Politics·Analysis

Two byelections were set to test Jagmeet Singh - and now he may face a third

Two byelections - and now maybe a third - will be held in seats the NDP won in 2015 and might struggle to hold on to now.

NDP faces difficult byelections in seats it won in 2015

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will be running in a byelection in Burnaby South - one of three seats his party may be defending soon. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Another potential byelection, another tough test for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

There's going to be another vacant seat in the House of Commons; NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson announced Wednesday she will resign her B.C. seat of Nanaimo–Ladysmith to make the jump to provincial politics. Her announcement means another potential Commons vacancy before the 2019 general election — the third in a riding the NDP won in the last federal election.

All three of these ridings could be hard for the NDP to hold — even though Singh himself is on the ballot in one of them.

Byelections have yet to be called in the Ontario ridings of Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes and York–Simcoe (both held by Conservatives after 2015), the Quebec riding of Outremont (former stronghold of ex-NDP leader Tom Mulcair) and the B.C. riding of Burnaby South, once held by New Democrat Kennedy Stewart (now mayor of Vancouver). Singh is running in Burnaby South to earn his first-ever seat in the Commons.

The date of the vote in Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes needs to be set by Oct. 30. Byelections in the other three ridings could be delayed until early next year. Malcolmson's vacant seat won't need to be filled for six months after she officially gives it up. And it's not clear when that will happen.

It is possible that byelections to fill the four current vacancies will be lumped together this fall, leaving Nanaimo–Ladysmith to later in the calendar. Actually, Nanaimo–Ladysmith might not even need a byelection. ​Malcolmson suggested she may not resign until the provincial byelection is called, which could be months from now. If she resigns in early 2019 with a general election looming, a federal byelection in her riding might not be held.

It's also possible that the government will hold off on calling the byelections in all but Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, which became vacant following the death of Conservative MP Gord Brown in the spring. The other three seats have been vacant for a less significant amount of time and, while the Liberals have a nominated candidate in Brown's former riding, they have yet to set the date for nominations in the other three.

There's also the question of whether the Liberals want to give Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada a chance to put up candidates and disrupt their Conservative opponents. The People's Party can only run candidates in byelections called 60 days after the party has applied to be registered with Elections Canada, which happened on Oct. 10.

But whenever the byelections are called, the New Democrats will be under profound pressure.

Four-way toss-up on Vancouver Island?

The boundaries of Nanaimo–Ladysmith were significantly redrawn prior to the 2015 federal election, taking in parts of both Nanaimo–Alberni and Nanaimo–Cowichan. The two ridings have gone to the Conservatives and the NDP in every election between 2004 and 2011.

Malcolmson won by a relatively healthy margin in 2015 — but that was only because she finished on top of a divided field. She captured just 33.2 per cent of the vote, compared to 23.5 per cent for the Liberal candidate, 23.4 per cent for the Conservatives and 19.8 per cent for the Greens.

The riding was more evenly divided between the NDP and Conservatives in the past; using the current boundaries, the NDP won by five points over the Tories in 2011 and by less than two points in 2008.

NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson won Nanaimo–Ladysmith by a margin of 9.7 points over the Liberals in the 2015 election. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Polls in British Columbia suggest that the Liberals and Conservatives remain about as popular as they were in 2015, so they might expect to do about as well in the riding as they did three years ago. But the New Democrats are down about four points — and the Greens are up about four points — in B.C. since 2015.

Applying that swing to the last results in Nanaimo–Ladysmith would drop the NDP to just below 30 per cent and put the Liberals, Greens and Conservatives clustered together in the 22 to 24 per cent range. In other words, the riding could prove to be a four-way race in which the quality of the candidate could make all the difference.

But of the four parties, the New Democrats might have the hardest time making a pitch to prospective candidates. The Liberals are in government, the Conservatives are competitive in the polls and the Greens have scored a number of successes in provincial elections over the last few months.

The New Democrats, meanwhile, are struggling in the polls and with fundraising, and Malcolmson is only the latest in a line of NDP MPs opting not to run again under Singh.

Both the Liberals and the Greens might have this riding on their watch list. In the two provincial ridings contained within Nanaimo–Ladysmith, the B.C. Greens captured 20 and 24 per cent of the vote in the 2017 B.C provincial election — suggesting that the party does have a solid base in the region.

And the Liberals selected Nanaimo as the location of their cabinet retreat this past summer, despite the city not having elected a Liberal MP since 1940. So they might see an opportunity in the riding.

Outremont a stretch, Burnaby South no guarantee

But the NDP still would be considered the favourite to hold Nanaimo in a byelection — if there is a byelection. That might not be the case in Outremont or Burnaby South.

Without Mulcair on the ballot in Outremont, the New Democrats will be in tough to win the riding that started the "orange wave" in Quebec. Since 2015, the party has dropped 11 points in the province, while the Liberals — who regularly won the riding before Mulcair's breakthrough in 2007 — have gained six points. That kind of swing should easily erase the 10.6-point margin that separated the two parties in Outremont in 2015.

Singh might benefit from a leader's bump in Burnaby South, which the NDP won by only 1.2 points in the last election. Still, the party's drop in the polls in B.C. might put the seat at risk — particularly if the Liberals decide against extending the inconsistently-applied "leader's courtesy" to Singh and opt to put up a candidate of their own.

If the NDP succeeds, electing their leader in Burnaby South would give the party a much-needed bit of good news. A win in Nanaimo–Ladysmith would help as well. But a loss in Outremont could foreshadow what is expected to be a very difficult campaign for New Democrats in Quebec.

Winning on Vancouver Island and in Burnaby is what the NDP has always been able to do in the past. Winning in Quebec is what the party has to do to have a real future.

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 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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