Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Harper's worst enemy: the Bloc Québécois

The Conservatives have been spending a lot of time bashing the Liberals and the NDP lately because those parties opposed their budget. The Bloc, on the other hand, supported the budget, so they've had to go easier on their old buddy Gilles. But you can bet that Harper knows that far more than the Liberals and the NDP, it's the Bloc he has to crush in the next election--and that's not about ideology, but about seat count. Seriously reducing the number of Bloc seats in Québec and replacing them with Conservatives is not just the Conservatives' best road to a majority--it may be the only realistic road at all.

Why? Well, it's about the way our voting system translates votes into seats. Now, the first-past-the-post electoral system is designed to magnify the seat count for larger parties and understate it for smaller ones. The result, if it works the way it's intended to, is to manufacture "majority" governments for a single party that didn't actually win a majority of the vote. This works well in political arenas that are strongly dominated by two big parties, like the U.S., or Canada before the CCF (the predecessor to the NDP):

As you can see, the actual percentage of the vote was very close in the 1930 federal election--so much so that if this had been a pre-election poll rather than the final result, the parties would likely have been polling within the margin of error of each other. But the First Past the Post electoral system did its job here, raising the percentage of the Tories' seats up past the "majority" mark and giving them 100% of the power all on their own.

However, it also works the way it's supposed to in three-party systems, as long as the smallest party attracts votes across the jurisdiction rather than being concentrated in one place:

In the most recent UK federal election, the vote was very much split three ways between Tony Blair's Labour party, the Conservatives, and the upstart Liberal Democrats. The result under their First Past the Post system is a terribly skewed election, but still one in which that system could do its job and massively manufacture a single-party "majority" government for Tony Blair.

The thing about current-day Canada is that our first-past-the-post system simply isn't working the way it's supposed to. And while part of the reason for that is the strength of the NDP--which, much like the UK's own midsized party, has shown an ability to win a good chunk of seats even with First Past The Post minimizing the impact of smaller parties--most of it is actually because of a party that got a much smaller percentage of the vote: the Bloc Québécois. You can see this easily in the results from the 2006 federal election:

Because the Bloc's vote is entirely concentrated in one region of the country, First Past the Post's artificial disfavouring of smaller parties falls apart, massively favouring what should be the smallest party in the House. This keeps those seats away from all of the national parties, and effectively removes them from the national game board entirely. Without the Bloc, the seat percentages would look a lot more like those in the UK, with a manufactured Conservative majority. But with a large section of Parliament's seats effectively set aside, the rest get split three-ways among two big parties and one medium-sized one, and nobody can manage to get a majority at all.

So Harper can and will attack Dion to keep the Liberal vote down, but there are enough safe Liberal seats across the country that he can't ever manage to squelch them completely. The same goes for the NDP, which can't ever be removed as a threat to their dreams of a majority, particularly in the West. So if Harper wants an artificially manufactured majority of his very own, those additional seats are going to have to come from the ones that the Bloc has taken out of play. And this has to happen without Harper losing any of the seats he already has in the rest of the country.

It's a lot more of a long shot than the conservative bloggers who are crowing over recent polls realize, given everything that has to go in Harper's favour without anything at all going wrong. But if the Québec election result taught us anything, it's that sovereigntist Québecers are willing to shift their votes from a sovereigntist party that's a little too far left for them, to a right-wing party that may not be sovereigntist per se, but is still willing to use some of the vocabulary. Since undermining the Bloc while suppressing the other two national parties just enough is Harper's only real chance, you can bet he's going to try the same tactic.

If I were a Liberal strategist preparing to battle the Tories in Ontario, or an NDP strategist preparing to battle the Tories in the west--or for that matter a certain well-known anglophone journalist who speaks fluent French and cares passionately about holding back the tide of the Québec sovereignty movement--I would be paying very close attention to what Harper says to francophone Québecers in the next election. And seeing to it that every word of it gets repeated in the English-language media.


JG said...

The "election hawks" are making a lot of assumptions about how the next campaign would take place. First and foremost, they assume that it would be a cake walk - their pandering budget and broken promises (Emerson, Fortier, Income Trust, Environmental Non-policy - all for "principle", right?) supposedly demonstrating Harper's strategic genius, they now need only drop the writ, and with a few attack ads at Dion, they'll win a powerful majority.

All of this assumes that the other parties are full of sheep and/or incompetents who would be either powerless or simply resigned to the sheer inevitability of a CPC victory. Of course, that isn't true. The Bloc in particular is not about to sit back and hand the Tories 10-20 seats - and they will have no problem about campaigning on an explicitly nationalist platform.

Additionally, the tendency in most federal elections is for the governing party to lose seats and votes over the campaign. They certainly won't gain anything in Atlantic Canada - you can be assured of that - and probably won't hold all their Sask seats (and you need to help ensure they lose at least one Edmonton seat! ;)). Supposed gains in Tory support in Ontario are inconclusive at best, and none of the polls out of Quebec suggest that they have improved over the last election - most point to a decline of 5-10 points.

An election could change all of this, but it seems that overconfidence is the principal weakness among Conservative partisans. (That being said, it's about time that the Liberals started countering the Tory attack ads - but I *really* like the new NDP ads. I'm hoping for a much stronger campaign this time around.)

Greg said...

I agree IP that some report should do as you suggest, I just don't think they will. They are as cynical as the pols they cover and see talking out of both sides of your mouth as part of the "game". I can hear them now "Of course it's wrong, but everyone does it".

Anonymous said...

Excellent graphs!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Very good points! You and I should really write blog posts together--they would rock. :-)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Oh, and to Saskboy, thanks!

Candace said...

Not to be difficult, because I think you make some good points, but didn't the Bloc end up with the manufactured majority this time around? And the NDP the manufactured MInority?

So I'm not sure the Bloc does anything other than make sure that the two leading parties don't get a significantly larger % of seats.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Um, that's just what this post says. Well, with one correction--the Bloc certainly didn't get a manufactured MAJORITY out of 10% of the vote (now, THAT would be a skewed election!), but a manufactured 17%. But yeah, what you're saying is exactly my point.

First-past-the-post is designed to skew the number of seats in the direction of larger parties. In Canada this works with the NDP, but it doesn't work with the Bloc--and in fact it backfires by magnifying rather than minimizing their vote.

This effectively removes 17% of the seats from the national stage entirely. The result of this is that there aren't enough seats left over for the system to work the way it's supposed to and manufacture a majority for either of the big parties. So it's mostly the Bloc that's preventing them from getting their coveted majorities, and the Bloc that needs to be brought down for that to change.

Candace said...

Sorry, I just re-read your post and my comment and apparently need to brush up on my reading comprehension (or dye my hair brown or something).

Ben (The Tiger in Exile) said...

Yes, it takes the CPC crushing the Bloc for a majority in the next election.

The reality is, with the right no longer divided and Ontario somewhat split between the Conservatives and the Liberals, the only way to a majority is for somebody to crush the Bloc.

Duceppe pointed out sometime last year that had it not been for the Bloc, Paul Martin would have won his majority in 2004 and would still be PM.

Now there's an interesting thought.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Definitely an interesting thought. And even more interesting in light of the fact that these days, Liberal fortunes are so tied to Bloc fortunes and vice versa.