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Battleground BC

The New Democratic Party and 'Polarization'

Lots of parties running, but this election is a two-party tilt.

By Will McMartin, 12 May 2005,

From 1933 to 2001, the CCF-NDP in British Columbia enjoyed much greater voter support in provincial general elections, an average of 35.4%, than in federal contests, 28.2%.

Primarily this is because federal elections have been crowded with competitive parties - Liberal, Conservative, Progressive Conservative, Social Credit, Reform, Canadian Alliance, and many others. The provincial arena, on the other hand, has featured many head-to-head battles between the CCF-NDP and a leading free-enterprise party, with third or fringe entities finding minimal public support.

This latter situation, called 'polarization,' occurred in 1945 and 1949 - when the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation batttled the Liberal-Conservative Coalition - and 1975, 1979, 1983, and 1986 - when the New Democratic Party faced Social Credit. In these six contests the CCF-NDP vote-share soared to an average of 41%, considerably higher than the average in both provincial and federal elections.

The salient point, however, is that despite winning a higher share of the popular vote in polarized tilts, the CCF-NDP always finished in second place - and out of power. An interesting phenomenon appears to be at work. In a 'polarized' situation, the NDP vote-share rises to about two-in-five or slightly higher, but in a two-party battle that level is sufficient only for a minority of seats and opposition status.

In a multi-party contest, however, where the centre-right (or free-enterprise) vote is split by at least two viable parties, the New Democrats' vote-share is diminished yet the party has much-improved odds of winning a majority of seats. (See table below.) Simply, two-party polarization has been beneficial for the NDP insofar as it increases the party's popular vote, but multi-party contests have offered better opportunities for the New Democrats to obtain power.

The question, then, is whether the 2005 provincial general election is a two-party or multi-party tilt. With apologies to Green party proponents and supporters, that's a no-brainer: the current engagement features the governing Liberals head-to-head with the opposition New Democrats.

If the historical polarization pattern holds true to form, the NDP on May 17 will win support from about two-in-five B.C. voters, and possibly a few more. That would mark a dramatic recovery from the party's nadir in 2001, but without the centre-right fracturing, it probably will not be sufficient for New Democrats to capture a majority of the Legislative Assembly's 79 seats.

Table - CCF-NDP share of the popular vote in provincial general elections, 1933-2001 (Ranked from highest share of popular vote to lowest. NDP victories in 1991, 1972 and 1996 marked in boldface.)

  • 1979 - 46.0% (opposition)
  • 1983 - 44.9% (opposition)
  • 1986 - 42.6% (opposition)
  • 1991 - 40.5% (GOVERNMENT)
  • 1972 - 39.6% (GOVERNMENT)
  • 1996 - 39.5% (GOVERNMENT)
  • 1975 - 39.2% (opposition)
  • 1945 - 37.6% (opposition)
  • 1949 - 35.1% (opposition)
  • 1969 - 33.9% (opposition)
  • 1966 - 33.6% (opposition)
  • 1941 - 33.4% (opposition)
  • 1960 - 32.7% (opposition)
  • 1933 - 31.5% (opposition)
  • 1952 - 30.8% (opposition)
  • 1953 - 30.8% (opposition)
  • 1937 - 28.6% (3rd party status)
  • 1956 - 28.3% (opposition)
  • 1963 - 27.8% (opposition)
  • 2001 - 21.6% (opposition)

Check here daily for Battleground BC, Will McMartin's voting predictions and analysis, exclusive to The Tyee. You can reach him with tips, insights and info at  [Tyee]