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Reflection on the election

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Poring over the entrails leads me to a couple of observations.

First, as is usually the case, the change in the distribution of seats which commands headlines is an imperfect reflection of the change in the distribution of votes.

The NDP breakthrough in Quebec was remarkable and historically important and unprecedented, but so was the NDP surge in English Canada. The NDP's 30.6% share of the national vote was based on 43% of the vote in Quebec, and a very high 28% share of the vote in the rest of Canada.

Strikingly, limited seat gains outside Quebec poorly reflects the actual change in the NDP vote. Between 2008 and 2011, the NDP share of the national vote rose from 18.2% to 30.6%, a gain of more than 12 percentage points which is a huge shift.

The vote shift in Quebec from the Bloc to the NDP which produced huge seat gains was dramatic but accounts for only 4 percentage points of that extra 12 points, with an extra small bit coming from the shift from the Liberals to the NDP in Quebec.

So, a big and somewhat neglected story is the major shift of the vote from the Liberals (and Greens) to the NDP in English Canada, especially vote-rich Ontario and B.C. The NDP vote share in Ontario (40% of the country) rose from 18.2% to 25.6%; and it rose in B.C. from 25.0% to 32.5%. Those are big gains. This seems to have come mainly at the expense of the Liberals plus probably gains from the Greens whose share of the national vote fell from 6.8% to 3.9%, and whose share of the Ontario vote fell even more, from 8.0% to 3.8%.

But the big vote increase in English Canada translated into only modest seat gains: 3 extra seats in B.C. plus 6 extra downtown Toronto seats, plus two extra seats in Atlantic Canada, offset by a loss of two incumbent seats in the Soo and Winnipeg to the Conservatives.

The NDP vote also rose significantly from 25.6% to 32.3% in Saskatchewan but this produced no seats. It rose in New Brunswick from 21.8% to 29.8%, but produced just the one incumbent seat. The NDP vote share was more or less unchanged only in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba.

Second, the very weak Quebec results for the Conservatives in terms of both seats and votes also somewhat conceal just how well they did in English Canada, above all in Ontario. There seems to have been a significant shift of Liberal votes, not just to the NDP, but also to the Conservatives in Ontario -- where the Conservative share of the vote rose from 39.2% in 2008 to 44.4% as the Liberal vote fell from 33.8% to 25.3%. The Conservative share of the vote also rose a bit in B.C. and more so in Saskatchewan.

Many Ontario residents who voted Liberal in 2008 -- viewed by some on the left as part of a progressive anti-Harper majority -- seem to have shifted to Harper late in the campaign, likely in reaction to the big shift to the NDP.

To my mind, those remaining Liberal voters in 2011 are not self-evidently going to turn NDP in a future election. If the party disintegrates -- which is a big if -- they will shift to both the NDP and the Conservatives.

The bottom line for me is that the NDP, if they are to gain a majority, will have to retain the new Quebec base and turn about 50 of their many second-place finishes in English Canada into wins.

The primary task must be to win votes from the Conservatives.

We fool ourselves if we think the Conservatives won only because of a divided opposition. The sobering reality is that they are formidably strong from Ontario to B.C.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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