Seeing red over the Greens in B.C. -

Seeing red over the Greens in B.C.

Colby Cosh on the Green party’s effect in B.C.’s election


The provincial election in British Columbia, with its surprise outcome and its cornucopia of subplots, was a pundit’s delight. There was an explosive failure of public pre-election polling, complete with “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”-level humiliations for local newspapers. (This was bad for pundits, you say? Like hell: Look how much material it gave them.) There was an awkward defeat of a standing premier in her own riding at a moment in which she bestrode the province like Lady Colossus. And there were the complex effects of smaller parties on what was otherwise a two-horse race. Specifically, there was what the B.C. Green party did to the New Democrats. Whatever that was, exactly.

The Greens, who won the Oak Bay-Gordon Head seat behind heavyweight climate scientist Andrew Weaver, deny playing spoiler. No party ever is a “spoiler” from its own selfish standpoint. But all things being equal, most environmentalists, or even just the environmental-ish, would surely have preferred an Adrian Dix-led NDP government to four more years of the Liberals. Did Green voters deliver B.C. into Christy Clark’s hands?

Probably not, but you’d have trouble proving it. As the Vancouver Sun’s Chad Skelton observed the day after the vote, the NDP suffered more from the Green vote than the Liberals did from the presence of a collapsing Conservative alternative, one mostly concentrated in ridings that weren’t close anyway. The Liberals won 12 ridings in which the combined NDP and Green vote was greater than their own; the New Democrats, by contrast, captured just one in which the combined Liberal-Conservative vote was greater.

Skelton went on to add some reassurance for the Greens, noting that, “In most of the 12 ridings where a vote split occurred, the NDP would have had to have taken a substantial majority of Green votes” in order to win. But there’s one obvious rejoinder to that: The NDP didn’t need to flip 12 Liberal seats to win the election. Since they lost in the seat count 50-33, nine would have been enough. Moreover, the figure of “12 Liberal seats” leaves out the Oak Bay seat Weaver denied to both the NDP and the Liberals; the Liberal incumbent there, Ida Chong, barely finished second.

It is hard to model the hypothetical behaviour of Green voters in an alternative universe with no Green party. It seems quite likely the NDP would have taken Coquitlam-Maillardville, where they were 105 behind the Liberals in the presence of 1,687 Green votes. The Greens probably cost them Surrey-Fleetwood (lost by 265; 1,032 Greens) and Delta North (lost by 302; 1,178 Greens). Throw in analogous totals for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows (681/1,953) and Port Moody-Coquitlam (543/1,527) and suddenly you’re talking about a pretty close election.

You can detect the existence of the Green effect in any number of ways; fancy-schmancy stat models confirm that the mere presence of a Green candidate (they ran in only 61 of 85 ridings) significantly hurt the NDP’s odds of local victory, but that having Conservatives around (they fielded 56) didn’t help them. The true magnitude of the effect is known only to God. But of the 47 ridings that featured both a Conservative and a Green, the NDP won only 10.

It may not be important to you whether the Greens threw the election outright to Clark—with her Satanic plans to frack B.C. into geological oblivion and blight the landscape with natural gas pipes—or merely added to her majority. What certainly matters, inside and outside British Columbia, is that the Greens are moving within range of tilting the ultimate outcomes of large-scale elections. Their days of being a cute mascot for futurist dorks and grumpy vegans would appear to be over.

If the B.C. Greens had won a hundred votes instead of (peeks at spreadsheet) 130,418, it would still be in the NDP’s interest to take back those votes from people who ought to be natural constituents. That means Andrew Weaver can expect years of “Ralph Nader” catcalls and being blamed for every last methane-rich cow fart from the Nicola to Bella Coola. The upshot on the federal scene is not quite so clear, since both NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau seem to be consciously avoiding an earth-muffin image. But could either be blamed for putting out word, perhaps explicitly, that a vote for the Greens amounts to a vote for Stephen Harper?


Seeing red over the Greens in B.C.

  1. The Green Giants!

    Nice write-up Cosh.

    • The NDP can blame their abysmal election result on Glo-Bull Warming.

      • :)

  2. The Libs collapsed the Conservative vote. The NDP did not collapse the Green vote. But mostly the NDP just did not show up for the fight. That bis the real story.
    The NDP has a ‘small tent of support’ with very narrow few who will benefit by their leadership. Everyone else will suffer.
    They are why we have primarily a two party system: The NDP and the vast majority of British Columbians who don’t want the NDP getting gangster-like control of public finances.
    Like the Conservatives, the Greens don’t count. Rump parties, one of p.o.’ed white guys and one of overly-earnest do-gooders.

    • Dave, you’re very correct about the smaller-tent thing. This has been one of the most unerreported things about BC politics and this election: the NDP just doesn’t have that big a tent anymore. And they’ve done nothing to expand their tent. All they really represent now are big organized labour groups (most notably the BC Federation of Labour) and assorted activists (notably environmentalists).

      The BC Liberal Party is a party of convenience, nothing more than a thrown-together coalition, that’s all true. BUT it is a much bigger than the NDP is these days.

      The BC NDP is addicted like a crackhead to the money and organizational apparatus that the BC Federation of Labour and other big labour groups give it. But it’s a bit of deal with the Devil, because it means the BC NDP is toally hamstrung when it comes to making policy and platforms. And most voters in BC can see this, or at least smell it.

      I agree with the people who say that the only thing that is going to make the BC NDP electorally viable over the long term is a total Bill Clinton/Tony Blair New Labour-like restructuring, in which big labour is removed from its formal kingmaker role and relegated to just another stakeholder in the party. But I’m not optimistic — Carole James tried something like this a couple of years back, and big labour basically squashed her like a bug.


      • The use of all capital letters is especially persuasive. But I think you should also add multiple exclamation marks and boldface for added credibility and persuasiveness.

        • Very good advice, a little sarcastic, but I just may implement your suggestions and see how they fly. Can’t accuse me of not being open minded can you , howsa bout choo?

  3. As usual people vastly overestimate the importance of ideology (and left-right ideology, specifically) in driving voter behavior. In the 2011 federal election (this is from the Canadian Election Survey), second choice preferences of Green voters were:

    CPC: 9.3%
    Liberal: 17%
    NDP: 44.8%
    Bloc: 4.3%
    Nobody/don’t know: 21.9%

    Among federal Greens in BC (very small sample) it was:
    CPC: 13.5%
    Liberal: 29.7%
    NDP: 43.2%
    None: 13.5%

    Sure, the BC Liberals are more conservative than their federal counterparts (though they *are* a party that successfully implemented a carbon tax). But even if you assume that Green-Liberal switchers break 50-50 NDP-Liberal in BC, the net gain of eliminating the Green candidate is small. Based on the provincial numbers – 35.1% would go for the BC Liberals (with a few to the BC Conservatives), while 58.05% went to the NDP. So for each green 1000 votes, you would only have about a 230 vote decrease in the Liberal margin of victory. So even Surrey-Fleetwood does not fit the bill as a riding that would have switched without the Greens.

    Of course there *is* another political advantage to having no Greens for the NDP. The party can abandon its commitments to the environment with less fear of political repercussions (just as Stephen Harper has been able to abandon many Reform party hobbyhorses, absent a Reformist western conservative party). Yet that is hardly a reason for Greens to give up the ghost.

    • And that brings in another point — the BC NDP has not exactly been pure on the environmental file. Or the tax file. They opposed Gordon Campbell’s carbon tax, fer Crissakes.

    • There’s also a zero-sum aspect to the thought experiment. How many Green voters wouldn’t have shown up at all if it was only a two-party universe? And would those “otherwise a no show” types break along the provincial survey lines, or be skewed towards the NDP end of the Green voter spectrum? I think the latter, and hence think we can credibly say that a ~230 vote decrease in the Liberal margin of victory per 1,000 Green votes overstates things.

  4. Underlying this sort of talk is, I think, an assumption that these votes rightfully *belong* to one party, and that the other party taking those votes is in some way illegitimate. If a group of NDP voters switched to the Liberals (or vice versa), we’d be having a different conversation about how the NDP lost those votes or the Liberals won them (or vice versa), whereas with smaller parties like the Greens or Conservatives (in this case) it’s all about how those smaller parties are splitting the vote to which the larger parties are somehow entitled by default. It’s easier to blame the voters for not voting for you, and the smaller parties for being more appealing to them.

    • I tried not to insist on an assumption that Green votes “belong” to the NDP in some sense. This column is a bit boring because there’s a grocery list of ridings the Greens MAY have flipped, with outcome effects most of them almost certainly would not choose, but the reader is free to conclude that the figure is 2-4 rather than 6-8. He may also conclude–at least one columnist (McMartin?) said as much–that the election was a long-view strategic triumph for the Greens, giving them more leverage and perhaps putting them on the road to supplanting one of the “major” parties.

  5. Interesting analysis.

    Here is my number-free impression. On the ground here, my sense is that many in the NDP feel they lost the election because they focused *too much* on fighting off the Greens.

    The interesting counterfactual to me is not ‘what if no Green Party’ but ‘what if no kindersurprise’.

    The ‘kindersurprise’ may have helped NDP in a couple of ridings in Victoria/Vancouver, but most likely cost them in the interior. If NDP went all-in with the Green stuff they might become more attractive in a handful of Victoria/Vancouver seats but would likely lose support in the interior.

    I would be quite surprised if the NDP picked an urban green as their next leader (or stuck with the urban green they have). Seems to be an opening for a salt-of-the-earth populist.

    I know several Vancouver-Point Grey voters who are very much NDP-Green switchers. They would love dearly to have NDP stay very green (or the parties merge), to alleviate themselves from the burden of having to make a choice. Unfortunately for my friends, I don’t think their personal conundra are a frequent occurrence across the broad electorate of the province.

    • Good analysis Kevin. You’re right about the interior, etc. Very different dynamic from Vancouver and Greater Victoria. And the electoral map from May 14 shows a lot of red in the interior, a lot of orange in the City of Vancouver and Greater Victoria. There’s a reason for that.

    • I haven’t heard kindersurprise here before. I love it. I also happen to agree. I can’t wait until the next “who would you vote for if an election was held today” poll. In my view Dix’s 20 point lead was due to his having said nothing scary on the economic front. Now he has. I think it’s a step change. I think it taints the party. I think he has to wear the election for a while, hope to be brilliant and save his job, but realistically expect to get out in a year to let the party press “reset” and try to find someone reassuring, not threatening.

      • The NDP is still struggling to rehabilitate its reputation for economic management – touching the economic issue was always going to be problematic for them. What I found surprising in the election coverage was how little Dix and the NDP actually said about their economic platform during the election, and how the media seemed to be letting them get away without saying anything. On almost any controversial policy, the default position was “We’ll subject it to further study after forming government.” Somehow they were allowed to take a neutral position without any evidence that they’d actually consider reversal of their historic position. When Dix made his Kinder-Morgan announcement, the illusion of neutrality started to evaporate.

        • Bang on. Good post. The thing is, the NDP thought they could get away with saying nothing specific about their economic platform because #1, they assumed they had a massive lead so that they could get away with a classic front-runner’s campaign (i.e., doing or saying nothing controversial or of substance), and #2, related to #1, they assumed most of the oxygen in the campaign was going to be sucked up by anti-pipeline, anti-HST etc. sentiments. Generally, they forgot about the “it’s the economy, stupid” mantra.

  6. This article equates Green votes with NDP votes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most Greens are fiscally centrist, and you can hardly call the NDP that.
    It’s as likely that many Green votes would’ve gone Liberal or Conservative for pete’s sake.
    Again though, if we’re going to have three, four, five parties or more in an election, it would probably be useful to have an electoral system that isn’t designed on the basis of a two party assumption.

    • Under Jim Harris, they definitely positioned themselves as an Green Tories. I think that under Elizabeth May, the impression that the public gets is that the party has shifted more to the left.

      • Absolutely. Lizzie May has basically behaved as though there is an existing left-wing opposition coalition, consisting of the Greens, BQ, Liberals and NDP. The only thing that seems to matter to her is getting rid of Harper. That’s basically what she stands for.

        • You’ve got the cart before the horse.
          May’s dislike for Harper fundamentally stems from policy disagreements, many, many policy disagreements.

          • I don’t disagree with you on that. But she has basically made, and behaved on the basis of, an assumption that all 4 opposition parties are brothers-in-arms fighting for the same cause. And there are flaws and weaknesses inherent in that rather simplistic assumption. It’s easy to see nothing but unity and singularity of purpose when you focus all your energies on one person whom you all mutually dislike. But that kind of unity usually proves to be a mile wide and a millimeter deep on closer examination.

  7. Honestly, anyone upset with the outcome should take responsibility for not ensuring the STV referendum’s in 2005 and 2009 were a success. Vote splitting and wasted votes becomes a non-issue with every other voting system that isn’t first past the post and that fault is entirely with the electorate. I feel that the green vote and votes for other smaller parties would have been substantially higher if it weren’t for the fear that the greater of two evil’s would win. That is not a fair or democratic choice for voters to make and I fear that we may end up with a two party style in the U.S where voter choice is virtually non-existent.
    I would love to see, at either level of government, a coalition government between any combination of parties. I think it has changed the way parties interact in a similar parliament (U.K Coalition between Conservatives and Lib Dems) – much less viceral and competitive, more collaborative

    • I think STV deserved to fail. It was an overly-complicated system that would’ve muddied electoral transparency and invariably resulted in a number of unintended consequences. It would’ve been far better to have proposed something like preferential voting, which would’ve been a simple modification of first past the post to address issues with vote fragmentation by multiple parties.

      Coalition governments don’t usually last very long. The compromises between parties needed to govern end up alienating their base of supporters. In the case of the UK, you’ll likely see the Lib Dems suffer in the next general election. If a coalition is truly feasible, it’s probably more effective at a party level pre-election. The BC Liberals are a good example of that sort of coalition, as are the federal Conservatives.

  8. Read my lips: “A Green vote is a Green vote is a Green vote!!!” It’s not a
    possible NDP vote. I’m so sick and tired of hearing that arrogant, simplistic
    and idiotic claptrap!!!

    The Greens and NDP platforms and policies are VERY DIFFERENT. The NDP may be left socially but they are right environmentally. Their record while in power has
    been awful for the environment. I went to jail for trying to protect Clayoquot
    Sound Old Growth forests under the NDP. They have done nothing to reform
    forestry tenure or stop clear-cutting or end the Annual ‘Allowable’ Cut which
    is actually a ‘Required’ over-cutting of forest; nor have they protected wild
    salmon by ending salmon farming in ocean waters; nor sufficiently funded
    alternative energy; Etc. etc. They are tied into the Big Corporate Agenda
    through the Big Corporate Unions, which control the party. Sure their are
    enviros in the party but they don’t have the clout needed to make it a party
    which is truly all about all beings Thriving, which the Green Party is.

    The focus for all parties should be on why HALF the eligible voters in BC didn’t
    vote!! Attract those people with a relevant platform.

    Remember also that we democratically voted in a Proportional Rep system in BC by a far higher majority than the current Liberal ‘majority’ government. We need to
    demand it. If that was in place the results would be very different even with
    those who voted and I know there would be more votes, and different votes,
    because people would know their vote counted. I know many Greens who held their
    nose and voted NDP to try to get the Liberals out. Strategic voting never works
    however; it’s only a game for those who love to play. Vote for what you really

    Or perhaps it’s time to end the party system forever and elect representatives
    from each riding who will represent the peoples’ will. We can find out the will
    of the people through having referendums on major issues (quite possible with
    internet, phone and mail-in ballots). The reps and bureaucrats can handle the
    smaller details and issues.

    Let’s get on with the reforms needed and not nit-pick about non-issues!!!!

    Terry L. Brown

    • Great comment, Mr Brown.

    • The problem with frequent citizen referenda and plebiscites is that it requires a well-informed and engaged public. Judging from the outcome of high-profile referenda such as the HST and the Charlottetown Accord, I’m not optimistic about the ability of the public to absorb the details of complicated policy and make tough choices. Also, the fact that 48% of people couldn’t be bothered to turn out for a quadrennial vote implies there’s not much appetite for further responsibility in that direction.

  9. In a 2-way BC election Liberals vs. NDP without the Greens and Conservatives, Liberals still would have won but with smaller majority. Agreed that NDP would have won Coquitlam-Maillardville, Surrey-Fleetwood, Delta North. Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows too close to call. Other Liberal seats would have stayed Liberal. See my article:

  10. Your conclusion that the Greens “significantly hurt the NDP’s odds of local victory” is wrong. Did your read any “fancy-schmancy stat models” or just go with common wisdom? Here is a detailed analysis. Please take the time to read and understand. Thanks.