Byelections lift NDP while Bernier's success in B.C. race should scare Conservatives

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Photo: Wayne Polk/Flickr

The results of the three byelections on Monday, February 25 had good and bad news for all parties.

For the governing Liberals, they won a seat previously held by former NDP leader Tom Mulcair, Outremont in Montreal. The bad news is that the Liberal share of the vote dropped significantly in a seat where they came a very close second in 2015 -- Burnaby South in the British Columbia lower mainland, which NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh won handily.

For the Conservatives, the good news is that they not only held York-Simcoe, north of Toronto, but increased their vote share there, while the Liberals dropped nearly nine per cent vis-a-vis the 2015 election.

The bad news for Andrew Scheer's party is that they lost support in Outremont, relative to the last general election. They came a dismal fifth in the Montreal riding, behind not only the NDP and Bloc Québécois, but also the Greens, which, surprisingly, came in third.

In Burnaby South, the strong showing for Maxime Bernier's People's Party, which won over 10 per cent of the vote, has to worry the Conservative leadership. National polls have the People's Party in the very low single digits; but their unexpected good showing in Burnaby South will unsettle Conservatives, and probably push the official opposition party further to the right, especially on immigration, the environment and social issues.

The Greens did not run a candidate in Burnaby South, as a courtesy to NDP leader Singh, and did not do particularly well in York-Simcoe. However, their strong finish in Outremont, with a great candidate, longtime environmental activist Daniel Green, should encourage them to keep plugging away in Quebec.

The NDP had the most to win and the most to lose on February 25, and on balance the party did better than expected.

Pundits predicted Burnaby South would be a close race; the NDP won by fewer than 600 votes in 2015. This time, however, Jagmeet Singh had a 2,900 vote margin -- although, in proportionate terms, Singh's vote only slightly exceeded the combined Green and NDP vote of last time.

Outremont, despite being the first seat the NDP ever won in a general election in Quebec, did not look good for the NDP going into the byelection. Singh speaks creditable French and has made significant efforts to win over Quebec voters. For instance, he did well when he appeared on the popular Radio-Canada television talk show Tout le monde en parle. But, overall, the NDP leader has had trouble connecting in Quebec. His turban may bother some voters in that province, perhaps more than will admit so publicly. More important, NDPers have not yet been able to find any issue that resonates strongly with Quebec voters.

Some recent polls had the NDP in single digits in Quebec, while showing new life for the previously moribund Bloc Québécois. In that light, the 26 per cent second-place finish in Outremont for NDP candidate Julia Sanchez does not look half bad.

The Outremont riding comprises not only the affluent one-time city of Outremont itself, but the much more working-class neighbourhoods to the east and west, Côte-des-Neiges and Mile End. The riding includes some territory that voted for left-of-centre Québec Solidaire provincially and Mayor Valérie Plante's Projet Montréal at the municipal level. Sanchez seems to have succeeded in holding a lot of that progressive vote for the NDP. That should augur well for prominent NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice, whose predominantly working-class riding is a bit east of Outremont, and for the candidates the NDP selects for the Laurier-Sainte-Marie and Hochelaga ridings, also in centre-east Montreal. The front-bench NDP MPs for those ridings, Hélène Laverdière and Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet, have both announced they will not run next time.

Strong, hard-working candidates and robust policies needed

Julia Sanchez was a strong candidate for the NDP. She had a long and successful career in international development -- most recently as head of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation -- and she worked hard at identifying and getting out her vote. The prevalent pundits' view was that if Sanchez could win at least 20 per cent of the Outremont vote that would be a sign the party was, on the ground, doing a lot better than recent polls indicate. She hit that target with lots of room to spare.

Heading into the general election this October, the lesson from Outremont for the NDP is that the party will need strong candidates, who are willing to work long and hard, if they hope to win seats in Quebec. The coming vote will not likely be a wave election for anyone in that province.

New Democrats still have a handful of visible and hard-working Quebec incumbents, such as Guy Caron, Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, Pierre Nantel, and, of course, Alexandre Boulerice, but a significant number of Quebec NDPers will not run in October. Sanchez's relative success might now facilitate the party's task as it seeks new candidates to run in October.

Of course, for both Quebec and the rest of Canada, the key ingredient for the NDP in the coming general election will be a robust, values-based and ambitious-but-realistic set of policies that will distinguish it from the governing Liberals.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Wayne Polk/Flickr

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