Monday, October 27, 2008

Number Crunching 2: Where Did All the Liberal Voters Go?

The inter-party dynamics took on a rather different tenor during the recent election. Instead of the usual 'blue vs. red and let the weirdos take the dregs' approach, the NDP and even the Green Party were finally recognized as a force to be reckoned with. At least by the Liberals - the Conservatives, of course, paid them no mind as they recognized that all of their new votes were going to be coming from the Liberals, thus regarding the other parties (except the Bloc) as beneath their notice.

The Liberals, on the other hand, had the rare good sense to recognize the NDP and the Greens as a significant potential drain on their votes. But instead of simply agreeing with them on principle while arguing that Liberals are better and more experienced at the application, they chose to go on the attack, making party level pleas for strategic voting and practically calling Jack Layton a dirty commie.

They actually seemed surprised by the results.

I mentioned earlier that the Liberal Party is hemorrhaging to the left. Most election post-mortems have noted this, but have been focusing on the seat counts and the percentage shifts, which don't really tell the whole picture because they are skewed by the vagaries of our FPTP system and the size of the smaller parties. I've found the raw numbers of voters to be far more telling. Here's the evidence:

- Compared with 2006, the only party which showed a net increase in votes was... the Green Party. To the tune of about a quarter million votes. Independents and miscellaneous fringe parties also showed an increase.

- If you adjust for the drastic decrease in voter turnout this year, you would get the following net losses and increases:

Conservative: +198,011
Liberal: -597,097
NDP: +95,191
Green: +342,907
Bloc: -76,648
Other: +21,612

In other words, only about a third of the Liberals' lost votes went to the Conservatives. The other two thirds went to the Greens and the NDP. This is in stark contrast to the previous election, where almost all of the Liberal losses benefited the Conservatives.

- In Quebec, the big losers were the Bloc and the Conservatives, who each lost the adjusted equivalent of over 100,000 votes. Many of those were picked up by the Liberals - many more by the NDP.

These numbers tend to verify the impression I got listening and talking to people during this election. Right-leaning Liberals were drifting to the Conservatives, or just choosing not to vote, because they felt that Dion was a weak leader. However, there don't appear to have been a lot of them this time, and I believe the Conservatives are approaching their ceiling in terms of numbers of voters.

But left-leaning Liberals, as well as NDP and Green supporters who might have otherwise voted strategically, told me that they could not bring themselves to vote Liberal because they did not consider the Liberals to be a truly progressive party. In fact, they didn't see much difference between the Liberals and Conservatives at all - an impression left by Chretien and Martin's centrist, corporate-friendly fiscal policies, as well as the embarrassing record of abstentions during the last Parliament.

The decision the Liberal Party needs to make right now is if they're ok with that.

If they are - if they want to continue presenting themselves as a kinder, friendlier version of the Conservatives who know how to balance the books and keep the Bay Street boys happy - then by all means, they should go with someone like McKenna, or Manley, or even Ignatieff. They might even win a few of those Red Tories back with a more palatable leader making their case.

However, leaving aside for the moment my philosophical revulsion for that sort of approach, I honestly don't think that anything can be gained by it. Fiscal prudence might appeal to pensioners and corporate donors, but it's hardly the way to generate voter enthusiasm or grassroots donations, and that's what the Liberals desperately need right now.

Going by the numbers and not just the seats, the message is clear: the Conservatives have stalled, and the moderate left is on the ascendancy. The only question is, will the Liberals stop pandering to the corporations and money men whose influence and vote-buying powers are no longer what they once were? Or will they wake up and start paying more than lip service to what the majority of Canadians clearly want - sound fiscal and social policies that actually put people and the planet first?

The answer will determine their survival as a political force in this country.


  1. Gosh, Runie, its getting kinda orange in here. ;-)

  2. And when did I ever claim to be bound by the restraints of petty partisanship? :)

    Seriously, I will support whatever party or parties I believe are willing and able do the most good for this country. And if the party best able is not especially willing, or is at odds with what I believe most of it's own members want, then I will to what I can to help bring them around.

    If they won't... well, I suspect we'll have a new number two team then anyway. Hope they're up for it.

  3. It's getting difficult to find any progressive party. The impact on low-income of the NDP's cap and trade would be significantly higher than the Green Shift. This is because fixed caps are the most expensive way to reduce carbon emissions.

    Yet, there was no money for this in their platform, and if you used the NDP anti-poverty part of the platform (about $3B/yr) you find it was still providing less to low-income than the Green Shift (about $4B), even though the impact would be larger.

    Perhaps it doesn't make sense to look at the NDP platform in such detail, since they would not have the chance to implement it. Still, when they put forward a platform that completely ignores the regressiveness of carbon pricing, it makes it difficult for any larger party to address this issue effectively because people have a difficult time believing that the NDP would simply shut out poor people in that way.

    Also, if one considers the environment a progressive issue (and globally it certainly is, as the wealthy are emitting GHGs for free and the world's poor will pay the price) then the NDP's outright attacks on a carbon tax are also anti-progressive.

    On these two issues, poverty and the environment, the detailed platforms showed the Liberals to be more progressive than the NDP in this election. Also, Dion's words were more compatible with this, than Layton's, as Dion never outright attacked others attempts to deal with climate change and openly acknowledged the need to correct for the regressiveness of carbon pricing.

    The NDP's position on corporate taxes are also more complicated, as jobs need to be protected if you care about progressiveness. It is not as simple as high corporate taxes are good and low ones are bad. Otherwise the US would be significantly more progressive than many Scandinavian countries. It is really the whole tax and incentive structure, where one wants to make sure the economy and jobs will be protected and those who can pay for social programs, do pay. I didn't see how the NDP planned to protect jobs in this economic climate, while rolling back the corporate tax cuts. If you or others think they had a plan, I'd be interested in learning about this.