The spike in support for the NDP first in Quebec, and now apparently across the country has political commentators in a frenzy. Pundits are spewing their opinions about who this hurts, who it helps and what impact this will have on the May 2 election and the future of Canadian democracy.
The conventional view is that the NDP surge will hurt Ignatieff and the Liberals. While this may be true in eastern Canada, it is likely off base in British Columbia. Pundits, stuck in the old left-versus-right political dichotomy, argue that the rising NDP vote will cannibalize progressive Liberal voters, thus helping Harper’s conservatives win additional seats.
Good theory, but fortunately it doesn’t apply in B.C. Two facts undermine the argument. First, counter-intuitively, the primary swing of voters in B.C. is between the Tories and the NDP. Second, in most ridings the race is between a Liberal or NDP candidate and their Conservative opponent, not each other.
Ideology be damned
The elephant in B.C. political war rooms that nobody, particularly the NDP, likes to mention is the vast number of voters who swing between the Tories and the NDP in federal elections. I have closely examined neighbourhood voting patterns over the last four federal elections for 17 ridings across B.C. The numbers speak for themselves. There is an uncanny correlation between the rise in Tory vote and the drop in NDP and vice versa. In ridings as diverse as Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, West Vancouver, Sunshine Coast, Vancouver South and Vancouver Centre, the correlation is just too obvious to ignore. Pollsters have also told me their research corroborates this seeming anomaly.
The Tory-NDP vote swing makes no sense if you believe in the traditional right-left political dichotomy. However, recent neurological research into how people make decisions has concluded that most people are complex and have a hodgepodge of traditionally more conservative values mixed with progressive values. In other words, our brains don’t make decisions using the left and right frames pundits all too often use in their analysis.
Based on this new science, the Tory-NDP swing makes more sense. Somehow, despite being in power for five years, Harper’s Conservatives have held onto British Columbians who think of themselves as anti-establishment. The NDP attracts voters with the same sentiment.
The eastern bias of the media and pundits is illustrated by claims that a NDP surge will hurt the Liberals. In contrast to eastern Canada there are only two seats in B.C. where NDP and Liberal finished first and second in the 2008 election, and the NDP already holds these two ridings. The other 34 ridings are a two-horse race where either the NDP or the Grits go head-to-head with the Tories. This means that both the Liberals and NDP are in competition with the Conservatives, not with each other. The only riding where a NDP surge could hurt the Liberals is in Vancouver South where Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh beat the Conservative challenger by 22 votes in 2008. The NDP came a distant third, but if the race is as close as is expected even a dozen votes swinging to the NDP could be decisive.
This means that the election narrative in B.C. in simple: do you want Stephen Harper to be your prime minister? If the answer is no, then your choice is clear. There are 22 ridings, including close contests in Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Kingsway, Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, Kootenay- Columbia, Vancouver Island North and Burnaby Douglas, where only the NDP candidate has a chance to beat the Tory candidate. In 12 other ridings, including Vancouver South, Vancouver Quadra, North Vancouver and West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, only the Liberal candidates have a chance.
So despite what eastern pundits claim, progressive voters in British Columbia don’t really have to worry too much about cannibalizing each other. But two things are crystal clear: in virtually every riding in B.C. there is only one candidate who can beat a Tory, and every vote is going to count.