When I went to bed last night the Liberals were leading in three of the four by-elections being held in Canadian electoral ridings to choose new Members of Parliament. By morning, I saw that the Liberals had won 2 and the Conservatives 2. These bi-elections, while having now influence on the balance of power in the 311 seat House, were a huge test for the Liberals under new rock star leader Justin Trudeau and a very important testing of the political mood for the scandal plagued Steven Harper.
So what’s the damage?
Trudeau comes out looking great. The Liberals increased numbers in every riding (significantly) and their star candidate (Chrystia Freeland) in Toronto centre easily defeated the NDP’s even bigger star candidate (Linda McQuaig). The Liberals also came within an inch of taking Brandon-Souris, a traditional Conservative stronghold. In 2011, the Liberals took 5% of the vote in that riding; this time around, they took 42%.
Harper and the Conservatives were bruised, but it could have been far worse. There was never a chance they would take either of the two ridings they lost, and while their numbers were way down, they won the seats they had to win. Harper was clearly being punished for the Senate scandal and his generally disdainful personality but his base is very loyal and, if these elections really mattered, they would have come out stronger.
The big loser is the NDP. Their numbers, like the Conservatives’, were way down everywhere too. But the reason is far more important. The NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, is doing a great job and there NDP is generally well regarded as a party. The issue for the NDP is way more fundamental — whether Canadians still ‘kind of, sort of, really’ see them as an affable third party, as opposed to a party capable of forming government. This was the first test of an NDP with first party status against the Liberal Party with a viable leader. The results seem clear. NDP are still a third party in the minds of many Canadians.
The year will, of course, be critical for Justin Trudeau, but the seeds of his ascent were well planted last night.