Monday, May 9, 2011

Canada's real electoral map: a surge for the left

It's just a week after the Canada's federal election and the battle of interpretation is still raging. Some see a right-wing blue surge, others a dichotomy between Quebec and Canada, while the polls indicate a contradictory phenomenon. But looking at the shift between the NDP and the combined Tory/Liberal vote, both longterm and between the last two elections, a different picture emerges--of an eroding but concentrated corporate vote, and a surging NDP vote. This points to a left-wing shift in people's consciousness that creates possibilities for change, if we can combine opposition inside Parliament with movements outside.

     One way of interpreting the recent elections results is to only see a Harper majority, as if Canada were bathed in Conservative blue. Harper claims that Canadians voted for a "strong, stable, national Conservative government", and many agree. After all, the Conservatives did increase their seats from 143 to 167. People are anxious about what Harper could do with his majority--impose austerity, continue war and the tar sands, attack abortion rights and social services. But assuming that Harper's majority signifies a right-wing surge in people's consciousness--as those on the right hope or those on the left despair (like this graphic)--ignores the contradictions in the election and the possibilities for change. It's also true that a majority of people voted against Harper, and the Conservatives only increased their vote by 2%, so the picture must be more complex.

     The most obvious challenge to Harper's claim is the historic surge of the NDP in Quebec, which halved the Tory and Liberal seats and decimated the Bloc Quebecois. In the mainstream press this been interpreted as an isolated phenomenon connected to the rejection by people in Quebec of the quest for sovereignty. This is wrong on both counts.
     Firstly, the vote for the NDP in Quebec was not a vote against sovereignty but it's shift to a party of the left. For 20 years the Bloc Quebecois have claimed the mantle of sovereignty but have neither delivered on this nor on important social reforms. Quebec has had the largest social movements--from anti-war protests to student strikes and labour mobilizations--and out of these has emerged a provincial left alternative Quebec solidaire, which links sovereignty to social justice issues. Years of anger against the Tories and the Liberals, the failure of the Bloc to deliver an alternative, the positive example of left sovereignty linked to mass movements,  and an NDP campaign that included self-determination and opposition to the war in Afghanistan led people in Quebec to vote en mass for the NDP. 
     Secondly, while the NDP's biggest gains were in Quebec they also picked up seats across the country--from BC, to Ontario, to New Brunswick. It's important for progressives in Quebec to know they have allies across Canada, and important for people in English Canada to recognize the left-wing surge was not isolated to Quebec. Of 103 seats for the NDP, 58 come from Quebec and 45 from Canada. The electoral map is neither a sea of Tory blue, nor a dichotomy between Quebec and Canada. Instead the official NDP opposition in Parliament comes from across the country.

     But the electoral map under-represents the left-wing shift in people's consciousness. Firstly, it disconnects parties from their economic base, presenting them as abstract entities. As I've written elsewhere--in prose and verse--the Liberals and the Tories are the twin parties of corporate Canada, who have both launched wars, undermined the environment, attacked civil liberties and social services, and imposed austerity. On the other hand, the NDP is the only party officially affiliated with labour and unofficially with the social movements. Over the past ten years the combined corporate vote has steadily declined and the NDP vote increased--not because of what happened inside Parliament but what happened outside.
     The two biggest gains for the NDP in the past ten years happened in 2004 (after the anti-globalization and anti-war protests of 2001-2003, when the NDP gained 1 million votes and increased their popular vote by 4%) and in this past election (after the economic crisis, mass protests in Wisconsin and ongoing revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, when the NDP gained 2 million votes and increased their popular vote by 12%). Over the past decade, these movements outside Parliament have depleted the combined corporate vote inside Parliament from 78% to 58%, a significant drop of 20%.

      The second way in which the electoral map under-represents shifting consciousness is that the first-past-the-post system shows who comes out on top, but misses the dynamic of change underneath. The electoral map represents Parliamentary elections, but the main source of change happens between elections, driven by what happens outside Parliament. So to truly understand what has happened to people's consciousness between the past two elections we need to look at the shift in vote. From 2008-2011 the NDP gained votes in 293 of 308 ridings, had the same vote in 10 ridings, and only lost votes in 5 ridings (1 in Newfoudland&Labrador, 3 in Nova Scotia and 1 in Ontario). This is better than any other party, and shows that the "orange wave" was truly pan-Canadian. Not only did the NDP win 103 seats, but they came in second in more than 110 other ridings. This includes the ridings for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, where the NDP gained about 2500 votes in each, jumping from 4th place to 2nd place (though still far away from winning).
     Moreover, if we compare the votes for the NDP with the combined corporate vote, there was a net shift to the NDP in 216 ridings, or 70%. Even in the Tory stronghold of Alberta there was a net shift towards the NDP in a quarter of the ridings (and an increase in vote in all but one riding). The resulting map is majority orange, not blue.
     This surge to the left is missed if we only  look at who won. In Quebec, Tory Maxime Bernier and Liberal Justin Trudeau held onto their seats, but the NDP tripled its vote in both ridings to surge into second place. In Ontario, Tory cabinet ministers Bev Oda and John Baird held onto their seats but the NDP doubled its vote.
     Looking at the shift in vote around Greater Toronto shows how Harper picked up so many seats to achieve his majority. In Etobicoke Centre and Ignatieff's riding of Etobicoke Lakeshare the Liberals lost 3-4000 votes to the Tories but the NDP almost doubled its vote; in Scarborough Centre and Don Valley East the Liberals lost 5000 votes, the Tories picked up 2000 to win, but the NDP picked up more than 5000 votes, doubling its share; in Bramalea-Gore-Malton the Liberals lost a third of their votes, the Tories gained 1000 votes, but the NDP picked up 14,000 votes, tripling their share.
     In other words, the Harper majority is not based on a surge to the right, but a Liberal collapse. The corporate vote became concentrated in the Tories (who were endorsed by nearly every mainstream newspaper), while the real surge across the country was towards the NDP. This is an important step forward in quality as well as quantity. The aspirations of Quebec previously rooted in the corporate Bloc Quebecois, the "strategic voting" for the corporate Liberals to stop the corporate Tories, and the isolated "neither left nor right" politics of the Green Party have shifted to a pan-Canadian labour party with links to the antiwar and other social movements.

     But there is obvious asymmetry to this configuration. Harper has a majority in Parliament, but minority support outside Parliament. While it's to his advantage to reduce politics to what happens inside Parliament, his weakness can be exposed if the Official Opposition builds links to mass movements outside Parliament, especially the labour movement. In 2003 the Liberal majority wanted to join the war on Iraq and had the support of the opposition Tories. But the anti-war movement won the NDP to a principled anti-war position regardless of UN backing, and Jack Layton and the NDP helped build anti-war protests across the country--culminating in a trade union-led march of a quarter of a million in Montreal--which split the ruling Liberals and stopped them from joining war. This led to a surge in NDP support, but since then it stagnated as the NDP leadership downplayed some of its most important policies--from ending the war in Afghanistan and stopping corporate tax cuts--while it contemplated a coalition with the Liberals. But with a shift in left-wing consciousness from global resistance to the economic crisis--resulting in Liberal collapse and NDP surge--now's the time to put Harper on the defensive by raising all the demands of the movements: end the war, reverse the tax cuts, stop the tar sands, increase EI, fund Medicare... 
     A decade of mobilizations have eroded the corporate vote, and inspiration from Cairo to Wisconsin have shifted people's consciousness to a left alternative--catapulting the NDP into Official Opposition. If we can continue building pan-Canadian mass movements and respect Quebec's right to self-determination, and if the NDP can unite with and help build these movements, we can expose how weak and unstable Harper's majority is, and bring the change we all want.


  1. Fine piece, and thanks for the insight.

    This line though: "depleted the combined corporate vote inside Parliament from 78% to 58%, a significant drop of 30%" looks more like only 20%, no?

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  3. Thanks for the correction. I must have been looking ahead to the next election, if there's a successful synergy of opposition inside and outside Parliament :)

  4. Many typos: How left, how progressive, is the NDP really? They have moved steadily towards the centre since 2003, it seems to me, and most of their fiscal polices could have been easily crafted by either the LPC or CPC.

    And would you say applying Quebec's language laws to federal workplaces in Quebec is a progressive or a pandering move? Would you say guaranteeing Quebec at least the same number of parliamentary seats they have now, even though their population is shrinking, is a democratic or a pandering move? And opening up the constitution, even though such a process is theoretically "down the road," is that a wise or pandering move? I'm just sayin'. How left have we really moved? I'd say 2 or 3 inches, not much more. Like every other party, the NDP has and will continue to flirt with the centre because that's where they think the vote and therefore power is. And they will now be intensely obsessed with the possibility of power given their new-found status as the official opposition.

    Still your point about the Corporate vote is a good one.

  5. good post & the visual is great - sure puts it in a different perspective with the shift to the progressive left!

  6. There was a vote at an NDP convention...
    ....i believe at least 60% were in favour of a merger on the left. I understand Jack Layton's people were the ones on the negative side. Think of what night have been.

    The NDP seems to enjoy thinking small. They say their election surge was some kind of victory. Coming in secornd to Stephen Harper is still a lose, no matter how you look at it.

    Lets face it...the rise of the NDP is a fluke.

    The Liberals will be stronger next time with Justin Trudeau, and left will split the vote again....
    ....unless Harper really blows it, and I dont think the spin doctors will allow that.

  7. The point isn't how 'left' the NDP might or might not be. They will be like any other labour party the world over- that is ,only as left as they are forced to be. That force is mass popular pressure. The NDP vote and seat gain represents a clear intent on the part of millions of voters that we need something different. Getting that will only happen when the politicsof the 'street exceeds that in parliament.
    And lay off Quebec - folks in QC have been far more successful than the rest of us at securing basic services. We in English Canada should take our lead from them. If we did perhaps we'd have 7 dollar a day childcare as well!

  8. It is good news to see human-controlled political parties rising at the expense of corporations, but all the life accross Canada can't wait 4 years for a revolution. We need to think about impeachment/truly revolutionary actions based on a government that has absolute power over us with only a minority of the country's support. This isn't democracy and the majority of Canadians now have justice on our side in disobeying and taking down this government, but HOW? Here's a music video I made to reach people ahead of the election, hoping to use it now to whatever useful ends we can conceive of...

    Canadian Revolution:

  9. A lot of people on the left have raised the point about how the NDP isn't a real 'left' party, that it's moved towards the center. That may be true to an extent, but it's actually missing the point.

    The point is that it is *perceived* to be a left party by the vast majority of people, and as a result we can examine the level of support it receives and use that as a gauge - it's not the only gauge of course, but it is an important one - to understand the levels of dissatisfaction with corporate politics as usual.

    To a lesser degree, we can say the same thing about the Green party. While, unlike the NDP, the Green party has no connection to the labour movement or to social movements, and is largely a right-wing party when you actually look at its policy, it's still perceived (wrongly, I'd suggest) as something of an alternative to the usual parties of Bay street by large numbers of Canadians.

    We need to be aware of the size of the forces we can draw upon to build resistance, and these results are a good way to understand which way the wind is blowing. That information can be absolutely vital when understanding which fronts to focus our efforts on in the upcoming fight against the austerity measures that are sure to come.

    It's also very important to remember that the NDP is not a monolith. There are forces within the party that wish to carry it down the path of Tony Blair - of third-way neoliberalism with a social-democratic cover and/or a merger with the Liberals.

    But there are also forces within the party that would welcome and encourage the building of extra-parliamentary forces, the kind we're gonna need to adequately deal with 4 years of Tory majority - and these forces can help to give a voice to the movement to the degree we push them to do so.

    If we take the ultra-left, and in the end sectarian position of simply abandoning the NDP because it's not revolutionary or not 'left' enough for our personal tastes, we essentially abandon those latter forces as well, and not only do the Blairites end up winning the battle within the the end, so does Harper.

  10. oh, just so people realize - I'm not the same Dr. J as the author of this blog. Completely different j here - a lowercase one who apologizes for any confusion :)

  11. Just found your blog (link posted on FB), interesting analysis, thank you.
    I wish Harper would take the Hippocratic Oath; I worry about what kind of world he will leave to the next generation.

    I have two thoughts about the results of this election:
    1. There is a world wide shift to the right. Britain wants to allow the wealthy to buy spots at the top universities for example. Throughout history, societies have always had a super powerful elite that behave this way. What dismays me is that this class has found a way to make constitutional democracies work in their favour; they have learned how to manipulate the voter.

    2. I wonder if this trend of win-at-all-costs comes from a shift we saw in the '80's, when athletes started getting caught for doping; good behaviour no longer mattered as long as you won. The lies and secrecy of the Harper government demonstrate this willingness to do anything in order to win, and Canadians don't seem to be bothered by it, in fact they rewarded this behaviour. This troubles me quite a bit.

  12. Wow...this is a most insightful blog entry, and a fascinating blog. Count me in as a regular visitor.

  13. It's over. We lost. The corporations have conquered the Earth. We had every opportunity to overthrow capitalism and save our species, but we failed. Stupidity, sociopathy, and ignorance have won the war, and now it's just a matter of waiting for the laws of physics to sweep us aside with the rest of the failed species.

    Too bad, homo sapiens, you looked like you might have had promise for a bit.