Trudeau, Singh both have reason to worry about Green byelection breakthrough

Paul Manly's byelection win for the Green Party in British Columbia was a shot across the bow of both the New Democrats and Liberals, two parties that took significant hits in support as the Greens leapfrogged from fourth to first.

Liberals slide as Greens win B.C. seat away from slumping New Democrats

Paul Manly's byelection win for the Green Party could be a telling sign for the NDP and Liberals ahead of October's federal election. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The Greens are storming the islands. Could the mainland be next?

Paul Manly made history in Monday's federal byelection in Nanaimo–Ladysmith, winning the Vancouver Island riding and securing the Green Party its second seat in the House of Commons.

The breakthrough is a shot across the bow of both the New Democrats and Liberals, two parties that took significant hits in support as the Greens leapfrogged from fourth to first.

With 37.3 per cent of the vote, Manly increased his score from the 2015 election by 17.5 percentage points. The Conservatives' John Hirst finished second with 24.8 per cent, up 1.4 points from his party's performance four years ago.

The incumbent New Democrats slid by 10.1 points, with Bob Chamberlin capturing just 23.1 per cent of ballots cast. That was the party's lowest score in the region since 2000. 

Watch Manly discuss the significance of his byelection win:

B.C. Green victory a win for a 'different kind of politics'

4 years ago
Duration 1:09
Paul Manly discusses the 'political courage' required to act on climate change after his byelection win.

The Liberals' Michelle Corfield took 11 per cent, less than half of what the party had done in 2015, while Jennifer Clarke of the People's Party took 3.1 per cent. Another two candidates from smaller parties split less than one per cent of the vote.

Turnout in the byelection was 41 per cent, well above the 31 per cent average turnout in previous byelections that have been held during the life of this Parliament.

With the next general election less than six months away, the results could not come at a better time for the Green Party, fresh off a provincial breakthrough in last month's election in Prince Edward Island.

While Vancouver Island has been a strong region for both the federal and provincial Greens in B.C., Nanaimo–Ladysmith does not overlap with any of the three seats held by the provincial party on Vancouver Island — suggesting the federal party is breaking new ground.

And the gain is impressive by the standards put up by its rivals in other byelections. The increase of nearly 18 points is the third biggest jump scored by any party in a byelection over the past four years, ranking just behind upsets pulled off by the Liberals in 2017 in Lac-Saint-Jean and the Conservatives in 2018 in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord. Both of those victories were seen as meaningful breakthroughs by the two parties in the decisive electoral battleground of Quebec.

Worrying sign for Singh, NDP

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has reason to be concerned by the results in Nanaimo–Ladysmith. The area has a long history of voting for the New Democrats, who have won at least a portion of the present riding — the boundaries were significantly redrawn before 2015 — in 18 of the 22 previous elections since 1953.

The New Democrats have now lost vote share in 11 of the 12 byelections held during Singh's leadership. The sole exception was Singh's personal victory in February's contest in Burnaby South.

The NDP has lost vote share in 11 of the 12 byelections held during Jagmeet Singh's leadership. The lone exception was his win in February's contest in Burnaby South. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The implications for the NDP are potentially disastrous. The kind of swing that took place in Nanaimo–Ladysmith, were it to be replicated throughout Vancouver Island, would cost the New Democrats four of the five seats they still hold on the island. The results put up by Chamberlin are the worst since the days of Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough, when the NDP was at an all-time low.

Those are not the kind of precedents that Singh wants to be matching. And it is becoming a worrying pattern for the NDP — the provincial Greens benefited from the collapse of the NDP vote in New Brunswick and P.E.I. as well.

Only modest Conservative gain

With an increase of just over a percentage point, the Conservatives can be satisfied with the result. They have now gained in 13 of the last 18 byelections. But in an environment where the Conservatives hold a national lead over the Liberals of about six percentage points, the Conservatives' expectations might be a little higher than this.

This is a below-average gain for the Conservatives in this Parliament, who before Nanaimo–Ladysmith averaged a five-point bump in byelections compared to 2015. With the exception of that election, 24.8 per cent is also the worst the Conservatives (and their predecessor parties) have managed in this area since 1972. These are not the results of a party on the cusp of a sweeping national victory.

Andrew Scheer's Conservatives can be satisfied with the result in B.C., but should have higher expectations given their national lead over the Liberals in the polls. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But the split among progressives is better news for the Conservatives. There are many ridings across the country in which a big gain for the Greens will not win them the seat — but losses for the NDP and Liberals might put the Conservative candidate ahead.

The provincial elections in New Brunswick and P.E.I. are examples of how that can happen. In both cases, the Progressive Conservatives were able to form government despite losing vote share because the incumbent Liberals (as well as the NDP) lost much more.

Liberals lose most in unfriendly seat

That's what the Liberals might fear most in these results. The score the party put up in Nanaimo–Ladysmith was unimpressive, the 12.5-point slide the second biggest the Liberals have suffered in byelections under Justin Trudeau's leadership. If that happens across the country, the party will be back on the opposition benches after October.

Governing parties also don't usually finish fourth in byelections. It hasn't happened outside Quebec (where the Bloc Québécois complicates matters) since 2008, when Stephen Harper's Conservatives finished fourth in a byelection in Toronto Centre.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, walks alongside Liberal candidate Michelle Corfield before the Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection. The loss to the Green Party should raise alarms with the Liberal Party heading into the federal election. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

But Nanaimo–Ladysmith is not a good riding for the Liberals. The party hasn't won a seat in the area since 1940. The poor showing of 11 per cent is still better than what the Liberals put up in the 2008 and 2011 elections — though those were historically bad elections for the party.

Still, the results raise a red — or green — flag for the party. While the loss of vote to the Greens did not cost them a seat here, it could lose them seats in other unexpected parts of the country.

It is just one byelection. But the results are consistent with some of the wider trends that have been witnessed over the past few months. Those are worrying trends for Singh and Trudeau — and signs that the October federal election could be one of the most unpredictable in years.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

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


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