language debate followed by the lone English language debate.  By the time the leaders walk off the stage on Thursday night, it’s a ten-day sprint to final voting day. 

The debates are high stakes.  My first campaign in 1984 was as a lowly, yet devoted young Liberal in no-hope riding.  John Turner was a very admirable leader with an impeccable record of public service.  Yet, he took on the leadership at the tail end of an almost-uninterrupted 21-year run of Liberal government- and he was rusty.  In that year’s election debate, Brian Mulroney delivered a devastating critique of Liberal patronage appointments.  The election was over that night, though it limped on for weeks.  In 1988, the rematch debate delivered a different thunderbolt when Turner delivered a passionate, patriotic attack on Mulroney over Free Trade.  The effect was immediate and the Liberals rocketed to the top of the polls after starting the campaign in third and withstanding an attempted leadership coup. However, Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives had time on their side and wheeled against the Liberals with a furious negative onslaught, prevailing on election night.  

Rt.Hon. John Turner, R.I.P. – 1 for 2 in debates

In 1991, I attended the B.C. Leaders debate as part of a motley crew of Liberal campaign volunteers.  Leader Gordon Wilson strutted around the small CBC dressing room, bare chested, focusing on his breathing exercises, and astutely disregarding the scattershot advice being tossed at him by me and others. He knew what he had to, and he delivered the most memorable line in B.C. election debate history.  That debate blew up the campaign and led to the end of the Social Credit Party.  I was learning early in my political life that debates matter and how they could turn the psychology of campaigns upside down.

I never had fun watching a debate after 1991.  Henceforth, my party was expected to win and no longer a plucky insurgent. Debates brought stress – even when I had nothing to do with the preparation.  I could barely watch.  When things went well, we cheered, and when things didn’t go well, we rationalized that it wasn’t a big deal, but sometimes you had those “uh oh” moments.  Thinking back to provincial debates over the years, I don’t recall many dramatic moments – I just remember a lot of careful preparation undertaken by the debate teams and the pressure on the leaders.  

When I directed the 2013 BC Liberal campaign, I had little to do with debate prep. It was not my strength and certainly not my happy place.  We had a great team of advisors that thought through the content, the camera angles, and how best to rehearse.  But I do remember watching the debate and feeling good and feeling proud of our team and our leader, Christy Clark. It was exactly how you want to feel at a seminal moment of the campaign.  Then what followed was that feeling of momentum, not just in my bones, but in our nightly tracking.  The debate was a big factor in our ultimate success.

Debate night must be a moment aspiring leaders imagine for years.  Other than election night, it is probably the most exciting moment of the campaign, especially when there are fireworks. This is Justin Trudeau’s third election, and Jagmeet Singh’s second.  Erin O’Toole is the newcomer.  Their relative experience in debates will flow into their leaders’ teams.  How to protect against over-confidence?  How to build up under-confidence? How to get the leaders in ‘the zone’?  And uncluttered. A common problem with leaders is that they are over-scheduled.  Have their teams found the right balance to let the Leaders rest, think and prepare, amidst a frenzied election campaign?  Have they settled on their final debate strategy or are they spitballing until the stage lights turn on? 

The Destiny of Canada is at stake… it is an epic contest for the future of Canada

The French language debates are over and on English language debate night, thousands of campaign volunteers will be watching every moment and the psychology of their respective campaigns will be impacted by how they feel their leaders performed.  In fact, the campaigns will tell their volunteers how their leader performed.  “We won!”.  Polls will be generated to show they won.  A furious spin war will be waged with edicts to grassroots supporters to share, tweet, Instagram, TikTok, phone, doorknock, and telepathically transmit that their leader won the debate.

That’s where this story ends for now.  The final ten days will be a roller coaster ride for all campaigns.  Their hopes are invested in their leaders and in themselves.  At the centre of it all is two campaign war rooms that are vying to govern.  The Liberal team, is no doubt, facing the Conservative challenge squarely in the eyes now, and drawing upon its collective experience and confidence in order to prevail, while exhorting supporters to stay true and steady in order to beat off the surprising Conservative challenge.  The Conservative team is thirsty for a win, yearning for its taste from the goblet of victory, made sweeter by the doubters, while keeping at bay the nagging feeling, nurtured by past defeats, that it could fall out of their grasp just when it seemed victory was so close.

Key battlegrounds at-a-glance

Election 44 appears to be a close battle at the national level, but how is it playing out in Canada’s three largest provinces compared to the past two elections?

British Columbia – All three major national parties are competitive in B.C., with any of three capable of gaining a plurality of seats. Right now, current aggregated polling results via CBC’s Polltracker website show the Liberals holding steady compared to 2019, the Conservatives down slightly, and the NDP up (at the expense of the Greens, it seems). The upshot is that, in terms of seats, the standings of Liberals relative to the Conservatives would not change much in this scenario. For a major shift, one of the three parties needs to break from the pack.

Quebec is complicated, as usual. The Bloc is down and the Liberals, despite declining slightly, are holding their ground. The NDP and Conservatives are up compared to 2019, but at those levels, does not equate into significant seat gains. Plus du même?

Ontario is where the action is. To their detriment, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives could not make gains in 2019 in this vote-rich battleground. This time, the Erin O’Toole Conservatives are running neck and neck with the Liberals, despite an uptick in support for the Peoples Party. Last election, the Liberals won Ontario by 9% and took 79/121 seats, almost the same as their majority win in 2015 when they won 80/121. Clearly, the Conservatives must make major gains here in order to win a plurality of seats. Flipping 18 seats from red to blue, everything else being equal, would lead to a tie in seats nation-wide.

The numbers in these battlegrounds will shift and move yet again. To borrow a golf saying, we’re now at “moving day at the Masters” meaning this is the time where parties will make their defining moves, or fall back. The next few days, including the debates, will set up the final round of Election 44. Who’s tee shot is going to land in the rough, who is going to be chipping from the sand trap, and who is going to drain that 44 foot birdie putt to win it all? It looks like the most important golf will be played in Ontario.

The Top 2 parties ain’t what they used to be

The Top 2 parties routinely took three-quarters of the popular vote between them until Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard came along and blew up Canada’s political landscape. It hasn’t been the same since.

Going back to John Diefenbaker’s win in 1957 through to Brian Mulroney’s win in 1988, the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals had a duopoly, averaging 77% between them in the elections over that time. Since 1993, the top 2 parties have averaged only 66% between them, with other parties taking a greater share of the popular vote. And sometimes, the Liberals and Conservatives weren’t even in the top 2.

In 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party, which had won back-to-back majorities, disintegrated due to the centrifugal forces of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the imposition of the GST, plus a bunch of other stuff. The day after the 1993 election, those wearing blue pyjamas woke up in cold sweats facing a Quebec separatist party as Official Opposition led by a former senior Minister in the Mulroney government, a western alienation party as the third party led by a prominent small c conservative, and, relegated to fourth place, the once mighty PC party reduced to two seats. A waking nightmare! I imagine there is a plaque at the Albany Club that refers to this dark day.

Since 1993, the Top 2 parties have only combined for over 70% of the votes only twice – both when majority governments were formed (Harper 2011, Trudeau 2015).

The chart below shows the combined popular vote of the top 2 parties since 1957. For the most part, the Liberals (red) and (pre 1993-Progressive) Conservatives (blue) have been the top two parties. In terms of popular vote, the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance (purple) were 2nd place finishers in 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections. Jack Layton’s NDP (orange) finished second in 2011, the only time in 21 elections the Liberals were not in the Top 2.

The black line shows the margin of victory (popular vote) between the 1st and 2nd place parties. In two instances, the winning party, that went on to govern, had fewer votes than the 2nd place party. In 1979, Joe Clark’s PC’s won more seats but trailed the Liberals by over 4% in the popular vote. In 2019, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives won the popular vote by about 1% but Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had more seats. Polling as of August 24th is shown, accounting for a combined 64% between the top 2 parties.

What the black line does show is that majorities happen when there is a significant margin between the top 2 parties. In the 1990s, when the Top 2 parties had less share of the vote, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals were walloping the split conservative factions, divided between Reform/Alliance and the PCs. Chrétien’s margin of victory was between 15% to 23% over those three elections. The right wingers got the ol’ Shawinigan handshake in those days.

It’s tightened up since then due to the Conservative merger leading into the 2004 election. Harper and Trudeau won majorities with 9% and 8% margins of victory respectively. In fact, since Diefenbaker, no party has won a majority with less than a 7.7% margin of victory. (Harper missed a majority in 2008 despite winning the popular vote by 11% – no matter how many votes you get in Alberta, you can only win a riding once per election)

It doesn’t mean that a majority can’t be won with a margin lower than 7%. Last election, the Trudeau Liberals were only 13 seats shy of a majority despite losing the popular vote. They had very efficient vote distribution. With votes in the right places, they could win a majority with less than a 5% margin over the Conservatives – and they would be making history if they did so. Right now, the public polls indicate the gap has tightened between the two parties in the first week of the campaign so if either party is going to take a majority, they have work to do.

It’s tough enough for any party to get to 40% these days, making the 50%+ wins of Diefenbaker in 1957 and Mulroney in 1984 ever more impressive. Both Progressive Conservatives, go figure.

The growing share of other parties since 1993 also makes it tougher to win a majority. The NDP, the Greens, and, most notably, the Bloc are taking seats off the table from the Top 2 parties. It was easy for Chrétien when he could dominate a split opposition just as it was easy for Harper in 2011 when he the centre-left was split. In the context of a competitive two-way race, with lots of other parties cluttering the landscape, it will take a combination of overall popular vote strength and efficiency, meaning winning more seats by a little versus winning fewer seats by a lot.

At the end of the day, we count seats not votes in Parliament. But the history of popular vote signals what it takes to win in the fragmented post-1993 era.

See the data below:

Govt2ndOtherTotalMargin
195739%41%21%79%-2.0%
195854%34%13%87%19.9%
196237%37%26%74%0.3%
196341%33%26%74%8.7%
196540%32%27%73%7.8%
196845%31%23%77%13.9%
197238%35%27%73%3.4%
197443%35%21%79%7.7%
197936%40%24%76%-4.2%
198044%32%23%77%11.9%
198450%28%22%78%22.0%
198843%32%25%75%11.1%
199341%19%40%60%22.6%
199738%19%42%58%19.1%
200041%25%34%66%15.4%
200437%30%34%66%7.1%
200636%30%34%67%6.0%
200838%26%36%64%11.4%
201140%31%30%70%9.0%
201539%32%29%71%7.6%
201933%34%33%67%-1.2%

Drawing the line on a majority government

When it comes to winning a majority government, what does it take in terms of popular vote? While its the number of seats, and not the number of votes, that truly matters, popular vote is a guide as to the likelihood of whether the leading party forms a minority or majority government.

In the past 65 years, the magic number has been a minimum of 38.5% for a majority and a minimum of 33.1% (the Liberal 2019 result) for a plurality of the seats, which historically leads to a minority government.  The highest popular vote that did not translate into a majority was 41.5% (Pearson, 1963), therefore, the modern-day range has been 38.5% to qualify for a majority and over 41.5% to most likely be free and clear of a minority.

Over under

In fact, the 2019 election was the first time the governing party was elected with less than 34% of the popular vote.  Justin Trudeau’s 33.1% was the new low, falling beneath John A. Macdonald’s 34.8% from Canada’s first post-Confederation election in 1867.

In 2019, the relative standings of the major parties were fairly consistent except for a latter-campaign uptick for the NDP. No major reversals of fortune took place with no party able to pull away to gain a majority.

Source: Wikipedia

It was a different story in 2015. The Liberals eclipsed the NDP mid-campaign, won the ‘Stop Harper primary’, and gained separation over a static Conservative voter base. (In 2011, Jack Layton’s NDP eclipsed Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals during the writ period).

Source: Wikipedia

There are different pathways to a majority as parties cobble together seats across the provinces. For the Liberals, a assuming they are BLOCked from major gains in Quebec, it’s getting more out the regions outside of Ontario. For the Conservatives, it’s doing better, much better, in Ontario – in 2011, Stephen Harper won 69% of Ontario’s seats, but in 2019, Andrew Scheer only took 30% of the seats there. For both the reds and the blues, the competitive British Columbia battleground can add the mustard to the winning hot dog.

Momentum shifts can take place, sometimes imperceptibly. The public pollsters are telling us, in Election 2021, that no party has demonstrated it’s in ‘majority territory’. In this day and age, with the Bloc taking a good share of votes in Quebec, and the Greens and PPC carving upwards of 10% of the vote, a majority may not require 38.5%, but until a party climbs above 36-37%, it’s most likely that a minority government, in some form, will be the likely outcome.

The seats to watch in BC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears poised to call an election for September 20th with the hopes of attaining a majority of the seats. The Liberals won 157 seats in 2019, falling 13 short of a majority. Losing six seats in BC certainly didn’t help.

The Liberals enter this election with 11 seats in BC.

Party BC standings20152019
Liberals1711
Conservative1017
NDP1411
Green12
Independent01

In 2019, there were 32 seats in BC that stayed the course and 10 seats that switched hands, mostly at the expense of the Liberals.

Riding2015 winner2019 winner
Vancouver GranvilleLiberal – floor crossing to independentIndependent
Steveston – Richmond EastLiberalConservative
Pitt Meadows – Maple RidgeLiberalConservative
Cloverdale – Langley CityLiberalConservative
Mission – Matsqui – Fraser CanyonLiberalConservative
Kelowna – Lake CountryLiberalConservative
South Surrey – White RockConservative – Liberal (by-election)Conservative
Nanaimo – LadysmithNDP – Green (by-election)Green
Port Moody – CoquitlamNDPConservative
Kootenay – ColumbiaNDPConservative

*The Liberals had 17 seats heading into the 2019 election, with the election of Gordie Hogg in the South Surrey-White Rock by-election offsetting the loss of Jody Wilson-Raybould who was sitting as an Independent at dissolution. Paul Manly of the Green Party won a 2019 by-election in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, filling the seat vacated by NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson.

The Conservatives gained eight seats in the 2019 election (winning back one that they lost in a by-election), though Conservative governments have typically relied on winning a majority of seats in BC, or close to it. In Stephen Harper’s 2011 election victory, the Conservatives won 21 of 36 BC seats.

Given the amount of dancing and celebrating on Election Night, the NDP campaign was seen as a ‘success’ in 2019 despite losing seats nation-wide and in BC. Blessed by low expectations, they ended up salvaging 11 of 13 held seats in BC, but failed to win back Nanaimo-Ladysmith which they lost in a by-election. The Greens doubled their seat count, while Jody Wilson-Raybould defended her seat as an independent.

All eyes on BC’s battleground ridings. (image: CBC)

What’s ahead in the 2021 election?

The Liberals have been leading in BC according to various pollsters. Pre-writ polls are an unreliable indicator of future events, since most voters won’t tune-in until the writ period. But going with the prevailing trend right now, the Liberals look poised to retain and add seats, the NDP are competitive and in a position to add seats, and the Conservatives’ biggest battle will be in seat retention. Again, things can change. “Campaigns matter”, scream political strategists everywhere.

As of Friday, August 13th, the CBC poll tracker has the popular vote in BC at an aggregated 34% Liberal, 29% NDP, and 26% Conservative. This is basically a return to 2015 popular vote numbers in BC for the Liberals, when they had a plurality of the seats. The Conservatives are going in the wrong direction. The NDP look stronger compared to 2015 and 2019, while the Greens appear to be struggling compared to the last election.

What’s striking about the table below is how fast things change. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had a massive win in 2011, along with a strong popular vote result from Jack Layton’s NDP. The dramatic resurgence of the Liberals in 2015 reshaped the landscape into a 3-way BC battle, which is where we are at today.

Party – Popular vote (BC)2011201520192021 polls*
Liberal13%35%26%34%
Conservative46%30%34%26%
NDP33%26%24%29%
Green8%8%13%7%

A rough application of current aggregated poll results to seats would see the Liberals win about 19 seats, the Conservatives cut down to 9, the NDP up to 13, and the Greens down to 1.

The campaign hasn’t even started yet, so you can consider those projections as written in sidewalk chalk during a rainstorm.

But where is the battleground right now? Largely in those seats listed above – the ones that changed hands between 2015 and 2019. Given the Liberals’ current strength, this is where they would likely win next. The NDP would see opportunities to win Conservative seats and edge out both parties in tight 3-way races.

Liberal Targets (previously held)Liberal Targets (not held 2015-2019)
Vancouver-GranvillePort Moody-Coquitlam
Steveston-Richmond EastRichmond Centre
South Surrey-White RockLangley-Aldergrove
Cloverdale-Langley CityKamloops-North Thompson
Pitt Meadows-Maple RidgeVictoria
Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon
Kelowna-Lake Country

The previously-held targets are fairly straight-forward. They won there recently and, with Conservative weakness, can likely win there again or come close. In the other targets, the Liberals almost won Port Moody-Coquitlam in 2019 and presents itself as a juicy target. The rest of the list are outliers. Richmond-Centre has held firm behind Alice Wong, but this could be the time the Liberals win back the seat held by Raymond Chan for several terms? Langley-Aldergrove, by virtue of being a suburban riding in Metro Vancouver, could be in play (the BC NDP won there last year). It is hard to envision the NDP losing a seat to the Liberals on Vancouver Island – it would require Green voters to defect to the Liberals. Unlikely, but Victoria may be the Liberals best shot on the Island (some wags may argue Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke). Kamloops was close in 2015 and would require Conservative collapse of sorts. The inimitable Terry Lake learned the hard way in 2019. Right now, I would expect the Liberals would view 17 seats in BC as a minimum target with stretch goal of 19-20.

NDP Targets (previously held)NDP Targets (not held 2015-)
Port Moody-CoquitlamPitt Meadows-Maple Ridge
Nanaimo-LadysmithCoquitlam-Port Coquitlam
Kootenay-ColumbiaMission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon
Burnaby North – Seymour
Vancouver-Granville

The NDP are likely circling Nanaimo-Ladysmith like a Stanley Park coyote, looking to take a bite out of the Green Caucus. With Greens in disarray, MP Paul Manly may need to win as a virtual Independent. Port Moody-Coquitlam was held by Fin Donnelly and was a near-miss in 2019. The belt of ridings on the north side of the Fraser River from Coquitlam out to Mission and up the Canyon have elected many NDP representatives over the years and could be fertile ground if the NDP moves up the ladder. Burnaby North-Seymour seems like a reasonably safe Liberal seat, but the last election saw the mid-campaign firing of the Conservative candidate. Now that is reset, and the NDP candidate is a known quantity on the North Shore, it might intrigue orange strategists. Another outlier could be Vancouver-Granville where the NDP would expect to run second and could contend with a strong candidate and JWR dynamics. NDPers may argue that Cloverdale-Langley City could follow the pattern of the BC election where NDP MLAs were elected in hitherto safe ‘free enterprise’ seats. My take is that the federal Liberals will be the non-Conservative contender.

The Conservatives, until they right the ship, will be thinking retention. Of course, in order to win the election, they need to do a lot better than that. A lot can happen in 35 days and recent history proves that. Where would the Conservatives win next, beyond their current seats, if the winds of change blow in their direction?

  • South Okanagan – West Kootenay: NDP edged the Conservatives by 3% in 2019
  • North Island – Powell River: this is one riding with an issue that favours the Conservatives – salmon farming. Conservatives offer a clear alternative to NDP and Liberals. NDP edged CPC by 5% in 2019.

In the Lower Mainland, the Conservatives have retreated from the City and have done poorly in the suburbs in successive elections. Targets to reclaim would be:

  • Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam: former stomping grounds of James Moore
  • Fleetwood-Port Kells: narrow loss to the Liberals in 2019
  • West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky: with Avi Lewis as NDP candidate, a usually strong Green effort, and Liberal who won with 35% last time, Conservatives could fantasize about ‘coming up the middle’. Former CPC MP is running again.
  • Vancouver South: Liberals won by only 8% in 2019. Conservaitives would need to do well in Chinese community.

As for the cuddly Greens, they don’t look as cuddly this time with their dirty laundry strewn about. Elizabeth May appears to be electable in her own right and not requiring brand support. Paul Manly, as noted above, will be in for a tougher time. While they have contended on the South Island in the past, it doesn’t look like fortunes favours them this time.

That’s what the battleground looks like to me … today. Prove me wrong in the comments as you wish.

Floor crossings: a tradition as old as Canada itself

The floor crossing of Jenica Atwin from the Green Party of Canada to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is noteworthy in one respect – it’s the first time a federal Green MP has crossed the floor to another party. It completes a ‘trade’ that happened 13 years ago when erstwhile Liberal MP Blair Wilson from British Columbia crossed to the Greens to become its first MP in Parliament. Atwin becomes the latest in a long line of Canadian politicians who have crossed the floor to sit with a different political party than the one they shared a ballot with in the previous election.

Newly minted Liberal MP

Not so long ago, a Liberal went Conservative. I had never heard of Leona Alleslev, the Member of Parliament for Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, before she switched from red to blue.

(This post updated from September 2018 version)

Most of the time, the end is nigh for that politician. Some are pushed by desperation. Some are motivated by pique. Others for genuine policy and ideological reasons. Some are able to make the change stick, as Alleslev did in the 2019 election when she was re-elected as a Conservative.

Floor crossing is older than Canada itself. Wikipedia informs us that, in 1866, an anti-Confederate politician in New Brunswick switched sides when he did not receive a desired cabinet post. We could go back to WWI when many Liberal MPs left Wilfrid Laurier and joined with the Unionist government under Robert Borden. Or to 1935 when British Columbia’s H.H. Stevens bolted the Conservative barn to form the Reconstructionist Party.

At times, a floor crossing can signal a sea change in politics. Réne Lévesque leaving the Quebec Liberal Party in the 1960s to form the Parti Québécois is one of the most momentous moves in Canadian political history. It led to the election of the first Péquiste government in 1976 and a referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980. Watch the documentary Champions to see Lévesque’s impact and his enduring rivalry with Pierre Trudeau.

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Réne Lévesque: probably the most impactful floor-crossing in Canadian history (CBC)

In 1990, Lucien Bouchard spectacularly left the Mulroney government after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, forming the Bloc Québécois and taking other Quebec PC and Liberal MPs with him, including Liberal MP Jean Lapierre. Bouchard led the Oui forces to the brink of victory in 1995, and shortly thereafter became Premier of Quebec.

The 1993 election saw the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives to two seats with Preston Manning’s Reform Party dominating Western Canada. After Jean Chrétien continually swept up in Ontario, PC Senator Gerry St. Germain was one of the first to attempt to unify the Conservative parties and changed his allegiance in the Senate from PC to become the first Canadian Alliance senator in 2000. Later, eleven Canadian Alliance MPs left caucus to sit as the “DRC” – Democratic Representative Caucus when they couldn’t get along with Alliance leader Stockwell Day, and included some political heavyweights like the first Reform MP ever elected, Deb Grey. The DRCs would morph into a coalition with Joe Clark’s (second-coming) PC caucus: the PC-DRC. Ultimately, most everyone got back together under the leadership of Stephen Harper after new PC leader Peter Mackay agreed to merge the PCs with Stephen Harper’s Alliance. Harper became the leader of the new Conservative Party and held Paul Martin to a minority in 2004 before winning his own minority in 2006. (Joe didn’t cross, he stayed PC until the end). The key point is that floor crossing influenced the course of events between 2000 and 2004.

In 2018, we saw Maxime Bernier jump out of Air Scheer without a parachute. It caused a rearguard action that hampered Scheer’s Conservatives as they readied themselves to fight the Liberals in the 2019 election. For Bernier, the impact of this Xtreme floor crossing was the sound of hitting political ground zero with an ear-splitting splat.

Some floor crossings reflect the ebb and flow of political tides.  Scott Brison was elected as a Progressive Conservative, but left when that party merged with the Alliance to form the modern-day Conservative Party. Brison became a senior Liberal cabinet minister. One can argue that he represented a shift in Canadian politics where some Progressive Conservatives migrated to the Liberals.  Many politicians, like Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh, sat for one party, then came back to run for another party later, reflecting how they had migrated through the political spectrum.

Provincially, MLAs in both the Saskatchewan PCs and Liberals crossed the floor to the new Saskatchewan Party in 1997, which has governed the province since 2007. The PCs were extinguished and the Liberals are in the wilderness.

In 2002, Yukon NDP MLA Dennis Fentie left his party to join the Yukon Party. A month later he was leader and later that year he became Premier, serving until 2011.

The leader of the New Brunswick NDP from 2011-2017, Dominic Cardy, found himself as a New Brunswick PC MLA in the government of Blaine Higgs. In fact, he’s now the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and has been heralded for his role in advocating for a strong early response to COVID-19. In Cardy’s case, he didn’t “cross the floor” but nonetheless a rare sighting of a political leader switching sides and his experience going from the political hinterland to inner sanctum likely not lost on Jenica Atwin.

A candidate for the Liberal leadership in Newfoundland famously switched sides afterward. John Crosbie was a Minister of Finance under longtime Premier Joey Smallwood. Crosbie, and other younger Liberal MLAs, like Clyde Wells, chafed under Smallwood’s leadership and left Caucus, sitting as ‘Reform Liberals’. When Smallwood announced his retirement, Crosbie stepped up to run as Liberal leader. Smallwood came back to oppose him and won. Crosbie then left the Liberals to run as a Progressive Conservative, winning, and sitting in the new government of Frank Moores. He would go on to be elected federally in 1976, serve as Joe Clark’s Finance Minister, become a major contender for the 1983 PC national leadership, serve as a heavyweight in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, and serve as Newfoundland’s Lieutenant-Governor. Quite a career for a party switcher! Clyde Wells stuck with the Liberals and would serve as Premier, famously scuttling the Meech Lake Accord promoted by his old caucus ally, Crosbie.

BC has had three significant floor-crossings that led to a restructuring of political support bases. Leading up to the 1952 election, Conservative MLA WAC Bennett left that party and migrated toward to the Social Credit Party. The leaderless party won the plurality of seats in 1952 and Bennett became its leader (and, ultimately, Premier) after the election. Bennett governed for 20 years.

mcgeer-williams-bennett-and-gardom
Seismic shift in BC politics when three senior Liberal MLAs join Bill Bennett and the Socreds in 1974 (Vancouver Sun)

Then, following his defeat in 1972, his son Bill Bennett, the new leader, recruited former Liberal leader and MLA Dr. Pat McGeer, Allan Williams, and Garde Gardom to join the Socreds, along with PC MLA Hugh Curtis. All four floor crossers would play major roles in Bennett’s government, which lasted 11 years. He also attracted former Liberal leadership candidate Bill VanderZalm to run as a Socred in 1975 too. Then, in the 1990s, there was a two-step process. First, four Social Credit MLAs left the former dynasty in ruins when they turned away from the fledgling BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell, to join the BC Reform Party in 1994. Their defection ultimately benefited the ruling NDP – Glen Clark would win a majority in 1996 while losing the popular vote. Campbell corralled the Reformers after 1996 and remaining Reform MLA Richard Neufeld crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, marking the formalization of a de facto coalition. Neufeld served as BC Liberal minister for seven years and the BC Liberals governed continuously for 16 years.

(A footnote to the 1975 example above is that Frank Calder, British Columbia’s first First Nations parliamentarian, lost his NDP nomination in the riding of Atlin leading up to the 1975 election. Having been first elected in 1949, Calder brought his winning ways to the Socreds and was elected yet again. Four years later, he lost by one vote to the NDP’s ‘Landslide’ Al Passarell. Passarell would later cross the floor from the NDP to the Socreds).

Some floor crossings backfire spectacularly. Arguably, the WildRose defections to the ruling PC’s under Jim Prentice destroyed the political careers of those MLAs, like former leader Danielle Smith, and boomeranged disastrously on the Prentice government. It looked too cute, too orchestrated – the overdog overdoing it. Belinda Stronach’s floor crossing to the Liberals in 2005 helped save the minority Martin government for a time, but arguably galvanized Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the forthcoming election in 2006.

Some leave and come home again. The most famous example is Winston Churchill going Conservative-Liberal-Conservative. The aforementioned Jean Lapierre left the Liberals to join the Bloc Quebecois upon the election of Jean Chretien as Liberal leader. He returned to the Liberals under Paul Martin and was a senior cabinet minister in his government. Then there’s Joe Peschisolido who was a leading Young Liberal who drifted right and was elected as an Alliance MP then crossed the floor to the Liberals. After a stint out of politics, he was elected again as a Liberal MP in 2015 before his defeat in 2019. Gordon Wilson was Liberal leader in BC from 1987 to 1993. He left, with fellow MLA and wife Judi Tyabji, to form his own party, the PDA, and won his seat again in 1996 under that banner. He was recruited by NDP Premier Glen Clark to join the NDP cabinet in the late 1990s and then ran for the leadership of the NDP, unsuccessfully. Since 2001, he has been out of elected politics, but he did go ‘home’ again in 2013 when he made an intervention in that year’s election campaign in favour of BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark (who once worked for him) and against NDP Leader Adrian Dix (who once recruited him). Never dull in BC.

Some floor crossings weren’t meant to be. BC Liberal MLA John van Dongen left the BC Liberals over unresolvable disagreements. He joined the BC Conservatives, but within months, left them over unresolvable disagreements. Conservative MP Eve Adams defection to the Liberals on the eve of the 2015 election reeked of desperation. Her career was soon over, at least for now. A husband and wife both crossed the floor from the New Brunswick PCs to the Liberals in 2007, but by 2010 they were both out of politics. As noted above, one-term West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country Liberal MP Blair Wilson got into some hot water and would eventually leave the Liberal Caucus to sit as an independent. Just before the 2008 election, he migrated to the Greens to become their first ever MP in Canada. He failed in his bid for re-election, as a Green.

Some cross and never look back, like Scott Brison and John Crosbie. Dr. Keith Martin was elected as a Reformer in 1993 and ran for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. He crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2004 and served as a Liberal until 2011. David Kilgour was a longtime Progressive Conservative MP. Even though John Turner was his brother-in-law, he stayed as a PC, but after Turner left, Kilgour crossed to the Liberals and continued from there.

Some floor-crossers are peripatetic.  Paul Hellyer was elected as a Liberal MP in 1949 and went on to be Minister of National Defence under Lester Pearson and a major contender for the leadership of the Liberals in 1968, placing second on the first ballot.    He fell out with Pierre Trudeau the following year and tried to form his own party.  He then crossed the floor to the PCs and in 1976, he ran for the leadership of that party.  He would return to the Liberals in 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for a nomination in his old seat in 1988.  He then formed another party, the Canada Action Party, and would try to merge it with the NDP.  At the age of 97, he may have another run in him, but for which party? (fun fact: he’s the longest serving member of the Privy Council)

There’s also the interesting case of Garth Turner. Elected as a Progressive Conservative MP in 1988 and ran for the leadership of the party in 1993. He lost his seat and returned as a Conservative MP in 2006. He defeated Liberal Gary Carr who had himself changed parties having been elected originally as a provincial Tory. Turner then fell afoul of the Conservatives, went independent, flirted with the Greens, and finally joined Stephane Dion’s Liberals before Lisa Raitt ended his political career in 2008.

Countless others have gone to sit as independents only to return later.  Some are sent because they were naughty, others leave because they’re mad but come back once they’re happy. BC MLA Blair Lekstrom left caucus over the handling of the HST but came back after a leadership change.  MLAs and MPs who never leave, and feel that they are team players, can often be annoyed and upset when those that leave are welcomed back.  If handled properly, it can be seen as beneficial to the greater good that they return.  Alternatively, it can be seen as rewarding bad behaviour.

Surrey MP Chuck Cadman was elected as a Reform MP and carried on as an Alliance MP, but prior to the 2004 election, he lost his nomination.  He ran as an independent and won.  In 2005, battling cancer, he was pivotal in keeping Paul Martin’s minority government in power during critical votes, against the wishes of his former colleagues. Liberal MP John Nunziata was bounced from the Liberal fold in 1996 after voting against Paul Martin’s budget. He showed them – he won re-election as an independent in 1997. They showed him – he lost to the Liberals in 2000. Gilles Bernier was a Progressive Conservative MP elected in the 1984 Mulroney sweep, but in 1993, the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell would not approve his candidacy due to fraud charges (he was later acquitted). Bernier ran as an independent and won his seat. He was appointed Ambassador of Haiti by Prime Minister Chrétien. He managed to miss the 1993 PC wipeout and appointed ambassador. The benefits of going against the grain may have inspired his son, Maxime.

There’s Bill Casey who was elected three times a PC, and twice a Conservative before announcing he would not support the Harper government’s budget. He was bounced and ran as an Independent, winning 69% of the vote in 2008. A clear case of constituents agreeing with his reasons for opposing his party. He would resign his seat later, before returning in 2015 as a Liberal MP – making it four different ways he had been elected – PC, Conservative, Independent, and Liberal.

And, of course, there is Jody Wilson-Raybould. Considered a ‘star candidate’ in the 2015 campaign, and made Minister of Justice, JWR’s shocking confrontation with her then-colleagues over SNC Lavalin gripped Ottawa for months in early 2019, culminating in her departure from the Liberal Caucus. She won re-election as an Independent and appears intent to seek re-election on that basis.

Another ‘star candidate’ from BC, David Emerson, shockingly defected to the Conservatives days after the 2006 federal election effectively marking the end of his career in electoral politics.  The ink was barely dry on the ballots when he reversed course, causing much consternation among his former Liberal supporters. But it provided Stephen Harper with experience and depth in cabinet for two years and demoralized the Liberals, who sat out of power for nine years.  Emerson, like JWR, did not have any roots in the Liberal Party. It is with some peril that political managers recruit candidates from outside the party – those candidates do not ‘owe’ anyone and tend to be untethered to party loyalties. In JWR’s case, the reasons for her leaving the Liberals were front page news for months. It was not unexpected that there would be a break-up (in fact, she was bounced from the Caucus). Emerson, on the other hand, gave no hint he was leaving. He was approached, he agreed. The voters that elected him, and party members that supported him, were caught unaware. There is the old argument – “I can get more done in government than Opposition”, which is a reason provided by Jenica Atwin.

Alberta PC MP Jack Horner crossed over to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in 1977, joining the Trudeau cabinet.  There has rarely been a good time to be a federal Liberal in Alberta and this wasn’t one of them.  His constituents did not reward him for his efforts in the subsequent election. Following the Atwin switch, I talked to a grizzled old Prairie Liberal who was shuddering with Jack Horner flashbacks. The ‘betrayal’ of constituents by Horner was not unlike that felt by Emerson’s constituents in Vancouver-Kingsway. Around the time Horner ran into the arms of Pierre Trudeau, Winnipeg’s James Richardson, a member of PET’s cabinet, left the Liberal Caucus never to return, sitting as an independent. He tried to set up his own party then eventually helped found the Reform Party of Canada after he left elected life. My sources tell me his crossing was notable in that he told the Clerk, “I’m sitting over there from now on”. And off he went.

Many, many, many more floor crossings happen in the imaginations of political back roomers.  There is always the threat of a disgruntled MLA or MP taking off.  Most of the time, that representative is governed by some restraint.  The voters elected him or her largely on the basis of their party label.  Imagine you worked hard in support of your party only to find that the recipient of your hard work crossed no-man’s land to sit in enemy trenches?  Many would-be floor-crossers have surely taken a step back when realizing they would have to explain their actions to the volunteers who backed them.

To be accepted by the voters, the conflict usually has to be real and substantive and/or that representative must have a lot of personal credibility.  If it’s opportunistic, and imposed from the top, it’s not likely to go down well with the voters or the supporters of the sending and receiving party.  Not many like a turncoat, especially when they weren’t part of the process.

What floor crossings can demonstrate is the dynamic state of our political system.  In the ‘first past the post system’, parties are always in a state of constant movement.  Parties continually search for a plurality of votes and seats, and attracting someone who represents a set of ideas or representative of a community of interest is a way to grow a party’s base.  A floor crossing can give a tiny party a foothold in Parliament. Parties that fail to unify their members behind a common purpose can disintegrate, with floor crossings one such manifestation.  Unlike the United States, Canadian parties can rise and fall (and rise again).  There is much more fluidity.  Real policy differences – such as Quebec independence – can lead to dramatic changes and fracture coalitions.  Strong leadership glues coalitions together, unifying disparate elements.  When it comes down to it, elected representatives are just people, unbound to their party label.  They have the ability to exercise their free will.

As University of Manitoba Political Science professor Royce Koop puts it, “When an MP crosses the floor, it’s a beautiful reminder that in Canada we cast our votes for candidates, not parties”.

— with files from contributor Jay Denney

UK Election: Smash and Grab to Victory

1/        It’s Election Day in the UK. The culmination of a fascinating period of political upheaval with two leaders – Boris and Jeremy Corbyn – that could not be more different than David Cameron and Tony Blair.  They eschew modernity for a new polarizing populism, chucking the old rules into the cut.  This is not the hopeful UK of Love Actually, the stoicism of Dunkirk, or the dash of 007. This election is a Peaky Blinders smash and grab.

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2/        Boris has remade the UK Tories. This guy.  An excellent writer with sense of humour, he was bedevilled by personal scandal as MP. And lying. Pulls off election as London mayor in a Labour city. Shores up David Cameron’s campaign in 2015 that led to surprise majority. At last-minute, joins Leave campaign and, unquestionably, made the difference. No Boris, no Brexit. His partnership with Michael Gove trumped Remain establishment.

3/        Instantly, David Cameron resigns from office. A leadership campaign kicks off (the Brits don’t mess around). Boris is not ready and stumbles. At deadline for filing, Michael Gove (Judas) wields the knife against Boris by jumping in race suddenly. Boris is shocked out of the race he was supposed to win. Theresa May emerges as safe alternative to stabilize divided Tory party. Gove loses and is sent to purgatory, Boris to Foreign Office. May starts strong with positioning that foreshadows a shakeup of Tory base. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-from-the-new-prime-minister-theresa-may

4/        May moves to an election within the year, with a huge lead in the polls.  I mean, she’s going to clean up against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn (more on him shortly). Her campaign is a disaster. Textbook case of fuzzy strategy and failure to execute.  She falls short of majority by 5 seats.  Worse yet, she is already a dead duck.  Hobbled by blown opportunity, May attempts to finesse her Brexit deal through Parliament and fails again, again, and again.

5/        Meanwhile, Boris flew the coop to sit as backbench MP. He wants no part of wearing May’s deal.  But Gove was resuscitated to serve in Cabinet (he is a clever boy) to try to rally Brexiteers. Out in the countryside, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (leader most likely to enjoy having a pint with) starts Brexit Party and is inhabiting the Tory electoral base like necrotizing fasciitis.

6/        Finally, Jeremy Corbyn. In 2015… hold it… need to go back more… in 2010, the Tories had a plurality of seats under David Cameron but far short of majority.  Labour PM Gordon Brown (UK’s Paul Martin) tried to extend Labour to a fourth term and failed. The Lib-Dems negotiated a true coalition government with the Tories with leader Nick Clegg serving as Deputy PM for five years.

7/        Labour has a leadership vote. Unlike Tories, this is membership-based vote.  Labour is divided into Blairites and Brownites.  Blairite David Miliband, a former Foreign Minister, is seen as frontrunner.  His younger BROTHER Ed, a Brownite, challenges him. Political fratricide.  Ed wins! Based on support from lefties and union supporters. It’s a bit of a mess, especially at Christmas dinner in the Miliband household.  Ed is not really up to it but he is competitive in the polls. The 2015 election is going to be a horse race!

8/        David Cameron, and his advisor Sir Lynton Crosby, with Boris’s help, surgically detach Lib-Dem voters.  You see, Scotland was feeling quite uppity at the time and Middle England did not see Red Ed as strong enough to preserve the union.  Cameron shocks by winning a majority. Five more years! Just have to deal with this election promise to hold a Brexit referendum then it’s onwards and upwards. (Of course, he loses referendum, resigns immediately, and squanders the 2015 majority).

9/        Ed is toast.  He didn’t even have time to change his underwear before resigning.  Again, the Brits don’t mess around. There’s a leadership contest and many Labour MPs jump in.  While the members vote, candidates must have papers signed by at least 40 or 50 MPs in order to qualify.  Jeremy Corbyn is running around getting signatures at last minute.  People sign because they feel sorry for him.  He has no chance of winning!

10/      Here’s the thing about political parties.  They are vulnerable to takeovers. Few people actually belong to parties.  An emerging group, Momentum, decides to take the piss out of the Labour establishment by backing Corbyn.  Corbyn represents what is on the minds of disillusioned activists. Blair brought them the Gulf War and ‘New Labour’ that looked like moderate Toryism to many. Gordon Brown hated Tony Blair but he was very much associated with that agenda. Ed was transitional and not strong.  Here comes ‘Jezza’ who voices the frustration and it catches fire.

11/      This is all happening around the same time as Trump is catching fire and Bernie is making his move.  The insurgents are on the move in the industrialized world, and in Jezza’s case, the party rules work for him. Mass sign ups and support from existing base steamroller over establishment candidates.  Labour grandees are sputtering in their protestations. Blair, Brown, et al. issue dire warnings.  No one listens.  Corbyn wins big.  What now?

12/      The Labour Caucus is having none of it.  Not long after, there is a push to remove Corbyn. He is not a conventional leader and routinely is taken to task by the merciless UK media. The Deputy Leader (who is not Corbyn’s man) returns to another caucus revolt early from Glastonbury, interrupting the good time he was having at the silent disco. Ultimately, Corbyn consents to a new leadership contest.  Finally… let’s get a real Leader, says Labour MPs.

13/      Corbyn wins again! He increases his margin.

14/      Theresa May is, like, “I’m having an election.  This guy is a clown, Labour is a disaster”.  We are now in 2017.  Please follow along.

15/      May is way, way ahead.  Her campaign chokes. Corbyn has one of the great comebacks of modern political history.  This is actually his first election campaign as leader after TWO leadership processes. Turns out UK voters like his sincerity and honesty.  “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” becomes an anthem on the left.  In fact, the election is polarizing between the two parties in England where most of the seats reside. Fun fact: Tories and Labours have held 1-2 position exclusively for about a century.

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Two party domination by Tories and Labour.  Lib-Dems and predecessor parties peaked out at 25% (1983)

16/      Corbyn is secured in his leadership.  It’s virtually a hung Parliament and Corbyn has centre stage across the dispatch box from the PM.

17/      [Intermission]

18/      Fast forward to summer 2019. May is out, Boris is in. After all of the feeble attempts to get her Brexit deal passed, the party turned to Boris. It wasn’t close, he won in a landslide. He arrives to office with his advisor, the Dark Lord, Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Leave campaign.  Who is at Boris’s side in Cabinet? Judas! Boris and Michael Gove have kissed and made up.

19/      Jeremy Corbyn is still there, looking a bit wobbly, and does not have clear position on Brexit.  At first, they have Boris on the run.  He wants to have an early election but new legislation blocks him without consent of the House.  He wants to have the leverage of threatening to crash out of the EU without a deal. A majority of MPs flip out and force him through some humiliating votes.  Boris removes the whip from over 20 Tory Remain MPs, including Churchill’s grandson! Things are getting rough. Elites are aghast! Tory and Labour MPs are joining the Lib-Dems, who have the clearest Remain position.

20/      Why is Labour so fuzzy on Brexit? Many Labour voters in their traditional heartland outside of London voted Leave.  They are very split while Tories are more Leave than Remain, and Boris is betting that Tory Remainers fear Corbyn more than they fear Brexit.  The Lib Dems are banking on owning Remain and also riding unicorns chasing rainbows.  They are about to get squeezed like a lemon in a lemonade factory.

21/      Boris negotiates a deal! It’s oven-ready! Pop it in the microwave, let’s get Brexit done.  Enough’s enough!  We’re getting ready to have the election. Time to see the Queen.  Corbyn’s response, while fending off serious charges of anti-semitism in his ranks, is to make the ballot question all about health care. People don’t care about Brexit, they want someone to stand up for them.

22/      At the heart of Boris’s strategy is a ‘smash and grab’ of Labour voters in traditional Labour seats.  It would be like Stephen Harper trying to win East Vancouver.  Except, Boris might pull it off.  British voters feel like they know him.  They know he’s glib, stretches the truth, and puts his foot in his mouth, but, like Trump, there is high familiarity with him.  He’s been around a long time, leading a public life.  His flaws have already been discounted. They know what they’re dealing with.

23/      Personality aside, Boris has a proposition: get Brexit done and, unlike Thatcher and other Tories, he will spend bigly on health care and other core services. No more austerity!  He is coming for 30-50 year old working women.  He wants the mums.  He wants the union guy.  He is saying, “I don’t care about London bankers, I’m with you blokes in Birmingham!” In fact, he was out delivering groceries in Leeds this week in the early hours (before hiding in a walk-in cooler to avoid the media). He is looking to realign the political map.  Theresa May got started on this and Boris aims to finish it.

24/      Corbyn’s play is to remind people that the Tories don’t care for regular people – working people – and hopes to boost turnout among younger people, who strongly support Remain and the values that Corbyn represents. They are still singing “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” in Liverpool. Like Canada, the Conservatives in the UK have low support among under 35s.  They own old people.  The election battle is with middle-aged, workforce-aged voters.

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25/      The Lib-Dems have been cast aside despite floor crossings and thirsting for an election. They have fallen flat with new leader Jo Swinson. She has been unable to move the dial. In an existential battle between two populist insurgents, the Lib-Dems find it very difficult to elbow in to relevance.

26/      This post is about 2% political science and 98% soap opera. But there are a few things about the UK politics and this election that stand out:

27/      There is way more outspoken behaviour from backbenchers in the UK. Professor Greg Lyle counselled me that it’s because there are more MPs at Westminster (650 in total).  The chances of promotion are much lower so backbenchers feel more freedom to do as they like. There is no question that Westminster is a much, much, more vibrant cauldron of political debate than Ottawa.  I blame all Canadian parties for this. They are too focused on party discipline and dissent.  Loosen up!  Maybe we need more MPs in Ottawa? Did I say that out loud?

28/      Parliament really matters in the UK. The level of debate is high.  There are no desks.  Many MPs must stand at Prime Minister’s Questions (once a week).  There’s a sense that debates can turn issues. Even the TV angles are better, covering reactions of MPs and creating a sense of the environment in the Chamber. Maybe I’m mythologizing a bit, but I would sure like Canada to do a better job emulating Mother Parliament.

29/      The media is very diverse.  While Boris has taken on the BBC (and others), the reality is that there are clearly Labour papers (The Guardian), Tory papers (Times of London), Brexit papers (Daily Mail), and many others in between and all over. It may be suffocating for those in politics, but it also enlivens debate. BBC coverage is generally excellent, IMO.

30/      The advertising is more creative and to the point than anything we saw in the recent Canadian election.  The main parties are keying on emotions, using digital as key medium. In this election, Boris is rejecting old rules of mainstream media.  Declining some debates, and refusing outright to do a popular interview show. While the BBC sputters indignation, Boris is happy to have that fight.

31/      There are many more parties represented in Parliament than the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems.  First past the post also produces Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, a Green MP, independents, and seven Sinn Fein members who refuse to take their seats. It’s a dynamic place.

32/      Around the UK, candidates will gather in their constituency at a central polling location where they will climb on stage to hear the results together, each wearing a candidate ribbon bearing their party’s colours. The losers will congratulate the winner – a much more community-spirited ceremony than the Canadian tradition of hanging out exclusively with supporters at campaign offices.

33/      I think Boris is going to pull off his smash and grab in the Labour heartlands.  As Tory grandees like Rt. Hon. John Major reject him, he gains elsewhere. He put Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party to bed. He may lose his own seat in London, but may gain Tony Blair’s old seat in northern England. He will receive a working majority and implement Brexit.  Can he hang on to be a competent prime minister? Who knows.  Labour will give Corbyn the heave-ho finally, but it will be Momentum that holds the cards.  Their own smash and grab of the Labour Party apparatus likely continues.

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Lib Dems fading down the stretch. Light blue line is Brexit Party.  Peaked around the time that Theresa May left office.  Boris has put them to bed.  Night, night.

34/ What happens when a powerful movement drives the politics of a party away from the mainstream (and victory)?  Is it a policy problem, or is it just a matter of leadership? The reality is that its problems pre-date Corbyn and he may have been the one to breathe new life into it. A new Corbynista could be the PM next time.  Our parties in Canada are very vulnerable to such movements ‘taking over’.  That’s democracy.  Anyone can join.  Don’t blame Momentum, or dairy farmers, or pro-lifers – anyone can join, but most don’t.

35/      What Boris and Corbyn realize is this – power is ‘out there’, to be harnessed. A strong message is the power to break, reshape and coalesce an electoral base, or motivate a narrow group to action, to supersede a passive majority.  Either way, it goes against the old rules. They are both prepared to “alienate the base” in order to – they hope – grow their movements. They are making new rules.

36/      Thanks for reading, if you made it.  This started as a tweet storm and ended as a blog post.  At 2pm Pacific / 5pm Eastern, the polls close. BBC will release immediately the results of exit polls that forecast what will happen with analysis by the brilliant Professor John Courtice.  Unlike Canada, the UK rolls out results slowly, over 6-8 hours.  It will be great entertainment, as usual.

(Apologies for errors and emissions)

Regional gains and losses in #elxn43

How did the votes get distributed on election night? Nationwide, the Liberal vote share declined by 5.6% compared to 2015, while Conservative vote share increased by 2.5%.  NDP vote share decreased by 3.8%, while the Greens increased 3.1% (this is counter-narrative).  The Bloc increased 3% nationally, translating to a 13.2% boost in Québec, and the Peoples Party, new to the scene, carved out 1.6%.

How the parties rose and fell varied on a regional basis.  The Liberals went down in every region, in terms of popular vote.  However, their losses were lowest in vote-rich Ontario and Québec.  They suffered a decline in their popular vote by over 15% on the Prairies, where they only elected 5 seats in 2015.  They also suffered an 18% decline in the Atlantic, but because they were so dominant in 2015, they had a buffer which allowed them to retake 26 of 32 seats.

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Conservative gains were disproportionately higher in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they already had a near dominant position.  Significant gains were made in B.C. (4 point increase) which allowed for a six seat gain.  A ten point gain in the Atlantic helped deliver four new seats but they were climbing out of a big hole and needed more in order to harvest bushels of seats.  In Central Canada, Conservative popular vote declined, down 1.8% in Ontario and 0.7% in Québec.  To get from opposition to government, you can’t give up ground in the two provinces that combine for 199 seats.

Therefore, for the Conservatives, seat gains were modest.  Of the 22 newly acquired ridings, seventeen were west of Ontario: seven in B.C., four in Alberta, six in Saskatchewan-Manitoba.  Of the remaining five pick-ups, four were in the Atlantic and three were in Ontario, offset by the loss of two seats in Québec.

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Liberal losses were spread fairly evenly.  They gave up 27 seats, compared to the 2015 election, but lost no more than six in any region (B.C. and Atlantic).  The key to victory was only losing a net of one seat in Ontario, where they had a very strong showing in 2015.  Their Québec losses were lower than what they gave up in the Atlantic.

The storyline as it relates to the Greens and the NDP is interesting.  Much was made of NDP momentum and the Greens blown opportunity.  And it’s true.

However, the NDP momentum was relative to their abysmal standing in the polls at the outset of the campaign.  When it was all said and done, the NDP lost a significant share of  its popular vote, based mainly on it being decimated in Québec.  It made no headway in Ontario, where its leader is originally from and previously elected in the Ontario legislature.  Wasn’t the business case for Jagmeet Singh that – to offset losses in Québec – he could win in the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver and broaden the base in the rest of Canada?  Didn’t happen.  Outside Québec, Singh’s share of the vote (17.5%) was lower than Tom Mulcair’s (17.9%).

The Greens on the other hand can see some encouragement in the wake of a hollow election night.  Yes, they had a golden opportunity on Vancouver Island, which passed them by.  They did, however, make significant popular vote gains in B.C. and the Atlantic, far surpassing the NDP in New Brunswick and P.E.I.  While the NDP went down 3.8% nationwide, the Greens went up 3.1%.  Again, it was a disappointment based on expectations, but in the long-run, it is a step forward.

As these graphs show, there was really only one leader who excelled at regional math on election night: Yves-François Blanchet.

Trudeau Liberals win plurality with lowest ever popular vote

It’s not uncommon in Canada to have a party with the most seats have fewer votes than another party.  But the 2019 election will be the first time the governing party was elected with less than 34% of the popular vote.  Justin Trudeau’s 33.1% is the new low, falling beneath John A. Macdonald’s 34.8% from Canada’s first post-Confederation election in 1867.

Justin Trudeau’s minority win is much lower than other minority wins we have seen over the past sixty years.  Joe Clark’s government came to power in 1979 after winning a plurality of seats with 35.9% of the popular vote, over 4% lower than Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals.

Over under

Aside from Justin Trudeau and Joe Clark, other prime ministers and parties that had more seats, but fewer votes:

  • 1896 – Wilfred Laurier Liberals lost popular vote by 7 points to Charles Tupper’s Conservatives
  • 1926 – William Lyon MacKenzie King’s Liberals lost popular vote 43% to 45% for Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives
  • 1957 – John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives had 39% compared to Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals 41%

Then there is MacKenzie King who had fewer votes and fewer seats in 1925, but continued to govern thanks to the Progressives which held the balance of power.  That could have happened following October 21st had Scheer won more seats, but fallen short of a majority.

So, that’s where the Trudeau Liberal win on October 21st fits in the context of Canada’s electoral and parliamentary history.  It’s not a majority and it’s underwhelming in terms of popular support.  With the lowest popular vote since Confederation to form government, the Trudeau Liberals can reflect on how it approaches governing where two-thirds of the electorate voted for other parties.