Testing Harper’s Conjecture

After winning a majority in the 2011 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper conjectured that federal politics would eventually become a two-party system composed of a centre-right party (the Conservative Party of Canada) and a centre-left party (likely the NDP) and the Conservatives would win roughly three of every four elections.

Harper’s reasoning was that in our first-past-the-post elections if a party can win a majority with only 40 percent of the popular vote when its opponents are divided, it gives both parties of the left and parties of the right an incentive to unite. Harper predicted the centre-right would win more elections because he was confident it had more popular policies.

At the federal level, Harper’s conjecture has not yet come to pass. But it is worth examining whether it reflects the reality of provincial politics. It also can help us understand centrifugal and centripetal forces on both sides of the political spectrum.

Stable Two-Party Systems

Four provinces now have stable two-party systems. In Saskatchewan, the CCF, later NDP, was the dominant party from the Forties to the early years of this century. The Saskatchewan Party replaced the Conservatives and has formed the government since 2006. It is so dominant that it has consistently won over 60 percent of the popular vote, with the NDP languishing at 30 percent.

Alberta has been governed by parties of the right for almost a century, first Social Credit, then the Conservatives, and now the United Conservative Party. The only time the NDP was elected was in 2015, when it received 40 percent of the vote, and the conservative majority was split between the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party. The NDP received 44 percent of the vote – its largest share ever – in the election last month, but that was not enough to defeat the United Conservative Party. It is in the conservative heartland – Alberta and Saskatchewan – that the full Harper conjecture of ongoing conservative domination of a two-party system is applicable.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Liberal and Conservative parties have alternated between government and official opposition since entering Confederation in 1949. The NDP has consistently been a distant third, with its high-water mark in the 2011 election, when it won a quarter of the popular vote and five seats of the 48 in the legislature. For much of its history, Manitoba alternated between Conservative and Liberal governments. In the last fifty years, the NDP has replaced the Liberals as the party of the centre-left, and the province has alternated Conservative and NDP governments.

Provincial Multi-Party Systems

Six provinces have multi-party systems. For most of the last half-century British Columbia has had a two-party system, with the NDP on the centre-left and the centre-right represented by the Social Credit Party, then the Conservatives, and now the Liberals. In recent years, the Greens have become the third party, holding the balance of power in the 2017 election and then supporting an NDP government, and winning 15 percent of the vote in the 2020 election, which returned a majority NDP government.

Nova Scotia is now a three-party system, comprising the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP. The NDP formed the government for the first time in 2009, the Liberals were elected in 2013 and 2017, and the Conservatives elected in 2021. In the latter, the Conservatives won a majority of the legislature with 38 percent of the popular vote, with the Liberals getting 37 percent and the NDP 21 percent.

Despite being the smallest province, Prince Edward Island has a four-party system comprising Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, and Greens. In 2015, the Liberals won a majority, in 2019 the Conservatives won a minority, and in 2023 the Conservatives won a majority, with the Greens forming the Official Opposition and Liberals in third place.

New Brunswick has the same four parties as Prince Edward Island, as well as a new party on the right, the People’s Alliance. The Conservatives formed a majority Government in 2010 and Liberals a majority government in 2014. The 2018 election led to a minority Conservative government supported by the People’s Alliance, and in the 2020 election, the Conservatives won a majority with 39 percent of the popular vote. The Liberals had 34 percent of the popular vote, Greens 15 percent, and People’s Alliance 9 percent.

Ontario and Quebec, the two largest provinces, also have multi-party systems. Following four decades of Conservative Party dominance, Ontario has elected Liberal Governments in 1985 and 1987, the NDP in 1990, Conservatives in 1995 and 1999, Liberals in 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2014; and Conservatives in 2018 and 2022. The Conservatives won majorities in the two most recent elections with 40 percent of the popular vote. The Liberals and NDP both receiving 24 percent of the popular vote and the Greens 6 percent in the latest.

The situation in Quebec has additional complexity because of the presence of the separatist Parti Quebecois. There are currently five parties, two on the right (Coalition Avenir Quebec, Conservatives) and three on the left (Parti Quebecois, Liberal, and Quebec Solidaire). Following a majority Liberal government elected in 2014, the Coalition Avenir Quebec won majorities in 2018 and 2022. In the latter it received 41 percent of the vote, with all the other parties receiving between 12 and 15 percent.

Finally, in the three federal elections since Harper made his conjecture the Liberals won a majority government with 40 percent of the popular vote in 2015 and roughly one-third of the popular vote in 2019 and 2021. Rumours of the demise of the federal NDP, Greens, and Bloc Quebecois are all greatly exaggerated.

The Difference between Right and Left

Looking at recent electoral history, there is a clear difference between the behaviour of parties on the left and right. Except for Quebec, there are two long-standing parties on the left: the Liberals and NDP, each has a history and ideology. The Greens are relatively recent but are part of an international movement with a clear ideology. There is often friction, if not enmity, among the three parties. This makes it difficult for Harper’s conjectured merger to take place. Each party of the left will appeal to the supporters of the other parties of the left to vote strategically to defeat the Conservatives. This worked for the federal Liberals in 2015. When their appeals for strategic voting fail, the centre-left vote is split in three ways, allowing Conservatives to win a majority with 40 percent of the popular vote, as was the case in the most recent elections in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.

The right has a history of upstart parties that challenge the Conservatives. The upstarts are more conservative, or populist, than the Conservatives. These include the Saskatchewan Party, Wildrose Party in Alberta, People’s Alliance in New Brunswick, and Reform and People’s Party at the federal level. The upstarts either supplant the Conservatives, as in Saskatchewan; merge with them, as in Alberta; or are beaten back, as appears to be the case with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party at the federal level. One way or another, the parties of the right are more likely to present a united front than the parties of the left, which enables them to often win elections with 40 percent of the popular vote.

A clarification: I don’t think that all voters are committed supporters of one party or another, and the politics is only about inter-party alliances. The electorate includes large numbers of uncommitted voters (aka independents in the US), whom parties attempt to persuade by their platforms and the appealing, hopefully charismatic, qualities of their leaders and local candidates.

Harper Wasn’t Wrong

A decade after he advanced it, it would be unwise to consign the Harper conjecture to the dustbin of political history because it doesn’t fit the current federal context. At the provincial level, conservatives have recently been better than leftists at acting cohesively, which partially explains why eight of ten provinces now have conservative governments.

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