Battleground Montreal?

NDP billboard

One of the growing stories of this federal election is the rise in support for the New Democratic Party in Quebec. Traditionally a non-entity in the province, most polls now show the social democratic party neck and neck with the other federalist parties. Some recent polls are even showing the NDP in second place, behind the Bloc. Of course, as politicians are fond of saying, the only poll that matters is the one that happens on election day. The NDP’s support is relatively uncommitted and given the fact that it isn’t geographically concentrated, even a big increase in votes risks to translate into only one or two new seats. Despite these caveats, this new dynamic adds a bit of interest to what would otherwise be a lacklustre, predictable, campaign.

But the possible rise of the NDP is also good news for Montreal, regardless of one’s views on the party’s policies. The latest EKOS poll, released on April 15th, shows the NDP at 23.7% in the province, an historic high. The poll also breaks down the results on a metropolitan basis and looking at Montreal provides quite a shock, with the NDP actually leading in the region:

NDP: 30.1%
Liberals: 25.7%
Bloc: 22.6%
Convervatives: 14.2%

Again, there’s no guarantee that this is what the votes cast on May 2nd will be (it also has a margin of error of 9.4%), but it hints at a possible realignment that could propel Montreal to much greater prominence in federal politics. Montreal’s issues have often been underrepresented for the simple reason that most of the island’s ridings are strongholds for one party or the other. The West votes Liberal, the East votes Bloc and a few ridings in the middle could go either way. And moreover, winning those few swing ridings has normally been a question of which party better mobilises its base and gets out the vote, rather than convincing undecided voters.

As a result, the parties have been loathe to offer goodies to Montreal in the same way they do to, say, Quebec City or the Toronto suburbs. What’s the use if half of the population will vote for you no matter what and the other half will never vote for you? This is all the more the case with our first-past-the-post system which masks shifts in support as long as it’s the same party that ends up on the top of the pile.

But now there seems to be a growing depolarisation as left-leaning federalists and left-leaning soft-nationalists start to drift away from their traditional parties and throw their support to the NDP. Once a city of safe seats, Montreal could be transformed into a battleground region, with a number of three way races. And just as important, a region where voters need to be actively courted and not just mobilised based on their stance on the national question. Winning over these voters would take talking about Montreal issues and making promises that speak to Montrealers. This is something that everyone here would benefit from.

At this point it’s too early to say whether people are just parking their vote with the NDP, or if there is a real realignment that is taking place. Moreover, even if the party does score 30%, if its votes are spread evenly across the city that could simply mean a respectable second place behind the Liberals in West-End ridings and the Bloc in East-End ridings, but no new seats. And it also wouldn’t do anything to change the fact that the Conservatives have chosen to run an anti-Montreal campaign based on city/rural antagonism to gain seats in the regions. But we can still hope that it’s the beginning of a greater importance for Montreal on the federal scene.

11 comments

  1. The NDP, in order to be popular in quebec, has adopted the PQ approach to english minority rights in quebec. This means we get thrown under the bus. Screw the english, get elected. Isn’t quebec democracy wonderful? The NDP can therefore go F itself.

  2. I believe that indeed the nationalist or even soft-sovereignist left-of-centre vote is questioning the relevance of the BQ after 20 years’ existence.

    More importantly, Montreal ridings losing their “fortress” status for either the Libs or the BQ is quite interesting for us, as you point out. What we’d really need is for something like that to happen on the provincial scene. Demographics and the staunch political alignement on the island (most seats liberal, a handful PQ, and only 2 or 3 actually having the possibility of changing sides from one election to the next) makes Montreal votes (and issues) a “quantité négligeable” for provincial parties, compared with the 450-vote. Unfortunately, I don’t see a way out of this in the short or even medium term.

  3. @Wolfy : An important part of the NDP’s becoming an actor in Quebec has been a greater sensibility to Quebec’s specific concerns. Namely, by promoting asymmetrical federalism and the protection of the French language. I think it was a calculated move to make them more attractive to Bloc voters. That said, I’d hardly qualify the policies they support as “throwing Anglos under the bus”; the stances they defend are pretty much the consensus in Francophone Quebec and if implemented would have little affect on the daily lives of the average Anglo. At this point, no credible political actor is going to propose that English and French be on an equal footing in the province, and I think that is something most Anglos have made their peace with.

    @Patrick : I agree! At the provincial level the situation could be considered even worse, since the current rapport de force of the parties dates from the late 70s instead of the early 90s as at the federal level. That said, Québec Solidaire’s arrival does have the chance to make things interesting. One PQ safe seat as already fallen to them, and the next election there will be one, possibly two others that will follow. Of course, the difference is that QS draws votes almost exclusively from the PQ, so it probably has a much lower “ceiling” of support than the NDP does. Also, it’s not really a factor in the west. But it still could shake things up, and I think we’re already starting to see the PQ pay a bit more attention to Montreal issues now.

    And finally, none of this would be a problem with proportional representation. There are significant shifts of support in Montreal, but as far as the electoral system is concerned, there is no difference between a Liberal winning NDG with 50% versus 80%. It’s funny, but QS could conceivably end up winning more seats in the next provincial election in Montreal than the NDP in this federal election, even with less votes, simply because its vote is more “efficient”, i.e concentrated in majority Francophone, urban neighbourhoods and not spread across the island.

  4. There is a group working for proportional representation in elections in Canada – see http://www.fairvote.ca/en/problem which first states the problem, then goes on to discuss various approaches being used around the world that we can consider, and ends with a quick list of “myths and facts”.

    There have been referendums in BC (2005 and 2009), PEI (2005), and Ontario (2007) proposing proportional representation, all defeated, though narrowly in BC in 2005. Getting to a referendum is already a sign of recognition of the problems with the current voting system, but more public awareness of the alternatives will be needed to result in reforms. Thus, this comment as one contribution.

  5. @Harvey
    The irony is that the large majority of Canadians won’t have their particular vote counted in parliament. Most candidates win with much less than 50%, and the people who voted against their elected MP basically are not represented.
    Yet there does not seem to be a majority that supports proportional voting.

  6. La stratégie des conservateurs fait rire. Alors que le Bloc dit ”Parlons du Québec”, les Conservateurs disent ”Parlons des régions” (pas de la grande ville). Faut avoir la mémoire courte pour réaliser qu’ils veulent faire retomber le Québec dans l’époque de l’asphalte neuve pour ceux qui votent du bon bord…

  7. Someone in the strongholds (the “fortress” ridings) can’t feel their vote makes any difference, so voter turnout can be expected to be higher than the average (58.8% in 2008) the the few “swing” ridings. However, even there, as the above article discusses, one can often feel unable to vote for the party most representing one’s values (say NDP or Green) if it makes it more likely for the party least representing one’s values to win.

    This is accepted by Project Democracy, which then focuses on the Conservatives splitting the “progressive” vote, and lists 49 key ridings (http://www.projectdemocracy.ca/key_contests) where voters can make an impact on whether the riding is won by a Conservative, and showing which party has the best chance of winning against the Conservatives (explained in http://www.projectdemocracy.ca/smart-voting-smart-outcomes-0). So, for example, in the two ridings in this province in their list of key ridings (none that I saw in Montreal – they do allow you to see their analyses for all ridings in Canada in their website), they recommend voting the Bloc to defeat the Conservatives, whereas in Ottawa-Orleans, for example, I could call my sister who lives there to suggest to her that voting for the Liberals rather than the NDP or Green would be the best way to prevent the Conservatives from winning there. The Montreal ridings with Liberal – Bloc competition don’t figure in the Project Democracy website as the Conservatives are not potential winners.

    Optimizing strategic voting in selected ridings is still far from proportional representation, which are various ways to allow every vote to have an impact, yet as stated above, the irony is that there is no majority to support it. Many have warned that the apathy and cynicism from sensing that votes don’t make a difference and that politicians don’t do what they say and that big money determines the political choices for the sake of big money are all part of what sustains the system. The few people who even look for alternatives and hear of proportional representation often hear of it as a gridlock of narrow interests (see the fairvote.ca website for a more favourable view).

    I just saw the 2006 NFB film Radiant City by Jim Brown and Gary Burns (just made available for free viewing on http://www.nfb.ca/film/radiant_city) exploring suburban living, where one of the points was the increasing isolation of people and the decreasing experience in public interaction and true community. So part of the cynicism I sense is the deadening frustration of being on the losing side of an endless battle where there is no longer even a recognition or memory of the possibility of engaging in debates and discussions to generate plans and actions that can actually embrace the needs and goals of all members.

  8. Since there are no major election issues for most of the nation and particularly in Quebec we have moved to the less important aspects of the election. Popularity.
    There is an anti Harper movement in Montreal. In the previous election protest votes swung to the BQ. This time around, the BQ have shown that in fact they do not represent Quebec interests but only their own. NDP is a viable option seeing as how many have not forgotten the scandals that have plagued the Liberal party of Canada.
    Still there are others who are angered by the opposition parties bringing down the government and will vote for the Conservatives.

  9. I love reading Anglo media (and pundits) drooling over that “soft” nationalist vote. I guess that means the rest of them are very “hard.” What about the soft federalist vote? Does this exist as well? Could the soft federalists be lured into voting Bloc if, say, English Canadian politics was reduced to oil company servitude? Or would Anglos continue to dream about “soft ousiders” supporting the Liberal Party of Canada’s mirroring of Conservative policies?

  10. @qatzelok – yes, we “soft” federalists (ie: not going to go out and rally for sovereignty, but will be here no matter how the borders are drawn) can be tempted to vote Bloc. It gets pretty hard to defend federalism when the government in power dosen’t represent so many of us, and dosen’t seem to want to.

  11. @qatzelok i’m soft federalist definitely. i’ll be voting quebec solidaire next provincial election even though i’m not super super separatist.

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