Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Taking stock of yesterday’s by-elections

The media love a good narrative, and once they decide on a narrative they’ll do anything to force events into their box, whether the events fit inside that box. Right now, one of their favourite narratives is that the Liberal Party is dying. Sadly for them, we refuse to go.

They said our fundraising would dry up; it hasn’t. They said we’d stay down in the polls; not lately we haven’t. They said no one would run for our leadership; there’s more potential contenders than you can shake a good-sized stick at. They said it will be a coronation; the quality candidates stepping forward disagree. And over 30,000 people have now signed-up as Liberal supporters, with the race barely underway. All this from a dying party? Indeed.

Which brings me to last night’s by-election results in Durham, Calgary-Centre and Victoria. No pick-ups unfortunately; the party that held each seat retained it. Still, the doomsayers are trying to build a case for Liberal decline and disarray, reality be damned (and conveniently ignoring Calgary-Centre as it doesn’t fit the narrative).

Let’s look at the numbers, specifically comparing the Liberal vote share in each riding to 2011.

2011: 17.85 per cent
2012: 17.3 per cent (- .55 points)

2011: 17.53 per cent
2012: 32.7 per cent (+ 15.17 points)

2011: 13.98 per cent
2012: 13.1 per cent (-.88 points)

As you can see, the Liberal vote share largely held in Durham and Victoria  off by less than one point, and rose an impressive 15 points in Calgary-Centre. Calgary-Centre was an obvious moral victory, no doubt. As for the other two, yes, I recognize comparing to 2011 is comparing to a low-water mark. But it’s also the most recent election, so it’s appropriate. Particularly if the charge is the Liberals are spiraling downward. Downward means a line, you know, down.

Because as these numbers show, we’re not. We’re holding. Yes, there is much work to be done. The renewal process is barely underway and it won’t yield results overnight. Yes, the success of the Greens is impressive. The NDP showed continued strength in Ontario, which should concern Liberals. 

Look at where the movement was, though. In Victoria, the Conservatives lost 10 points and the NDP 13; it all appears to have gone Green. In Calgary, a 20-point Conservative drop went Liberal, Green and NDP. And in Durham, the NDP took most of their five points from the Conservatives. In none of these three ridings did the gains come at Liberal expense.

Now, it is fair to say that, with the exception of Calgary-Centre, there were swing votes up for grabs and the Liberals failed to grab them. There is work to be done to again be the credible, go-to alternative to the status-quo. My point though stands: there's no data here to support the ridiculous dying party narrative. In three unheld ridings we held our own in two and made historic gains in the third.

And there are lessons to be drawn from each to apply going forward. In Durham, Grant Humes used the freedom of a by-election campaign to step outside the usual national party messaging and draw national attention to a major issue: the deplorable Conservative treatment of Canada’s veterans. In Victoria, Paul Summerville ran a campaign with micro-targeting at its core, which will yield lessons to inform future campaigns across the country. And in Calgary-Centre, Harvey Locke showed that there is no area of the country that Liberals can’t hope to compete with the right candidate and the right message.

As for cooperation

With the result in Calgary-Centre, where the combined Green and Liberal vote would have defeated the Conservative, there will no doubt be talk of electoral cooperation. Lost in a busy news day was the entry of Joyce Murray into the Liberal leadership race with a platform that includes riding-level cooperation and progressive primaries along the Nathan Cullen model. I’m glad we’ll have this debate; I think it’s the wrong way to go, and I look forward to making that case.

I think we should approach this with two questions: what’s our goal, and will it work?

For many, the goal is simple: beat Harper. I think that’s a short-sighted goal, but let’s explore it for a moment. Will mashing, say, the Liberals and Greens together work? Maybe, maybe not. In Victoria and Calgary, it appears the Greens pulled more votes from the Conservatives than any other party. Would those voters stay with the Red Green Party, or would they go back to the Conservatives? One plus one is never two in these scenarios. Same with any Liberal/NDP mash-up – you’d lose Blue Liberals on the right, and whatever colour the far left is on the left.

And frankly, I don’t like approaching this with defeating Harper as our primary mission. I didn't get involved in politics to defeat things, but to stand for things. Yes, I want to win. Because when you win, you get to do the things you stand for. We need to offer a better alternative to Canadians if we want to be successful, not seek market share through acquisition and takeover. Wrong goal, bad math.

I would rather approach the discussion with this goal: how can we make electoral results more reflective of the will of the electorate? That should be a goal: replace first past the post with a more democratic system, and then let the best ideas compete on that playingfield.

I think the simplest reform is the best here: a preferential ballot. Rank your candidates 1-2-3, and the winner needs 50 per cent plus one. If it really is the case that Conservatives are winning on a split progressive vote, a preferential ballot will yield different results. But whatever happens, successful MPs will have to court a much wider base of support than they do now, and they will come to office with a much stronger mandate and support base.

That’s the kind of cooperation I’d prefer to see.

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Steve V said...

Dion spoke at the Green Party convention. The synergies go well beyond simply wanting Harper gone.

Jeff said...

Didn't Bob Mills as well?

I don't deny there are some synergies. There are some synergies across all parties. And some differences.

Look at last night's numbers though, and where the Green votes came from.

WEB said...

Very idealistic. Vote reform has been rejected by referendum everywhere in Canada. Party reform is needed for those who want to lead the govt. Is it more important to be a Green vs Liberal, or a liberal vs con? The cons have a long horizon of damage to inflict while the rest of us argue about who has the BEST idea.

WEB said...

Very idealistic. Where vote reform has been proposed it has been rejected in Canada. Party reform is what is available to activists. Do we want to make a difference by getting a different govt elected or do we want to be caught up in whether Green ideas are better than Liberal or NDP. CPC has a long horizon to govern while we duke it out.

Anonymous said...

I love your third-last paragraph. I'm posting it on my Facebook (attributed to you, of course!)

The Mound of Sound said...

You need to dig a bit deeper, Jeff. How long ago was it the Libs held that Victoria seat? The Greens are ascendant. Climate change alone will see to that.

Scott @ Prog Blog said...

Perhaps thats why we need to forget referendum; Have a political party put it in their election platform and then implement it if elected.

There are lots of good things to happen that would never have been implemented if left to referendum (ie civil rights in the 1960's).

Randy McDonald said...

"My point though stands: there's no data here to support the ridiculous dying party narrative. In three unheld ridings we held our own in two and made historic gains in the third."

In the riding of Victoria, potential Liberal voters went overwhelmingly to the NDP and to the Greens. In the riding of Calgary Centre, the result was a three-way split. In Durham, the only party to see an increase in votes was the NDP.

How is the Liberal Party supposed to recover if it's showing no sign of being able to pick up new voters? It may not be a dead party, but a Liberal Party that can't pick up new voters is surely fossilizing.