Former Ontario Premier Bill Davis once summed up an Ontario election this way: there was a winner that was really a loser; there was a loser that was really a winner; and there was a loser that was really a loser.
He was talking about his own party (which won the election but failed to win a majority -- the winner-losers), the Liberals (who went from third party position to official opposition -- the loser-winners) and the New Democrats (who slipped from official opposition to third-party status -- the loser-losers).
A colleague of mine was remembering these words a few weeks ago. They still stung from his New Democratic perspective, 30 years later.
The truth hurts sometimes.
We have a similar result in today's four federal by-elections.
The Conservative Party are the winners who are really losers.
They won the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley -- a riding that has been Tory blue with only one break in the past 40 years. Somewhat more impressively, they picked up Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, a rural Quebec riding that should be solidly bleu and decided it would be.
However, arguably the biggest news in the blue column was the fact the Conservatives bit the dust in fine style in the British Columbia riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam, a first taste of the message Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his friend and ally Premier Gordon Campbell are going to get from B.C. voters the next time they have a chance to vote.
The Conservative government relies on British Columbia for 22 seats. They can afford to lose none of them. Their vote in Coquitlam dropped by about 10 per cent compared to the 2008 general election.
The Tories are also going nowhere in Montreal. Not an encouraging sign for a rural-based government that needs to break through in some urban ridings.
The New Democrats are the "losers" who are really winners.
With about 49 per cent of the vote in Coquitlam, the NDP has increased its support in an historically tight riding by about 20 per cent (they got 41.8 per cent in 2008). Voters in that province are turning to the NDP as their best alternative to Conservative rule at both the federal and provincial level.
Almost as good, the NDP solidified its position as the principal opposition to the Conservatives in Nova Scotia. And the Néo-Démocrates have stepped up to be the principal opposition to the Bloc Québécois in French-speaking Montreal.
Hands down and with no room for spinning no matter how artful, Michael Ignatieff's Liberals are the losers who are losers.
They were a distant third in British Columbia. They ran a bad third in Hochelaga, not far ahead of the hapless Montreal Conservatives. They ran a bad third in Montmagny. And they have lost their place as the principal alternative to the Conservatives in Nova Scotia, running third there as well.
The Liberal vote in Montreal dropped by about 30 per cent (the Michael Ignatieff-led Liberals got slightly more than 14 per cent in that riding, compared to the Stéphane Dion-led Liberals, who got 20.7 per cent in the 2008 general election).
The Liberal vote in rural Quebec dropped by about 15 per cent (Ignatieff a little over 13 per cent, Dion 15.4 per cent)
The Liberal vote in British Columbia dropped by about 10 per cent (Ignatieff a bit more than 10 per cent, Dion 11.3 per cent).
These by-elections were the first chance Canadians have had to pass their judgement on the latest faction to run the Liberals. With a Leader who for the time being appears to be weaker than Stéphane Dion, and with an unpopular right-of-centre message indelibly incarnated in that Leader, the only card the Liberals have left is "winnability."
"ONLY the Liberals will defeat Stephen Harper." "ONLY the Liberals will be the next government." "ONLY the Liberals are entitled to your vote."
Canadians can expect to hear a great deal of entitlement noise like this from Team Ignatieff 3.0 in the weeks and months to come. It's all they've got. But these by-election results make that a pretty tough argument to make, even if anyone found those messages otherwise compelling these days. In fact, they test poorly. Fewer and fewer Canadians find them compelling, having heard the same lines from the same 1990s-era Liberal talking heads for going on a third decade now.
With a Leader seemingly growing from strength to strength (having played his cards well this fall), and with plenty of room on the centre-left, these by-elections will give the NDP under Leader Jack Layton new energy, new credibility, and an opportunity to focus on providing Canadians with their best alternative to Mr. Harper. As the results show, Canadians are taking a careful look at Jack Layton and the New Democrats.
The Conservatives are holding their rural franchise and filling it in around the edges. But they appear to be in big trouble in British Columbia, and going nowhere in urban Canada. There is no Conservative majority in these tea leaves.
A final note:
As at 12:46 am on November 10th:
33,608 Canadians voted Tory in these by-elections, which was 35.72 per cent of the total vote cast.
22,783 Canadians voted New Democrat, 24.22 per cent of the total.
19,709 Canadians (perhaps we should say, Quebeckers) voted Bloc, 20.95 per cent of the total.
And 13,914 Canadians voted Liberal, 14.79 per cent of the total.
Ergo, in terms of the absolute national poll, Mr. Harper got in the range of what he had in the 2008 election. Mr. Layton is a solid second, improving nicely. And Mr. Ignatieff led his party to fourth place in terms of total vote, behind the Bloc Québécois.