Saturday, April 4, 2009

Does the left gain when the economy is down?

There’s an interesting debate going on in the Globe and Mail about the role of the NDP and the reason why it doesn’t seem to be making headlines these days despite the economic downturn – the question Lawrence Martin asks (see Letters to the editor responses) in the article that kicked off the discussion is that, when capitalism is in crisis, shouldn’t the left see gains?

It’s logical to think that the NDP should make gains during tough times as people look for alternatives to the economic system that may be causing them hardship. This might partially explain the NDP’s surprising win in Ontario in 1990.

However, it’s also possible that a sinking economy might actually harm the left electorally. In good times, voters may feel more comfortable having their government deal with issues that people perceive to be left: addressing poverty and inequality, expanding social programs, funding the CBC, mandating environmentally-friendly behaviours, etc. In tough times, voters often focus on the economy as the sole issue, and the Conservatives have traditionally been best at branding themselves as economic managers. Besides, in bad times, governments of all stripes will tend to sound and act a little like New Democrats: showing concern about rising unemployment, wanting to curb or prevent poverty, speaking about education and training, penalizing arrogant corporate leaders, and actively intervening in the economy where it’ll save some jobs and earn points with voters.

I decided to see if I could see any relationship between economic ups and downs and federal voting behaviour for the past several decades. There are two charts I've created (click to enlarge). The one on top shows the share of popular vote received by right wing parties (Conservatives, Progressive Conservatives, Canadian Alliance, Reform party and Social Credit/Ralliement créditiste) and left wing parties (one bar shows just the NDP; another shows the NDP grouped with the Greens and the Bloc, which assumes we can lump those parties in as left) since 1972.

In the chart, the right-wing vote appears relatively consistent outside of the two big Mulroney victories in the 1980s. The drop in the NDP vote from 1993 to 2000 also stands out, but its vote is otherwise remarkably consistent from 1972 to 2008. The combined "left" vote begins to differ from the NDP as the Bloc emerged in the early 90s. The grouped left vote stands out as very strong in each of the last three elections, with 2008 representing a high water mark.

I included in the bottom chart two economic indicators. The first is the annual unemployment rate and the second is the quarter-over-quarter real GDP growth rate.

The unemployment rate curve shows two dramatic peaks – one in 1983 and one in 1993. Interestingly, the two biggest electoral shifts over the period also occurred around those times. The first, in 1984, swept Mulroney to power with the largest majority in Canadian history. The second, in 1993, did the opposite, nearly wiping out the Progressive Conservatives and vaulting the Chrétien Liberals into power.

What's striking about the GDP growth curve is the relative flatness since about 1981 and especially during the 1990s. In the past ten years, quarter-to-quarter growth has been mostly positive, but is relatively inconsistent, with 9/11 having a noticeable negative impact in 2001. The plunge at the end of 2008 appears dramatic when compared historically.

So can we conclude any relationship between swings to the left or right and economic downturns? Not likely, at least not based on the data I've presented. Interesting shifts in the popular vote do appear, but they don't seem to be dependent on economic upturns or downturns. Economic shifts probably do affect voter behaviour, but not in ways that are entirely predictable. Furthermore, the traction that a party may get politically isn't always evident in the electoral numbers. Having an influence on the policy process and in the marketplace of ideas – regardless of which party ultimately takes credit – is something that can’t be measured here.


Ian said...

Here's my take: We're still in mouseland. When things go bad Canadians shift from one "centre" party to the other. That's why the NDP's vote stays constant. We have momentum, but it's frustratingly slow.

The View from Seven said...

Interesting post!

Another factor that can't be measured is voters' gut reaction to the candidates. A leader with a relaxed style, expressive eyes and at ease touching people on the arm, shoulder and back can be an incredible asset to a party. It won't guarantee a win, but it can make a difference.

Fat Arse said...

Agree with much of what you posted. But the failure of the Left to attract and hold supporters during this present crisis is, as View from 7 intimated, that the qualities of leadership cannot be overlooked. The NDP's Layton is a polarizing figure, his penchant for personality first and ideas second only hurts the dippers chances.

Until the NDP musters the fortitude to reign in Manic Jack and commit to presenting an alternate vision of this country backed by sound policies they will remain as they are: unelectable.

cherenkov said...

Interesting topic. If you had monthly polling data, you could run a regression against economic data with more data points and maybe come up with something. Tough though ... lots of extraneous variables to account for.

Prairie Topiary said...

You're right - while, a regression would be the best way to test the relationship between the economy and party support, there are so many variables involved that the equation might never very strongly explain voter support. Leadership, as The View from Seven and Fat Arse refer to, is just one variable that obviously plays a significant role, but that'd be hard to encapsulate in any measure.

Fat Arse, I think you're right that Layton's a very polarizing leader and his antics have made it tough for some to ever see or want him being closer to power. Of course, when he inherited the mantle of a party with only 8.5% electoral support and virtually no media attention, being polarizing might have been his only option for garnering the attention needed to rebuild. I do agree with you, though - further gains for the federal NDP will only come by tirelessly advocating a set of principled good ideas that resonate with ordinary folks. That may not be the fast ticket to earning a bump in the polls, but it's the way that others, like Broadbent, were able to build long-term respect and support.

Jonathon said...

From what I've been reading, BC's provincial Liberals are poised to make gains (or at least stop losses) in the coming election because of the funky economy. At least, that's what the commentators out here are saying.

I think voters understand better now how spending impacts deficits, cumulative deficits create big debt, big debt leads to insane interest, insane interest obligations leads to less cash for the things we want. So even lefty governments in tough times are restricted in the kinds of promises they make.

That said, Layton has described Harper's significant stimulus package as too little, too late. Did he put a shadow budget together? That would be interesting to see.

Prairie Topiary said...

BC's election will be interesting to watch, as it'll be the first Canadian one since the start of the economic downturn. My hunch too is that the Liberals will be re-elected and it might be because voters are cautious about switching horses in turbulent times. But then, who knows? Maybe something unexpected will happen.

Putting together an alternative federal budget would be a great way for the NDP to showcase some ideas and present a legitimate alternative, rather than to simply oppose. I know the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives used to create alternative federal and provincial budgets to do just that and, interestingly, one of the authors of the alternative Manitoba budgets, Greg Selinger, is now the provincial finance minister.

Harry said...

I guess it hasn't occured to you that socialism isn't the opposite end of the scale from capitalism, which is in fact called communism and/or Marxism.

The NDP aren't socialist, they're composed primarily of the disenchanted and disenfranchised Liberal left.

The original socialist CCF were more concerned about the social gospel than they were about providing an alternative to capitalism.

The second leg of their three leg stool was organized labour, who wanted nothing more than their fair share from capitalism.

Of course you're perfectly in your rights to claim a lack of understanding if your purpose is entertainment rather than informed discussion, so be my guest.

Prairie Topiary said...

Harry, I'm not sure I understand your point. My post made no implication about socialism being the opposite of capitalism nor of the Canadian left somehow being a pure opposite of the Canadian right. I'm merely testing Lawrence Martin's hypothesis about our politics leaning left during economic downturns. I'd say the NDP can be fairly described as being on the left, though I'd agree with you that the party is more liberal-left than outright socialist.