By Geoffrey Stevens
Thanks to vote-splitting on the left, the New Democratic Party can claim the credit – or the blame, depending on your point of view – for the election of a majority Harper government this week.
In Ontario, where the majority was fashioned, the orange surge produced just five new seats for the NDP itself, but it was instrumental in delivering 22 new seats to the Conservatives. The Liberals dropped by a stunning 27 seats.
The 22 seats that went to the Tories were twice as many as Harper needed to secure his long-sought four-year lease on 24 Sussex Drive. And that was the election right there. If Quebec made the NDP the official opposition, which it did, Ontario made Stephen Harper a majority prime minister by blessing him with 73 of its 106 seats.
If he has any gratitude, Harper will commission a portrait of Jack Layton to hang in the Conservative caucus room. Or perhaps name a national park after the NDP leader.
A close look at the voting patterns in this part of southern Ontario helps to tell the tale. The NDP sucked thousands of votes from the Liberals; it managed to keep some of those votes for itself, but a good many found their way into the hands of Conservative candidates.
Guelph was the one place that proved immune to the orange surge. The NDP vote barely budged in that riding (so much for the University of Guelph “vote mob,” at least as far as the NDP is concerned), while the Conservative vote rose only marginally. But Frank Valeriote, the Liberal incumbent, padded his plurality by nearly 7,000 votes.
London North Centre was a different picture. Glen Pearson, a popular Liberal MP, saw his vote shrink by more than 3,000. Those votes went straight to the NDP, splitting the vote and enabling Conservative Susan Truppe to come up the middle to take the riding with 37 per cent of the ballots.
In Waterloo region, the orange surge did not elect any New Democrats, but it weakened Liberals and indirectly strengthened Conservatives. The NDP ran second in two Conservative strongholds, Cambridge and Kitchener-Conestoga. In Cambridge, the NDP gained 5,000 votes from its 2008 election level, while the Liberals lost 3,600 votes. And the Conservative candidate, Science Minister Gary Goodyear, won in a walk, retaining the riding with 53 per cent of the vote.
Cambridge, which in the past has dallied with both the NDP and Liberals, is now considered to be one of safest Conservative seats in Ontario. So is Kitchener-Conestoga. That riding was Liberal until 2006 when Conservative Harold Albrecht took it away. Today, the Liberals are a distant third while the NDP, with 4,500-vote surge this week, are solidly in second, and Albrecht, who took 54 per cent of the vote, is as safe as a church.
The two close races in the region were in Kitchener Centre and Kitchener-Waterloo. Both were seats that flipped from Liberal to Conservative by narrow margins in 2008, Kitchener Centre by 339 votes and Kitchener-Waterloo by just 17.
Insiders gave the Liberals a good chance of regaining both seats. But the prognosticators were wrong, or were fooled by the orange surge. In Kitchener Centre, where the NDP gained 2,600 votes, the Liberals’ Karen Redman, a former MP, saw her vote decline by 500; Conservative Stephen Woodworth was re-elected with an enhanced plurality.
It wasn’t quite the same in Kitchener-Waterloo. Liberal Andrew Telegdi who lost in 2008 as 10,000 Liberal supporters stayed home, managed to recover 3,000 of those votes on Monday. But Peter Braid, the Conservative who beat him three years ago, did better, attracting an additional 5,000 votes.
So the region, except for Guelph, will be painted blue for the next four years.
In the end, it’s all about momentum. The politicians can feel the electorate moving, but they cannot measure how far it will go. Politics remains a game of instinct and guesswork.
(published May 4, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at email@example.com