Really, the Conservatives are under-represented, the Liberals over

What if we had a FPTP parliamentary system in which there were three national parties, and their vote percentages in any given election were:


We would have to call that fairly typical FPTP stuff. Not your ideal Duvergerian pattern, to be sure, but nothing remarkable in the real world of FPTP elections. Now let’s suppose their seat percentages were:


Pretty unremarkable, too, right?

Yes and no. On the one hand, this is what we should expect with FPTP: the two biggest parties with higher percentages of seats than votes, and the third party with significantly lower seats than votes.

Of the 211 FPTP elections in my database, there are 23 in which the largest party won from 38% to 42% of the vote (regardless of other parties’ percentages and excluding four plurality reversals). Of those 23 elections,* what’s the average seat percentage for the largest party? 54.35%. (The median is 52.63%, and the range is 36.15% to 69.09%.) So a large party winning around 40% of the votes and 54% of the seats is totally unremarkable.

Yet in another sense, the largest party in this Canadian election, the Conservatives, is under-represented–relative to a norm of FPTP expectations. Here I am speaking of the expectation set by the seat-vote equation,** which takes a distribution of the top three parties (plus “others”) and computes a “normal” output of seats for a given voting population and assembly size. Here is what the seat-vote equation thinks the seat distribution should look like, given the actual vote percentages:

    185 (60.1)
    100 (32.5)
    22 (7.1)

We’ll call that 1 “other” seat the Green winner, given that the Greens indeed did win their first elected seat. The seat-vote equation does not do well with regional parties. Fortunately for the equation, the regional party in this election almost disappeared (4 seats for the BQ, down from 50).

So the Liberals did quite a bit better than can be expected for the national third party. As a result, the Conservatives are under-represented, relative to FPTP “norm,” with 18 fewer seats than the equation’s estimate.

For all those who think the Liberals’ run as a viable party is over, be cautious. The British experience tells us that a Liberal party can survive for a good long time between the big parties of left and right. The party’s over-shooting of the seat-vote equation estimate underscores the extent to which it retains an efficient regional distribution on which it could build to win back seats in the future. In percentage terms, it is about where the British Liberal Democrats are in seats. This is a big shift, to be sure, but it is premature to write the party off, or to assume it will merge with the NDP.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether the NDP can survive as a major national left-wing party; first it will have to reconcile its now dominant Quebec wing with the NDP constituencies in the rest of the country. If it can’t, the Liberals will resume relevance, whether or not they surge back to “major party” status again anytime soon.

For all those advocates of proportional representation in Canada, this election is bad news. The first past the post system functioned about as expected, notwithstanding the under-inflation of the governing party’s plurality.

* The elections are: BC 1963, BC 1972, BC 1991, CA 1963, CA 1965, CA 1972, CA 1993, CA 1997, CA 2000 (the last majority government in Canada before this election), MB 1986, MB 1988, NS 1999, NS 2006, ON 1977, QC 1976, SK 1975, UK 1975, UK 1992, UK 2001, IN 1967, IN 1977, IN 1989.

** For details, click the words, seat-vote equation in the “Planted in” line above. There was an entry on election day applying the equation to the EKOS final projection, and many previous entries applying it to various past elections.

12 thoughts on “Really, the Conservatives are under-represented, the Liberals over

  1. In last decade, I looked into what would happen to the Canadian Liberals if their percentages and the NDP percentages were reversed, using the UBC election simulator, and I found that they weren’t in such bad shape. They had built up such strong pockets of support in the more upscale parts of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, that even in the event of a national wipeout they could essentially retreat to these bastions as well as the Maritimes and rebuild. They are actually in better shape than the British Liberals, which were reduced to six seats in Parliament in the 1950s.

    The problem for the Canadian Liberals is that they were much more invested than the British Liberals in being the natural party of government, which is a harder sell after you have come in third. What to they offer to still get their donors to donate and their activists to still show up to work?

  2. A lot Urban seats are actually three way races between the NDP, Liberals, and Conservatives. Many of these seats, no Candidate got the magic 50% plus 1. The vast majority of rural seats especially in Alberta had candidates winning majorities like 70% similar to what one sees in California state assembly, and senate races.

    Quebec is the only providence with a 4 party system, and Bloc Quebecois finished second in the popular vote and did poorly because it’s support was spread so thin. It would be a mistake to write off the Bloc too as well.

    Alberta has a dominant party system. All the other regions of Canada have three party systems except Prince Edward Island.

    Canada has an imperfect bipolarism party system. The Left of Center is more diverse, and divided, yet gets more voters than the Right of Center which is more cohesive. The Liberals were the Center Party, and now appeal to no one. It is sandwiched.

    The one country that should be compared to Canada is Italy. Italy is famous for it’s regionalism.

    This election is historic in the sense like the Italian election of 1994. The party system is completely transformed and up ended. A Landmark Election, indeed.

    What other Western democracy has a party system as volatile as Canada? Canada is the most interesting boring country on earth.

  3. Best line of the week at F&V: “Canada is the most interesting boring country on earth.”

    Well said, Suaprazzodi!

    As for your question on volatility, it’s an empirical question, but I do not have the data at hand. But the other case you mention, Italy, probably has had even more over the last 20 years. Maybe Japan. But Canada must have the most of a developed country that has not undergone electoral system change.

  4. The Conservatives gained 2%, the Greens lost 3% and the Bloc Québécois lost 4%. These are not spectacular changes. The New Democrat gain of 12% and the Liberal loss of 7% are large changes, but not larger than what sometimes happens in other countries, In the recent Finnish election, the True Finns gained 15% and the Centre Party lost 7%. The Norwegian Labour Party lost 11% in the 2001 election, while both the Conservatives and the Socialist Left party gained 7%. In 2005, Labour gained 8% and the Progress Party gained 7%, while the Conservatives lost 7%. There are undoubtedly similar examples in other countries as well.

    So I don’t think it’s obvious that Canadian elections have been more volatile than the elections in many other countries have been, based on the votes. But the FTPT system amplifies electoral swings compared to what PR systems does, so the consequences in the seat counts are much more dramatic.

  5. To make a general comment on the election, the 161 ridings the Conservatives won in the English speaking Canada may be highest number of federal seats won in the eight Anglophone provinces plus New Brunswick in Canadian history, though this is partly a function with the number of ridings increasing in each election.

    Winning 161 out of the 233 ridings in the Canada outside of Quebec in 2011 compares well with past landlslide results, such as Mulroney’s 153 out of 206 in 1984, and Chretien’s 158 out of 220 in 1993 (the Conservatives seem to have gotten about 46% of the vote outside Quebec). The 44 ridings taken by the New Democrats outside Quebec is the highest number of ridings won by them in the rest of Canada in their history, but not that much greater than the 36 they won in 2008, or the 43 they won in 1988. The NDP even came in second in Anglophone Canada in 1984 (winning 30 ridings to the Liberal’s 23), so the result isn’t even unprecedented in that sense.

    The optics were different this time because for the first time since 1917, Quebec voters backed a party that was both federalist, but not likely to be the governing party. Usually when a party wins overwhelmingly in the rest of Canada, Quebec voters go along.

  6. “For all those advocates of proportional representation in Canada, this election is bad news?” Hardly. There was extensive outrage at a false majority government on 39.6% of the vote. Fair Vote Canada got 43,617 hits on its website the day after the election, compared with 3,862 the day after the 2008 election. A few students and others, still in touch with each other after the January 2010 prorogation protests, spontaneously in three days organized rallies in 11 cities on one week’s notice and then asked Fair Vote Canada for speakers. And so on.

    The day after the election, Canada’s leading national magazine, Macleans, published a succint piece:

    “The case for proportional representation

    Popular vote and seat totals for the province of Saskatchewan.

    Conservatives 256,004 votes (13 seats)
    NDP 147,084 votes (0 seats)
    Liberals 38,981 votes (1 seat)”

    The disproportional results even hurt the Conservatives in Quebec. Canada’s cabinet includes 13% of Canada’s MPs, and 13% of Ontario’s MPs, but only 5% of Quebec’s MPs. Yet 16.5% of Quebec voters voted Conservative, including 209,000 voters in metropolitan Montreal. Still, Canada’s second city has no voice in its cabinet, and has had none since 2006. Proportional representation would have let Quebec Conservative voters elect 12 MPs, not just five. When Stephen Harper was a Reformer, he favoured PR to address Canada’s regional fissures, and he was right.

  7. Wilf, apparently unless the pro-PR side are Molotov-ing tanks downtown, then there’s “no public demand” for electoral reform. It’s not like a few hundred people gathering to protest taxes or such.

    That’s the media playbook. PR systems are always “complicated” (yes, even Israel’s!) and electoral reform is always an “obscure” topic (translation: “Politics 101 was compulsory to get my Journalism major and I was bored stiff by all that stuff about electoral systems when what I really longed for was to get in front of a camera on CNN, Fox, the Beeb or Al-Jaz.”)

  8. That Saskatchewan result is grotesque. Are the ridings gerrymandered? Prince Edward Island also had a very disproportionate result, with the Liberals beating the Conservatives in seats but not in votes.

    I had always been of the impression that the NDP had its strongholds in the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and was surprised when they elected non MPs from the former and only two from the latter. They still can’t have done too well there, but the electoral system explains why they ended up with so few seats in this region.

  9. Norwegian Guy, Prince Edward Island is just the latest in a long line of wrong-winner results in Canada. The Progressive Conservative government of Bernard Lord in New Brunswick, about to hold a referendum on MMP which Bernard Lord supported, was most ironically defeated in 2006 although getting more votes than the Liberals.

    The previous NDP strongholds were British Columbia (33% of the vote and 33% of the seats), Saskatchewan (32% of the vote and no seats), Nova Scotia (30% of the vote and 27% of the seats), Manitoba (26% of the vote and 14% of the seats), and now Ontario (26% of the vote and 21% of the seats). The big news was Quebec (43% of the vote and 79% of the seats). But even in Newfoundland and Labrador the NDP jumped up to 33% of the vote and 29% of the seats, and in New Brunswick 30% of the vote but only 10% of the seats. Only in PEI and Alberta is the NDP weak.

    Are the Saskatchewan ridings gerrymandered? In a way: the two big cities could have had three seats each, but they got four seats each by adding rural areas making them 1/4 rural. At one time that wouldn’t have mattered, but rural support for the Saskatchewan NDP has dwindled. Despite this, the NDP missed a couple of those seats by only 2%, and a northern seat (where it has good aboriginal support) by only 3%.

  10. Would Canada get PR if the next election in 2015 produced a majority Conservative government with 39.9% of the vote, and the NDP in opposition with 41% of the vote? A reverse plurality. Of course this happen in NZ twice in a row, and it took another decade before the change happened.

    What would cause the parties to change the system for their benefit?

    Australia changed it’s electoral system in 1917 for the Liberal-Country party split their votes to Alternative Vote, but then all of Australia’s states were experimenting and using the system.

    A lot of European countries were using two-round systems, FPTP, or Bloc voting before they switched to PR, but then they did this as soon a Universal Suffrage was embraced.

    I heard that Finland uses PR from the get go when Universal Suffrage was embraced.

    It seems to me only the English speaking countries seem to resistant this trend of PR with a few notable exceptions, and the Francophone countries go back and fourth between two round and list PR.

    No providence in Canada uses PR as of yet. All have rejected such systems in referendums. Most provincial elections in Canada are two-party affairs.

    Minority governments are less common at the state level in Canada than compare toward the Federal level. I think electoral reform would move a huge step forward if Quebec were to embrace PR. Will the NDP be running in the next Quebec provincial election?

    People point to France 1986 using PR where the Socialists change the system for their benefit, but then it was abolished for the next election. Italy is another example in 2006, but the opposition party that came into power couldn’t abolish this new system of unproportionate closed party yuck.

  11. The NDP will not be running provincially in Quebec, but Quebec Solidaire will, with a certain degree of very unofficial overlap; it was doing quite well in the polls even before the NDP federal sweep. But it is sovereignist.

    The Liberals have always needed PR against the PQ, because of the built-in demographic seat bonus for the PQ resulting from wasted Liberal votes always piling up in their strongholds. But with the PQ and QS now splitting the opposition vote, the Liberals could get a fluke victory in the next election despite being low in the polls.

    All four Quebec parties claim to support PR. They differ as to the model, and they are quarelling furiously over giving protected status to some low-growth ridings (although no one objects to special status for a couple of isolated ridings.) To an outside onlooker, it seems they are looking for excuses to fight each other.

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