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For Canada’s New Democrats, a Cautionary Tale in Britain

As Canada conducts a snap general election on Monday with polls pointing to a significant realignment of support, there may be a cautionary tale in the most recent British election.

One of the major story lines before the balloting in Britain last year was the sharp rise of the Liberal Democrats, the perennial third-party contenders, in the polls. After winning about 20 percent of the national vote for the previous four elections, but only between 3 and 10 percent of the seats in Parliament, the Lib Dems were regarded as serial underperformers under the country’s first-past-the-post voting system. They saw their polling numbers improve rapidly in the most recent campaign, based on a strong performance by their leader, Nick Clegg, in the country’s first televised leaders’ debate. At their peak, the Lib Dems were polling at about 30 percent nationally, ahead even of the Labour party, which was then in government.

In the end, though, the polls turned out to heavily overstate the Liberal Democrats’ vote — in part because of sampling bias toward younger voters in Internet polling, and in part because of the volatility of the new supporters the Liberal Democrats attracted in the closing weeks of the campaign. Rather than the 28 or 29 percent that pollsters projected for the Liberal Democrats, they received just 23.6 of the votes cast, and actually won fewer seats in the House of Commons than they did in the election before.

The election for the Canadian House of Commons today has seen a similar surge by a traditionally underperforming “third party,” in this case the New Democrats, who held only 36 of the 308 seats (11.6 percent) in the outgoing house despite attracting 17.5 percent of the national popular vote in the last federal election in 2008. This time around, they have taken advantage of weaknesses in both the Liberal and Bloc Quebecois parties to shoot ahead to second place in national polling, with an average of 31 percent support.

The party’s strong polling position has been reflected in both telephone and internet polls, and the other major parties have responded to the New Democrats’ rapid rise with an increase in attacks, including charges that the party is unfit to govern — quite similar allegations to the ones the Liberal Democrats faced in Britain last year.

Regardless of whether the New Democrats’ national poll figures hold up in the actual balloting today, Canada’s electoral system — single-member districts and simple plurality voting —threatens to derail the New Democrats’ plans to become the second biggest party in the house.

Looking back to Britain, whose system was the basis for Canada’s, we can see a major difference between the two largest political parties, on the one hand, and the “third parties” on the other, in terms of their ability to turn popular votes into seats in the legislature. In Britain, both the nationally focused Liberal Democrats and the regionally focused Scottish National Party have had very low seat-to-vote ratios. In other words, both parties win a much smaller share of the seats in the House of Commons than they do the popular vote, with seat ratios of just 0.4 to 0.6 since 2001. (A ratio of 1 would indicate an exact match between shares of seats and of votes.) The Conservative and Labour parties, by contrast, have consistently been able to parlay their support into higher seat totals, with rations in the last three elections of 0.8 to 1.6.

In Canada, particularly with regard to the New Democrats, the story has been largely the same. In the last three elections, the two largest parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, each had an average seat ratio of 1.1, while the New Democrats have been unable to get above 0.5.

The Bloc Québécois — the French-speaking Quebec-only party — has had a very different electoral history, however, breaking out of the mold of the traditional low-performing third party. Like the Scottish National Party, the Bloc has a very specific regional agenda, and the Québécois preoccupation with protecting the French language and culture at the federal level is at the center of its electoral success. They have consistently over-performed their popular vote percentages, largely because they campaign almost exclusively in ridings (the Canadian term for district or constituency) where they are likely to win.

Unlike the Scottish Nationalists in Britain, who compete hotly with Labour for votes in Scotland, the Bloc Québécois has not had a serious challenge in recent years from a national-level Canadian party in most of the province. While the Conservatives and Liberals tend to dominate the two main urban areas of Quebec (the Liberals almost always win the ridings in Montreal, while the Conservatives often win Quebec City), the rest of the province, both suburban and rural areas, usually go for the Bloc.

So, while the New Democrats’ soaring poll numbers instigated discussion that they might win 100 seats in the Commons, several important factors tend to point toward both a softening of their support in the actual balloting and a lower number of seats than would be initially expected:

• The party’s poll surge has come largely in Quebec, and the likelihood that voters will have second thoughts about the New Democrats seems higher there than in other provinces, because provincial autonomy, language and culture are of such great importance to Québécois voters.

• Similarly, if the New Democrats’ gains in Quebec are coming in mainly ridings that are strongly or solidly in the column of the Bloc, Conservatives or Liberals, they will have little to no impact on the seat situation.

• Polling figures from several firms have indicated that the New Democrats’ surge in Quebec, in contrast with the Lib Dem surge in Britain, is not based on young voters. Instead it is concentrated among older voters. That would tend to indicate more staying power for the party than we saw in Britain. But outside of Quebec, and especially in British Columbia, the New Democrats have mainly attracted younger voters, who tend to be weaker in affiliation and less likely to turn out.

• According to Quebec electoral rules, a party qualifies as an official political party in the province if it wins at least 20 percent of the popular vote in the province or at least 12 of the province’s seats in the national legislature. The Bloc Québécois has been polling around 25 percent in the province (including dips down to 22 percent), prompting some commentators to ask whether the venerable nationalist party might face disqualification in the province (and therefore the country). That worry might swing back some proportion of French-speaking Quebec voters to the Bloc, especially from the middle and older generations.

• Quebec is a province mostly of safe seats. In the 2008 election, only 18 of Quebec’s 75 ridings 18 were decided by margins of less than 10 percent, while 43 were decided by margins of more than 20 percent. Even if the New Democrats manage 35 to 40 percent of the overall vote in the province today, many of their votes will go simply to reducing the winning margin for another party’s candidate, rather than winning new seats for themselves.

• The New Democrats, like the British third parties, tend to have their voters spread over large areas rather than be concentrated in certain ridings, making the party much less effective at winning seats. While they may improve on it somewhat in this election, they are still likely to have a seat ratio of less than 1.

In the end, we would expect to see the New Democrats’ vote totals come in 3 to 5 points below their poll results nationally, with a slightly larger drop in Quebec; their seat ratio may improve by a tenth or two-tenths of a point, but not to the level of the Liberals or Conservatives, and certainly not the Bloc Québécois.

As these scenarios indicate, the range of possible outcomes remains very broad, with my suggested scenario projecting 60 to 64 seats for the NDP — an important improvement for the party, but still likely to leave them the third largest party in the House of Commons rather than second.