May 10

It’s just a week after the Canada’s federal election and the battle of interpretation is still raging. Some see a right-wing blue surge, others a dichotomy between Quebec and Canada, while the polls indicate a contradictory phenomenon. But looking at the shift between the NDP and the combined Tory/Liberal vote, both long-term and between the last two elections, a different picture emerges — of an eroding but concentrated corporate vote, and a surging NDP vote. This points to a left-wing shift in people’s consciousness that creates possibilities for change, if we can combine opposition inside Parliament with movements outside.

Harper’s optimism, people’s pessimism

One way of interpreting the recent elections results is to only see a Harper majority, as if Canada were bathed in Conservative blue. Harper claims that Canadians voted for a “strong, stable, national Conservative government”, and many agree. After all, the Conservatives did increase their seats from 143 to 167. People are anxious about what Harper could do with his majority — impose austerity, continue war and the tar sands, attack abortion rights and social services.

But assuming that Harper’s majority signifies a right-wing surge in people’s consciousness –as those on the right hope or those on the left despair — ignores the contradictions in the election and the possibilities for change. It’s also true that a majority of people voted against Harper, and the Conservatives only increased their vote by two per cent, so the picture must be more complex.

The two solitudes?

The most obvious challenge to Harper’s claim is the historic surge of the NDP in Quebec, which halved the Tory and Liberal seats and decimated the Bloc Quebecois. In the mainstream press this been interpreted as an isolated phenomenon connected to the rejection by people in Quebec of the quest for sovereignty. This is wrong on both counts.

Firstly, the vote for the NDP in Quebec was not a vote against sovereignty but it’s shift to a party of the left. For 20 years the Bloc Quebecois have claimed the mantle of sovereignty but have neither delivered on this nor on important social reforms. Quebec has had the largest social movements–from anti-war protests to student strikes and labour mobilizations–and out of these has emerged a provincial left alternative Quebec solidaire, which links sovereignty to social justice issues. Years of anger against the Tories and the Liberals, the failure of the Bloc to deliver an alternative, the positive example of left sovereignty linked to mass movements, and an NDP campaign that included self-determination and opposition to the war in Afghanistan led people in Quebec to vote en mass for the NDP.

Secondly, while the NDP’s biggest gains were in Quebec they also picked up seats across the country — from B.C., to Ontario, to New Brunswick. It’s important for progressives in Quebec to know they have allies across Canada, and important for people in English Canada to recognize the left-wing surge was not isolated to Quebec. Of 103 seats for the NDP, 58 come from Quebec and 45 from Canada. The electoral map is neither a sea of Tory blue, nor a dichotomy between Quebec and Canada. Instead the official NDP opposition in Parliament comes from across the country.

Erosion of the corporate vote under the weight of mass movements

But the electoral map under-represents the left-wing shift in people’s consciousness. Firstly, it disconnects parties from their economic base, presenting them as abstract entities. As I’ve written elsewhere — in prose and verse — the Liberals and the Tories are the twin parties of corporate Canada, who have both launched wars, undermined the environment, attacked civil liberties and social services, and imposed austerity. On the other hand, the NDP is the only party officially affiliated with labour and unofficially with the social movements. Over the past 10 years the combined corporate vote has steadily declined and the NDP vote increased — not because of what happened inside Parliament but what happened outside.

The two biggest gains for the NDP in the past 10 years happened in 2004 (after the anti-globalization and anti-war protests of 2001-2003, when the NDP gained 1 million votes and increased their popular vote by four per cent) and in this past election (after the economic crisis, mass protests in Wisconsin and ongoing revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, when the NDP gained 2 million votes and increased their popular vote by 12 per cent). Over the past decade, these movements outside Parliament have depleted the combined corporate vote inside Parliament from 78 per cent to 58 per cent, a significant drop of 20 per cent.

Shifting consciousness between elections

The second way in which the electoral map under-represents shifting consciousness is that the first-past-the-post system shows who comes out on top, but misses the dynamic of change underneath. The electoral map represents Parliamentary elections, but the main source of change happens between elections, driven by what happens outside Parliament. So to truly understand what has happened to people’s consciousness between the past two elections we need to look at the shift in vote. From 2008-2011 the NDP gained votes in 293 of 308 ridings, had the same vote in 10 ridings, and only lost votes in five ridings (one in Newfoundland & Labrador, three in Nova Scotia and one in Ontario). This is better than any other party, and shows that the “orange wave” was truly pan-Canadian. Not only did the NDP win 103 seats, but they came in second in more than 110 other ridings. This includes the ridings for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, where the NDP gained about 2,500 votes in each, jumping from 4th place to 2nd place (though still far away from winning).

Moreover, if we compare the votes for the NDP with the combined corporate vote, there was a net shift to the NDP in 216 ridings, or 70 per cent. Even in the Tory stronghold of Alberta there was a net shift towards the NDP in a quarter of the ridings (and an increase in vote in all but one riding). The resulting map is majority orange, not blue.

This surge to the left is missed if we only look at who won. In Quebec, Tory Maxime Bernier and Liberal Justin Trudeau held onto their seats, but the NDP tripled its vote in both ridings to surge into second place. In Ontario, Tory cabinet ministers Bev Oda and John Baird held onto their seats but the NDP doubled its vote.

Looking at the shift in vote around Greater Toronto shows how Harper picked up so many seats to achieve his majority. In Etobicoke Centre and Ignatieff’s riding of Etobicoke Lakeshare the Liberals lost 3,000 to 4,000 votes to the Tories but the NDP almost doubled its vote; in Scarborough Centre and Don Valley East the Liberals lost 5,000 votes, the Tories picked up 2,000 to win, but the NDP picked up more than 5,000 votes, doubling its share; in Bramalea-Gore-Malton the Liberals lost a third of their votes, the Tories gained 1,000 votes, but the NDP picked up 14,000 votes, tripling their share.

In other words, the Harper majority is not based on a surge to the right, but a Liberal collapse. The corporate vote became concentrated in the Tories (who were endorsed by nearly every mainstream newspaper), while the real surge across the country was towards the NDP. This is an important step forward in quality as well as quantity. The aspirations of Quebec previously rooted in the corporate Bloc Quebecois, the “strategic voting” for the corporate Liberals to stop the corporate Tories, and the isolated “neither left nor right” politics of the Green Party have shifted to a pan-Canadian labour party with links to the antiwar and other social movements.

Take the surge to the streets

But there is obvious asymmetry to this configuration. Harper has a majority in Parliament, but minority support outside Parliament. While it’s to his advantage to reduce politics to what happens inside Parliament, his weakness can be exposed if the Official Opposition builds links to mass movements outside Parliament, especially the labour movement. In 2003 the Liberal majority wanted to join the war on Iraq and had the support of the opposition Tories. But the anti-war movement won the NDP to a principled anti-war position regardless of UN backing, and Jack Layton and the NDP helped build anti-war protests across the country — culminating in a trade union-led march of a quarter of a million in Montreal — which split the ruling Liberals and stopped them from joining war.

This led to a surge in NDP support, but since then it stagnated as the NDP leadership downplayed some of its most important policies — from ending the war in Afghanistan and stopping corporate tax cuts — while it contemplated a coalition with the Liberals. But with a shift in left-wing consciousness from global resistance to the economic crisis — resulting in Liberal collapse and NDP surge — now’s the time to put Harper on the defensive by raising all the demands of the movements: end the war, reverse the tax cuts, stop the tar sands, increase EI, fund Medicare…

A decade of mobilizations have eroded the corporate vote, and inspiration from Cairo to Wisconsin have shifted people’s consciousness to a left alternative — catapulting the NDP into Official Opposition. If we can continue building pan-Canadian mass movements and respect Quebec’s right to self-determination, and if the NDP can unite with and help build these movements, we can expose how weak and unstable Harper’s majority is, and bring the change we all want.

Dr. Jesse McLaren is an Ontario-based emergency physician. You can read his blog here.

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who like Virchow believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at,...