Even before a single vote was counted in Burnaby South, Monday’s trio of byelections was already bleak for the federal New Democratic Party.
The polls closed in the Montreal riding of Outremont at 9:30 p.m. ET, 30 minutes before they would close in Burnaby South. And it only took 30 minutes for enough votes to be counted to make it clear the NDP would lose Outremont, a riding its former leader Thomas Mulcair had held since 2007 and which became, at the time, the springboard for the NDP’s big gains in Quebec in 2011 in the Orange Wave.
Within an hour or so of that loss in Outremont, enough votes had been counted in Burnaby South to declare a win for the current NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh. And while there was lots of cheering in Burnaby — a riding any New Democrat should be able to win on any given day — New Democrats at the other end of the country were contemplating an important symbolic loss that, at this point, seems a harbinger of worse times to come for the NDP in Quebec. Nearly one-third of the current NDP caucus comes from Quebec.
WATCH: Liberal cabinet minister Mélanie Joly says the NDP’s loss in Outremont is the end of the Orange Wave
But the NDP in Quebec is thin and getting thinner. Late last week, as Singh was sealing the deal in Burnaby South, two more Montreal-area New Democrats announced they would not stand with Singh in the general election this fall, bringing the total to eight MPs, in a 39-member caucus, who have said they will not run in October. One of the NDP’s biggest stars, B.C.’s Nathan Cullen, had refused to say if he will re-offer, promising only that he would announce his decision after Monday’s byelections.
WATCH: Jagmeet Singh wins his riding as NDP loses Quebec seat
Singh can ill afford to lose Cullen.
But a bittersweet result for the NDP was just one of the important storylines from Monday night.
The other is the continuing story of a very volatile electorate, an electorate that contains a significant number of voters not happy to cast a ballot for the mainline parties — the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the NDP — but, instead, open to casting a ballot for something different.
We’ve seen evidence of this volatile electorate in recent provincial elections. New Brunswickers elected six MLAs from non-traditional parties. Ontario elected its first Green MPP while knocking the Liberals out of official party status. And in Quebec, a brand new party — the Coalition Avenir Quebec — holds power while a party — the Parti Quebecois — that contested for power for more than a generation is also out of official power status.
All of that, thanks to voters looking for other options.
In Outremont last night, there appears to have been plenty of voters on the progressive side of the ledger who were unhappy with the Trudeau Liberals. Voters annoyed at broken Liberal promises on electoral reform, climate change, pay equity and other issues important to progressive voters should be turning to the NDP. But in Outremont, many did not. The Green Party was a significant beneficiary of that vote, notching a remarkable 12.5 per cent of the popular vote and finishing third — ahead of the Bloc Quebecois and the Conservatives — in a riding where they had previously never won more than five per cent of the vote.
In Burnaby South, the Greens did not field a candidate, but there were signs of voter volatility there, too. The right-of-centre vote there fractured Monday night with the candidate for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC) picking up just over 10 per cent of the vote. Scheer’s Conservatives fell to third place.
WATCH: Maxime Bernier comments about success of People’s Party in B.C. byelection
Now, the PPC won only about two per cent of the vote in York-Simcoe — where the Conservatives easily prevailed — and in Outremont. But even still, there will be close races this fall where the Conservatives could lose if Bernier takes away two per cent away from the Conservative vote. And there most certainly are ridings where, if Bernier can rack up 10 per cent, the Conservatives are in big trouble.
Burnaby South was a long shot for a Conservative win but its neighbours — Burnaby North-Seymour, ridings in Surrey, and, further afield in Langley and North Vancouver — are not long shots. They are ridings Scheer must pick up if he has any chance of beating Trudeau. The Conservatives are going to have to do something about Bernier.
And so we come to the governing Liberals, who have been leaking support in two polls that come in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin affair. What must that party think of Monday’s byelection? They would certainly note the existence of a volatile electorate but they would also see their opponents on their right — the Conservatives — threatened by the PPC. And they would see their opponents on their left, the NDP, still unable to consolidate any anger among the country’s progressives.
And in our first-past-the-post system, votes that Conservatives and New Democrats lose to the PPC or to the Greens add up to just one thing: more Liberal victories.
David Akin is Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.