Taylor and Lucas: Oh, the places political parties won’t go


The disturbing political divide between city and countryside in Canada has never been greater

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Zack Taylor, Western University

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and Jack Lucas, University of Calgary

After all the ballots were counted in the recent Canadian federal election, was anyone surprised that Gudie Hutchings, outgoing Liberal MP for the Long Range Mountains District in Newfoundland and Labrador, had been re-elected?

In 2021, the Liberal caucus was deeply urban, with its members drawn by dozens of Canada’s largest cities. In terms of area, 87% of the ridings won by the Liberals in 2021 could fit comfortably within the boundaries of the Swiss riding of Hutchings. After all, western Newfoundland has been a liberal stronghold since the days of Joey Smallwood. Nonetheless, Hutchings has become an endangered species: a rural Liberal MP.

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In an article to appear soon in the Canadian Journal of Political Science , we study how support for major political parties has concentrated in urban or rural areas over time. Our first step was to develop a way to assign a consistent score to each of Canada’s more than 4,000 historic federal electoral districts at the urban-rural scale. We then use this new metric to determine when major parties have developed vote-sharing benefits in urban versus rural settings.

What did we find? A growing gap between the cities and the countryside in support of the liberals and conservatives since the early 1990s.

A longer historical view shows that although smaller gaps appeared between the two parties in the 1920s and again in the 1960s and 1970s, the urban-rural gap between the two parties was larger in the 2019 elections. and 2021 than at any other time in Canadian history. .

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After the Progressive Conservatives joined the Canadian Alliance in 2003, the new Conservative Party inherited the rural base from the Reform Alliance. Aside from 2011, when the Conservative Party won more urban seats in the greater Toronto area, the divide has only widened.

Think of the New Democratic Party today, and you can conjure up an image of a “downtown” party rooted in the crowd of lattes and laptops. But this image is incorrect: the NDP has never been a quintessentially urban party in Canada.

This is because the party has continually held seats in rural resource industry communities in places like northern Ontario and the interior of British Columbia, balancing its seats in major urban centers. . In fact, NDP support was mostly urban in the distant days of the early 1960s, when its seats were concentrated in worker-friendly communities of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Toronto.

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The Liberal Party, not the NDP, is unequivocally the urban party of Canada and has been for a long time.

In short, our research shows that the urban-rural divide in supporting Canada’s major parties has been around for generations, but has intensified dramatically over the past 25 years. The urban-rural divide predicts election results more strongly today than at any time in our history.

This is worrying for several reasons. While the parties become permanently uncompetitive on each other’s ground, they lose touch with the concerns of a large part of the population. Recruiting talented candidates who are connected to local communities becomes more difficult.

The share of each party’s caucus that comes from secure seats is increasing. As parties increasingly represent different social and economic worlds and speak different political languages, conflicts will only take root.

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While the causes of urban-rural polarization are likely to be different south of the border, the high-conflict politics of the United States represent a possible future for Canada.

On the other hand, history shows that change is possible. After decades of liberal domination, John Diefenbaker assembled a new majority coalition of Conservative supporters in 1958, different from the previous one. It combined rural prairie ridings that previously supported the Progressive Conservative and Social Credit parties and rural Quebec ridings that traditionally voted Liberals with new urban support in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.

Brian Mulroney did the same in 1984. And not so long ago, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton managed to temporarily disrupt the trend towards urban-rural polarization that we identify – Harper has pushed into urban areas while Layton has won surprising victories in rural Quebec.

Disadvantaged parties are always challenged to reconfigure the rules of the game by creatively creating unforeseen coalitions. But the leader who succeeds in disrupting the status quo must overcome a powerful long-term trend in the other direction.

The conversation

Zack Taylor is Associate Professor of Political Science at Western University and Jack Lucas, is associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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