Andrew Coyne: There’s no spinning it — the Conservatives were spanked in Monday’s byelections

   Andrew Coyne  27/11/13

Does Stephen Harper realize that he needs to turn things around to win in 2015?   Adrian Wyld/The Canadian PressDoes Stephen Harper realize that he needs to turn things around to win in 2015?

If you were determined to be obtuse about it, you could look at the results of Monday’s byelections and say: nothing changed. The Tories held onto their two seats in the West, the Liberals held onto theirs in Ontario and Quebec. Move along folks, no story here.

Justin Trudeau would have come under less flak if he’d drawn a caricature depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Mr. Trudeau had the temerity to quote fallen NDP leader Jack Layton in his victory address, after the Liberals retained the Bourassa and Toronto Centre seats in Monday’s byelections.

Mr. Trudeau said that the NDP is “no longer the hopeful, optimistic party of Jack Layton … it is the Liberal Party that proved that hope is stronger than fear, that positive politics can, and should win out over negative.”

The invocation of Mr. Layton’s words, penned in a note to Canadians just before he died two years ago – “love is better than anger, hope is better than fear” – has incensed New Democrats, who have all but accused Mr. Trudeau of defaming the memory of their former leader.

You could do this, as I say, only if you took extravagant care to ignore everything else that happened that night: If you focused myopically on the top-line result in each riding, and paid no attention to the popular vote — the trend, the swing, across the nation and over time.

In private, I can assure you, no one in any of the parties does this. Only in the public realm do they say things like “a win’s a win” — which is what you say when a win looks a lot like a loss — and only the most programmed partisans actually mean it.

Only in the most literal sense is the Tories’ 391-vote margin in Brandon-Souris, one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, a “win.” Even the partisans found this hard to say with a straight face. Rather, they were obliged first to pretend that a Forum Research poll showing the Liberals ahead by 29 points the weekend before the election had some basis in reality, the better to conjure up a fantasy “comeback.”

To be sure, every party comes well-stocked with rationalizations on occasions like these, usually introduced by “when you consider” or some such phrase. As in: The Conservatives did pretty well, when you consider we’re in the throes of a massive national scandal. Or: the NDP collapse in Manitoba is understandable, when you consider the unpopularity of the province’s NDP government. It’s not cold, when you consider it’s February.

We would have done better, in other words, but for the fact that we did worse. Figures don’t lie, but losers can consider.


But there’s just no spinning this one. The trends are too pronounced. Across all four ridings, the Tory vote was down 11 points versus the 2011 election, from 39% to 28%, almost exactly mirroring the national polls. The NDP, which might have been expected to gain the most from the Tories’ disfavour — when you consider how well Tom Mulcair has been performing in Parliament — instead dropped five points overall, while the Liberals surged 18 points.

If the drop in the Tory vote was the night’s main story, the rise in the Liberals’ was the other. In Provencher and Brandon-Souris, the Grits blew past the NDP to become the Tories’ main rivals, taking as many votes from the left as they did from the right. In Toronto Centre and Bourassa, they increased their margins of victory, even in the face of spirited challenges from the NDP. Conservative candidates in the East both lost their deposits, as NDP candidates did in the West. Only the Liberals were up across the board.

But the true significance of the result is captured, not by comparison to the last election, but set against the broad sweep of history. The 8.7% of the vote the Conservatives managed to hold onto in Toronto Centre — the riding of David Crombie and David MacDonald — is the party’s worst showing in any election in that riding since Confederation.

The Conservative candidate in Bourassa, likewise, took less than 5% of the vote. That is the second-worst showing for the Conservatives in that riding since 1968, when it was created. (Only 2000, when they split the vote with the Canadian Alliance, was worse.) By contrast, the Liberals’ 43% showing in Brandon-Souris was not only a 37% increase over 2011, it was their best ever.

NP Graphics

NP GraphicsClick to Enlarge

Nothing changed? Come on. We can argue about the reasons, we can debate what it portends, but on the night, there’s no getting away from it: The Conservatives were spanked. No doubt it would have been even worse for the Tories had they actually lost Brandon-Souris (“not unexpected, when you consider the Liberal candidate was the son of the riding’s long-time former Conservative MP”), but the results ought to prompt some deep reflection among the party’s leadership.

No, the Senate scandal is not likely to be at the top of most voters’ minds two years from now. But I rather doubt the Senate scandal, on its own, is what has driven one in four Tory voters to abandon the party: As I say, the polls have been showing the same thing for some time. It’s everything that went before it, and everything that’s happened since.

It’s the general impression that we are being governed by a gang of thugs — secretive, high-handed, unprincipled gusting to unethical, and openly contemptuous of such quaint notions as democratic accountability — an impression that grows more baked in each time the Prime Minister dodges a question in Parliament, or worse, sends in the clownish Paul Calandra to answer in his place.

At the same time, it’s clear the NDP have a lot of work to do to convince voters, not just of the Conservatives’ faults, but of their own virtues as their putative replacements. It must gall Mr. Mulcair, after all his weight and substance, to see the voters flock instead to the lighter-than-air Justin Trudeau. But he still has lots of time to turn things around.

For that matter, so does Stephen Harper. The difference is, Mr. Mulcair seems to realize he needs to.

Postmedia News


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