Byelection lessons

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Wednesday must have been an interesting day in Ottawa — the first day back at work for Tory staffers after Canada Day, and also the first full day at the office after four federal byelections clewed up late Monday.

Why? Because the byelections must look particularly unsettling for the current government, with the Liberals even making a strong showing in a riding in Alberta.

First, a few legitimate caveats: governments tend to perform more poorly in byelections than they do in full elections. Byelections are a handy time to register opposition to specific elements of government policy without having to actually cause a full-scale change.

In other words, a spanking, rather than banishment.

Secondly, as the Tories will probably be quick to point out, turnouts in the byelections were low. (While they can point out that byelections sandwiched between a Sunday and a statutory holiday don’t make for a real representation of public feelings, the Tories have no one to blame but themselves for the timing — after all, they picked it.)

But the voting breakdown is interesting, if for no reason than that they suggest the Tories’ worst nightmare might be in the process of happening. Left-leaning voters seem to be coalescing towards one party, instead of having two left-leaning parties splitting the vote and letting the Tories do what they did in the last federal election — form a majority government with the support of only slightly more than a third of voters.

In the Toronto-area riding of Scarborough-Agincourt in 2011, the Liberals took 45.4 per cent of the popular vote, the Conservatives 34.2 per cent, the NDP 18 per cent. On Monday, the Liberals took 59.3 per cent of the ballots cast. The Tories took 29 per cent.

The NDP slid to just over eight per cent.

In Trinity-Spadina, the Liberals had 53.4 per cent of the popular vote, and the NDP 34.3 per cent. It’s a big change: in 2011, the NDP’s Olivia Chow had 54.5 per cent, while the Liberals took 23.4 per cent.

In traditionally Tory-leaning Macleod, near Calgary, the Tories cleaned up with 68 per cent of the vote, with the Liberals taking 17 per cent — once again, NDP support evaporated, sliding by half. As well, the Tories had 77 per cent of the vote in 2011, down now by almost 10 per cent.

Then, there’s another Tory riding, Fort McMurray-Athabasca: in 2011, the Tories took the riding with 71.8 per cent of the vote. This time, it was just 46.8 per cent, with the Liberals rising from 10.4 per cent to 35.3 per cent.

It’s all interesting grist for the political mill: none of it means Stephen Harper’s Tories are about to topple or anything, but it shows there’s some marked discomfort in the core of Tory support, and, even worse for the Tories overall, opposition to the Harper Conservatives may be finding one avenue of opposition, instead of two.

The Tories are renowned for their election machine and strategic attack ads, even outside of elections. It will be interesting to watch where they aim next, and how strident the attacks become.

Organizations: NDP, Tory, Harper Conservatives

Geographic location: Toronto, Calgary

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