As triumphs go, the Liberals’ triumph last night is modest. They lost one riding they had barely won in the first place — the northern Saskatchewan riding — and they nearly lost Quadra, which they used to win handily. Their vote went up in two ridings, Willowdale and Toronto Centre, where it didn’t particularly need to go up. And if you look at the numbers a little more closely, it gets worse.
(First, the eternal Inkless by-election caveat: by-elections are a very shaky predictor of general-election performance. People understand they’re not electing a government. The personality of local candidates, takes on exaggerated importance, compared to policy considerations, which matter less. Still, four ridings in three provinces provide a slightly better sample than a single by-election would have. So with that in mind…onward.)
Essentially Toronto is turning into more of a Liberal stronghold. At least, it is when the candidates are well-known. Martha Hall Findlay drove the Liberals’ vote share in Willowdale up a point and a half, and Bob Rae won five and a half points more than Bill Graham did in 2004. Liberal gains were made possible essentially by NDP losses — down about 7 points in Willowdale and 10 in TC. This will be discouraging news for the party’s husband-and-wife Toronto caucus. The Tory vote itself was down a little in Willowdale and a fair bit in Toronto Centre.
If you didn’t spend time both inside Toronto and out of that city in the last election, it’s hard to exaggerate how differently the Conservative party is perceived there. Watching CityTV’s newscasts in the campaign’s last 10 days, you’d have thought the Martians were invading. When I told somebody in Toronto book publishing my book about Harper would be called Right Side Up, she said it was a great title but that her preference would be something along the lines of Stop Him Now. This transformation of Toronto into a Liberal enclave appears to have deepened since then.
Now, Toronto has a lot of seats, but fewer than its population share and certainly fewer than the rest of the country. And out in the hinterland, it’s a bit chilly for Liberals. The Grits lost 13 points in Quadra and 10 points in Saskatchewan. The Conservatives were the consistent gainers in those ridings, up about six and a half points in each. The NDP was roughly flat and the Greens gained ground.
In fact, the Greens were the only party that gained votes in every riding last night. In Quadra and TC, they came close to tripling their vote share. That gain does not come consistently from one source: it appears to have happened at the expense of the Liberals in Quadra and the NDP in Toronto Centre. Still, the Green vote looks like a significant trend from last night, and Elizabeth May will be deserving closer scrutiny. Judging from Anne Kingston’s definitive profile, that may not help her.
As for the Liberals and Tories, last night’s results, combined with the earlier by-elections in Quebec, strongly suggest that the Liberals are headed for worse results than they obtained when they lost power in 2006. I still think the Liberals should push for an election quickly, to barely begin to make up for the massive strategic error they committed by not pushing for an election before now. But the longer Liberals look at these results, the more reasons they will find to want a general election delayed as long as possible. And the NDP, who also get a say in election time, should be badly shaken by last night’s results. To go out on a limb, I think the odds of an election anytime before October, 2009 just went down noticeably.