I’m not a particularly energetic person. Sometimes this … laziness? … saves me. It did with regard to the recent Canadian federal election because I had started to blog on the NDP’s electoral chances but never finished the blog. That was lucky because I seriously underestimated the number of seats the NDP would win. Why did the NDP do so well and what does this tell us about Canada.
A working assumption of my political analysis is that personalities matter less then people think. Leadership, a friend of mine who studies such things tells me, is an important issues in any election. Perhaps, but I find this a bit difficult to believe in this case since I find it hard to see Harper as a particularly good or effective leader. No offence. He’s managed to reorganize conservatism in Canada into a viable governing force. That was no mean feat. But … a leader … really. I know the Nanos leadership index put him considerably higher then Ignatieff but that is sort of like saying Andrew Nurse is better looking than a rock. A few people will pick the rock but most people will pick Andrew Nurse out of an absence of alternatives. I’m not trying to be ideological here, but Harper’s record is one of anything but leadership. His government was caught unaware of the global economic crisis and unprepared for it. Indeed, their overspending and budget cuts lacked caution; they spent the piggy bank, as it were, and had nothing when the economy went in the kicker. The result was a huge budget deficit in place of the surplus they inherited. They are building prisons that their own stats tell them they don’t need; will axe gun control despite the urging of police forces; harmed Canada’s international reputation with poorly considered policies on the environment and blind support of Israel (costing Canada a seat on the UN Security Council), were found in contempt of Parliament; ignored warnings from AELC on Chalk River; and refused to release budget information to the Parliament Budget Officer.
Is this leadership? Let’s grant Harper what we can. All political parties will strive for some degree of spin and manipulation to stay in power. That is the nature of political parties. I’d argue that the NDP would be slightly better then the Conservatives in this regard but the Liberal track record is worse (historically). That is not the point. The point is: is this leadership? I’d argue that it is not leadership at all but a pretty crass effort to win by hook or crook.
What does this have to do with the NDP? Well, what it means is that leadership, if it is important, may be more a matter of perception than accomplishment. What, after all, have the Conservatives done to make Canada a better place since they came to power? You can tell a government that does not think its record is good from its campaign adverts. The Conservatives adverts basically said “don’t vote for X or Y because they will be bad.” Only at the very end of the campaign did they try to portray Harper as a leader (oddly, he was portrayed sitting alone at his desk reading). These adverts demonstrate that the Conservatives themselves don’t believe they have much in the way of a good record (the product of leadership) on which to campaign.
If leadership is a matter of perspective, the NDP victory was not a product of people liking Jack Layton or … if they did, we need to figure out why they liked Jack Layton, why they perceived him as a leader (in the same way that we would need to figure out why some Canadians perceived Stephen Harper as a leader). Instead, I would argue that the NDP success is the product of a number of factors:
1. The first past the post system, which has for years worked against the NDP. It did not really work for them this time. They NDP got about 30% of the popular vote and about 33% of the seats. That is a bit of a pick up but nowhere near what the Tories got (over 50% of the seats with slightly less then 40% of the vote). I’m not complaining about the first past the post system, btw. I might later but not now. What I am saying is that a part of the NDP success was actually simple fairness. They were more popular in the past then their seat totals allowed. By contrast the NDP won 12% of the seats in 2008 with 18% of the vote; 9% with 17% in the 2006. This time, the NDP simply won about the number of seats that their popular vote would indicate that they should have won. Their bump, IOW, was not as great as might at first seam because they were winning fewer seats then might have been the case under a different electoral system.
2. Even with this the NDP continued to build in areas of past success: Halifax, St. John’s, Toronto, for instance. Here, they seemed to absorb leftist Liberal votes, which makes a certian amount of sense. Why vote Liberal if you are left-wing in your outlook? Well, there might be good reasons under other circumstances, but in this case there was nothing to gain. The Liberals were not competitive, clearly were not going to form government and so left wing votes in places like Halifax, Moncton, St. John’s drifted to what might be viewed as their natural home.
3. The success in Quebec shows that there are a lot of Quebecers who want another option. I’ve mentioned this before, but the separatist vote is easy to over-estimate. Quebecers do not want to separate from Canada. They want changes to Canada. That makes them, in fact, pretty darned normal. In Quebec, the BQ was, oddly, the status quo party. A vote for the BQ was a vote for politics as normal. Quebecers who voted NDP said, gee … we don’t want that. We’re voting for a left of centre party anyway but we would like a different type of politics then what we have had. This shift shows that a great number of Quebecers thought this way.
What are the implications of the NDP success? Well, the first thing I would ask people to note is that this is note the death of separatism in Quebec. I’ve mentioned this before: separatism is a legitimate political option. I disagree with it; but a democratic society cannot eliminate it. A lot of Quebecers still did vote Bloc and a lot will vote PQ in the next election. So, don’t imagine that this is the end of separatism.
This said, the BQ was clearly desperate in the last days of the campaign, likely because their own polling told them that the numbers were bad. The fact that they called out Parizeau to campaign indicates how bad their own numbers must have been. Parizeau is a lightening rod and the Bloc has never been a big fan of his. The fact that they called on him indicates that they understood that their hard core base was slipping away. IOW, they might have been OK losing the soft nationalist vote; that might even have figured: we can win that back later. But, if one loses one’s core base … the Party is in trouble. Were they able to salvage enough of the core base to survive? Only time will tell.