Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dreaming big

Following a stream of historically poor Liberal poll numbers, some campaign observers are beginning to ask whether the NDP is about to surpass the Liberals (see here, here and here) and form Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in the next parliament.

Indeed, the big fantasy of the federal NDP, and likely a prerequisite for the party to ever become a true national contender for power, has always been to surpass the Liberal Party. New Democrtas believe this milestone would give rise to a new political polarization between the right and left, thus damning the Liberals to the political wilderness forever.

This thinking is never far from the minds of NDP strategists, who face the tricky task of fighting the Tories without inadvertently sinking themselves by helping the Liberals who, for their part, adeptly hug the middle, adopting the rhetoric and policies of the right or the left in whatever combination is most likely to win them power.

The model of political polarization the NDP seeks emerged in Britain in the first half of the 20th century as the Labour Party surpassed the Liberals, who were never again to taste power. Canadian examples can be found in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and BC, though sometimes this is in a two-party system with the Liberals on the right (e.g., Saskatchewan's anti-medicare Liberals of the 1960s and 1970s and the current right-leaning Liberals in BC, who replaced the Social Credit Party there). Polarization is arguably occurring in Nova Scotia where the NDP appears close to winning power and the Liberals slip further into third place every election.

The big question: can it happen federally? As things stand, the New Democrats are likely to make gains and the Liberals likely to suffer losses, but can the shift be dramatic enough for the NDP to form Official Opposition? Some polls show the gap between the two parties to be as little as 3%, a level of competitiveness not seen since around 1990.

So what would it take?

First, it's important to note that the NDP need not necessarily surpass the Liberals in popular vote to surpass them in seats. This is because, generally-speaking, the Liberals' votes tend to be more evenly spread than either the Conservatives' or the NDPs' votes, which tend to be concentrated in particular areas. This tends to make the Liberals more efficient than other parties at converting votes into seats when they're popular but less inefficient than other parties when they're unpopular. In 1984, the Liberal-NDP gap was 28% to 19%, but the seat gap was only 40-30. Another percentage point or two might have pushed the NDP into second.

To come in second in this election, the NDP would likely have to win at least 60 seats or so, with the Liberals falling below that number. The losses for the Liberals in Ontario, where they won 54 seats in 2006, would have to especially large. Specifically, we'd need to see the following:


Liberal numbers would have to drop below 30% from the mid-to-high 30s where they are now, while the NDP would have to climb 5 points or so to the low 20s, with noted strength in northern Ontario. The Tories would break 40%. Liberal losses to both the Conservatives and NDP, plus bleeding to the Greens in vulnerable suburban ridings, would result in a seat count of something like this:
Con 55 / Lib 28 / NDP 23 (2006: Con 40 / Lib 54 / NDP 12)


Bloc numbers would have to stay over 30%, around where they're hovering now, as continued Bloc leakage to the Tories and NDP will produce new victories for the Liberals. The Tories would have to stay around their current 30% while the the NDP approached 20% (up from about 15% now). This might yield something like this:
Bloc 33 / Con 23 / Lib 14 / NDP 4 / Ind 1
(2006: Bloc 51 / Con 10 / Lib 13 / Ind 1)

Atlantic Canada

The Tories would need to gain only a few points (to maybe 36%) at the expense of the Liberals for them to steal a number of close Liberal seats in Nova Scotia, PEI and especially New Brunswick. This would offset Tory losses that are all but guaranteed in NL (a victim of Danny Williams's ABC campaign). The NDP, who are already up a few points over their 22% in 2006, would have to eke out a few new victories in St. John's and Nova Scotia. In seats, that would probably come out to something like this:
Con 14 / Lib 10 / NDP 7 / Ind 1
(2006: Con 9 / Lib 20 / NDP 3)


On the prairies, a couple of points gained for the NDP over their 2006 numbers could give them up to five more seats (I can't see the party winning more than three in Saskatchewan). The Tories would have to win some, lose some, leaving the Liberals with 1-2 seats in total on the Prairies. That would leave something like the following seat count:
Con 46 / NDP 8 / Lib 2 (2006: Con 48 / NDP 3 / Lib 5)


NDP numbers have been strengthening in BC in the last week. Two or three more points would put them over 30% and win them a few new seats at the expense of both other parties. The Liberals, who are bleeding to the Greens in suburban Vancouver, would see some seat losses to the Tories. That could leave the situation something like this:
Con 18 / NDP 17 / Lib 1 (2006: Con 17 / NDP 10 / Lib 9)


A territorial seat for each party as the Cons pick up Nunavut:
Con 1 / Lib 1 / NDP 1 (2006: Lib 2 / NDP 1)


In order to make the above happen, the NDP would need something in the range of 22%, while the Liberals could have no more than about 26%. In addition, the shift in numbers would have to be in the right regions. The above seat counts total as follows:
Con 157 / NDP 60 / Lib 56 / Bloc 33 / Ind 2
(2006: Con 124 / Lib 103 / NDP 29 / Bloc 51 / Ind 1)

The above exercise, apart from being fun (it's still more fun than realistic at this point), suggests it's narrowly possible for the NDP to surpass the Liberals. I would suggest that it remains an uphill battle for the NDP and that they shouldn't underestimate the Liberals. Still, a lot can happen in the one month of campaign that remains.

If the Liberals somehow do tank and make a historically poor showing on October 14, they really shouldn't blame Dion, who seems to be a rather decent, intelligent politician. Rather, for a number of reasons, they can place the blame squarely on this

Photo: The House of Commons (facing the government side)


The Jurist said...

Definitely an interesting scenario, though I'd figure the upside for the New Democrats is somewhat higher (and not all that much less likely). If the Libs can't keep a clear lead through the balance of the campaign, then some of the votes which have gone to the Libs as the default alternative to the Cons could shake loose in a hurry - and if the Libs end up on the wrong side of the strategic voting argument, it's hard to see what they could possibly do to regain momentum late in the campaign.

Brodie said...

The simple fact is when the NDP manage to push the Liberal party into third party status like in B.C or Manitoba, all the emerges is the NSP turning into the Liberal Party. Gary Doer would be more of a fit in the Federal Liberal party than he would with Jack's merry band. I have no problem with a united left, but it's not as if some union friendly NDP peacenik utopia would emerge, it would look like another middle of the raod Liberal government.

The Pundits' Guide said...

P.T., Every junkie loves to speculate, and read others' speculations.

My question, which is more of a local Winnipeg one, is what happened to Len Sawatsky. This was a big Green Party candidate announcement in Winnipeg Centre, but now I see he's not running any more.

Any idea why?

Prairie Topiary said...

Wow, I hadn't heard that Len Sawatsky was backing out, but I'll keep my eyes and ears open and let you know.

He was certainly a good catch for the Greens, and many Winnipeg Centre voters would likely have remembered Len running a strong campaign for the provincial NDP in the early 1990s.

The Pundits' Guide said...

They have a new name down against Winnipeg Centre on their website in the past week (Jessie Klassen). And Len Sawatsky's web-site is no longer functional.