Harper's defeat worse, Conservative opposition smaller than most

Despite claims that the party is in "very good shape," the size of the Conservative opposition and the scale of the former government's defeat put it below the historical average.

Scale of party's Oct. 19 defeat drops it low in historical rankings

Stephen Harper's defeat was worse than most. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

When Stephen Harper conceded defeat on election night, he took solace that he had elected a "strong Official Opposition." 

A number of Conservative MPs and commentators have also seen this silver lining in the results of the Oct. 19 federal vote, with interim leader Rona Ambrose saying that, with 99 MPs, the Conservative Party is in "very good shape."

Undeterred by their defeat, the Conservatives are already beginning to flex their muscles as critics of the Liberal government on issues around refugees, terrorism and the fight against ISIS  — albeit on Twitter and in front of cameras for now, as they await the return of MPs to the House of Commons on Dec. 3. 

But how does the Conservative opposition stack up to its predecessors in the role? And just how much of a defeat were the Conservatives handed, compared to the fates of previously defeated governments?

The Conservatives captured 31.9 per cent of the popular vote in the election. The party heralded this number as a sign that its base remains strong, despite its being little different than the 30.6 per cent the New Democrats captured in 2011 and the 30.2 per cent the Liberals under Paul Martin took in 2006.

In both cases, those parties met with worse results in their next electoral showings.

Relative to the number of seats in the House of Commons, the size of the Conservative opposition is slightly below average. With its MPs occupying 29.3 per cent of the 338 seats, it ranks as the 28th largest official opposition of the 42 that have been elected to Ottawa.

On average, the largest opposition parties in Canada have taken up 32 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, a mark the Conservatives fell short of by about nine seats.

The Tories as a defeated government

Much of the post-election analysis of the performance of the Conservatives, however, has been in terms of their defeat as an incumbent government. The last time the Tories were booted out of power, in 1993, the party was reduced to just two seats. By that measure, 99 is pretty good.

But here again, compared to other defeated governments the Conservative performance was below average.

(Note that in the tables and calculations below, the 1925 election has been excluded. The Liberals under Mackenzie King were defeated at the polls in that election by Arthur Meighen's Conservatives but, with the initial support of the Progressive Party, the Liberals remained in power. Machinations in the House eventually led to the King-Byng Affair and the short-lived Meighen government that went to defeat in the 1926 election.)

Share of seats won by defeated governments.
As far as defeated governments go, the record of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993 will be tough to beat. The party occupied just 0.7 per cent of the seats in the Commons after it was booted out of office.

But of the 16 governments that have met defeat at the ballot box (excluding 1925, as mentioned above), the Conservatives rank only 12th in terms of the seat share they retained in the House. On average, defeated governments won 30.7 per cent of the seats on offer.

Of note is that, with the exception of R.B. Bennett's defeat in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, Harper's performance is the worst of any defeated incumbent prime minister running for re-election.

Meighen in 1921, John Turner in 1984 and Kim Campbell in 1993 were facing the electorate as the incumbent prime minister for the first time after replacing Robert BordenPierre Trudeau, and Brian Mulroney, respectively.

Defeated governments by share of vote won.
The Conservatives' performance is only slightly better on the score of vote share.

The party's 31.9 per cent ranks it 11th out of 16, but well below the average of 37.1 per cent that defeated governments have managed in the past. However, it is also worth noting here that four of the best five performances in this ranking were prior to 1921, the first election with more than two parties taking a significant share of the vote.

Nevertheless, even after excluding these cases from the sample, the Conservatives' vote share is still below average.

This does not bode well for the immediate future of the Conservative Party.

Long waits in opposition

The defeated governments that took a larger share of the seats than the Harper Conservatives waited, on average, nine years and 2.4 terms before returning to power. Those that performed worse than the Conservatives waited 12 years and three terms.

Of performers in the bottom half, among which the Conservatives find themselves, only one of the seven defeated governments was returned to office after a single term on the opposition benches (and that was the short-lived Meighen government mentioned above).

On the positive side for the Tories, the loss of vote share they suffered between the 2011 and 2015 elections put them above average among defeated governments.

The party's vote share dropped by 7.7 points, compared to an average of 9.1 points among other defeated governments. The margin between the victorious Liberals and the defeated Conservatives (7.6 points) was almost identical to the average deficit other defeated governments experienced.

With 99 MPs and 31.9 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives did have a respectable showing. The Liberals would have gladly taken those numbers in 2008 and 2011, and the New Democrats bettered them only once in their history.

But by the standards of the past, the Conservative opposition is smaller than most have been and the party's electoral performance on its way out of office also ranks near the bottom of the list — nothing to boast about.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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