Often, regarding by-elections the question is asked: Does this by-election matter? Does it signal a change in the composition of government; does it signal a change in the will of the electorate? Or is it merely one outgoing member of parliament who is going to be replaced by the successor determined by their party?
There were four ridings up for grabs last night.
In the first one, Willowdale, liberal MP Jim Peterson resigned his seat after many years in the legislature. The liberal party’s suggested successor was Martha Hall Findlay, a long-time liberal and leadership contender, among other things; she was elected with what looks like approximately 60% of the vote (59.3%, if you want to be pedantic.) Before her, in the 2006 federal election, Peterson had won 52% of the vote.
The second riding was Toronto Centre- and here again, the resignation of a liberal (Bill Graham) was followed by the nomination of a major liberal candidate- former Ontario premier, Bob Rae, and again a liberal leadership contender. He too won approximately 60% of the vote (59.2%, specifically), compared to Bill Graham’s 52.2% of the vote in 2006.
The third riding was Vancouver Quadra, opened by the resignation of Stephen Owen. The liberal candidate is not particularly notable to me, one Joyce Murray. Here, Ms. Murray won 36% of the vote compared to 48.84% of the vote by Stephen Owen in the 2006 election. (In the same election, the Marxist-Leninists won 41 votes.)
The fourth, Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchhill River, in Quebec, was seen as perhaps the most tenuous riding of all. Opened by the resignation of Gary Merasty, many pundits reported that the Liberals would have to win not only the other three ridings, (seen as relatively safe) but this riding as well to prevent significant discord in their party. And, in fact, the Conservative candidate Rob Clarke win 47.8% of the vote compared to Joan Beatty with 31.4% of the vote. In 2006, Gary Merasty won the riding with 41.37% of the vote.
It is of course important to note that all of these figures are fairly preliminary, but expected to be accurate.
In the 2006 election, the popular vote fell as follows: 36.27% Conservative, 30.23% Liberal, 10.48% Bloc, and 17.48% NDP followed by approximately 5% of assorted others.
Do these ridings, therefore, mean anything? Willowdale, Toronto Centre, and Vancouver Quadra bucked the trend of the popular vote in 2006, by close to 25% of the total electorate in some cases. It seems fairly self-evident, perhaps, that these ridings therefore are not representative of the total electorate.
How about, therefore, Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchhill River? In 2006, the riding voted 41/41/15 (Lib/Con/NDP), while the prevailing popular vote fell approximately 30/36/17. In 2004, it was 29/37/20, compared to the popular vote of 37/29/15. In both cases, the popular vote was wildly skewed when compared to the popular vote in the specific riding. Obviously, merely comparing popular vote percentages are not the most dramatically effective way of predicting the mood of the electorate.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that the popular vote is not an effective determinant of election victory and seat counts in the Canadian system. Our first-past-the-post system allows for wildly diverging popular vote results when compared to the number of seats won, and the Bloc takes advantage of this the most- by focusing their effort in specific ridings in Quebec, they are able to win a disproportionate number of seats.
Do I think this by-election was an effective predictor of electoral victory in any upcoming federal election? Not in and of itself. However, there were significant concerns in the lead-up to these by-elections that if the Liberals did not win all four seats, the leader of the party, Stephane Dion would face severe criticism within his own party as an ineffective leader. Having won three seats in ‘safe’ Liberal ridings and lost the one seat in an uncertain riding, it is perhaps more likely than ever that he will face the music now.
Unfortunately, despite what he may like to believe, Stephane Dion has not proven himself to be a charismatic leader of the opposition, and has certainly not significantly endeared himself to the electorate- perhaps specifically as a result of not forcing an election sooner. If the state of affairs carries on as it is at the moment, one could perhaps predict a long, slow slide into mediocrity for Dion and his party. They’ve had more than a year at this point to ‘get it together’, and as it stands, they seem to have failed miserably- although his election seems, perhaps, entirely unrelated.