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By-election stunner in Quebec

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The federal by-elections this week affirmed what we knew already, except for Quebec. The stunner was the loss of Rivière du Loup through a 12 point shift from the Bloc to the Conservatives. Apparently at odds with recent polls showing the BQ in very good shape, this outcome is a cold shower over the warm blanket that Quebec has provided us in the "ROC", that somehow French Canada would protect us from a Conservative majority.

This part of Quebec is Mario Dumont territory that has always had a conservative streak to it. All the more alarming if that base is returning to the Conservative Party, which I am told out-organized the Bloc.

The results in Montreal Hochelaga where the Bloc held its own but saw the NDP take 20% of the vote and finish a solid second also shakes up conventional wisdoms, but for different reasons.

In Hochelaga, the NDP eclipsed the Liberals as the alternative to the Bloc in this east-end working class riding. Our national punditry takes for granted that this means becoming the federalist alternative. But that is not my take of the campaign ran by Jean-Claude Rocheleau, the NDP candidate against the Bloc's Danielle Paillé. Rocheleau presented a different, and ultimately more relevant, alternative

Paillé is a former Parti Quebecois minister who was hired by Stephen Harper in 2007 to write a review of the former Liberal government's polling practices. More to the point, Paillé is no left winger and in his first media conference called for the elimination of thousands of federal government jobs by replacing only one in three federal workers for the next five years. This kind of nationalist politics at the expense of workers makes many progressives, including sovereignists, very uncomfortable.

J.C. Rocheleau, the vice chair of the NDP in Quebec, contrasted well as a local trade union President and the only candidate resident in the riding. He ran a strong social democratic campaign that emphasized social justice issues, and he built a credible local organization.

None of this was nearly enough to challenge the Bloc's hold on Hochelaga, but the NDP factor nonetheless was significant in both ridings. In Rivière du Loup, the five percent of the vote won by the NDP was the same as a year before, only this time it happened to be just about exactly the margin of victory for the Conservative.

Compared to the rest of the country, Quebec labour is highly disciplined in its politics. If there is a fear of Conservative gains, a renewed debate about preventing vote splitting can be expected. How this plays out will be one of the fascinating stories to watch. There will be pressure on the NDP to at least refrain from targeting the BQ, but also grudging recognition that the NDP has established a solid base in parts of the province and is not going away.

Overall, the by-elections were pretty good for the NDP - a win, and two second places. It was the only party to maintain or increase its share of the vote in all four contests.

Quebec defines Canada not only by its unique status as a nation within a federal state. It is also just plain big and important -- 8 million people with a quarter of the federal seats. It is hard to imagine how the NDP can go beyond 16 to 18 percent without higher support in Quebec, nor can I think of a more direct route to 20 percent-plus territory nationally for the NDP than by building on the Hochelaga result.

Disclaimer: J.C. Rocheleau is a member of my union and a friend. This either makes me somewhat well informed, or naively biased and out-to-lunch. Take your pick.

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