When I’ve mentioned Canada is one of the most left wing countries on earth, many are puzzled and indeed historically that was not true, but I believe due to new fault lines in politics, Canada is moving leftward while much of the rest of the world is moving rightwards. As I will explain below, here is why I believe the future is on the left in Canada while right in most other jurisdictions. We may not be the most left wing country on earth, but we are one of them.
In past, generally voting patterns were along income lines. Since Canada lacked the aristocratic class UK has or the strong entrepreneurial class US had, the right was weaker, but at same time we lacked the strong working class much of Europe had and instead had a much stronger middle class. As such, that is why social democracy didn’t have the success here that it did elsewhere. But nowadays, income is no longer the main fault line. Instead education, urban vs. rural, and diversity are main driving lines between right and left and in all three Canada clearly has demographics that favour the left over right. In the next post I will mention how Conservatives need to go about this challenge as trying methods that work elsewhere won’t necessarily work here.
In last US election, Democrats made strong gains amongst those with a college education while Trump had strong swings towards him amongst whites without a college degree. It is the same you are seeing throughout Europe, where left is strong amongst those with university degrees, but fairing poorly amongst the majority without. Canada has the highest rate for those with a post secondary degree of any country on earth. We are one of only three countries (Japan and Israel the other two) where more than 50% have some post secondary education. Japan due to its traditional culture and homogeneity is fairly conservative while Israel due to security trumping all other aspects and fact right is stronger on that than left also leans right. In fact in US, if the percentage with a post secondary education was the same as Canada, Clinton would have won handidly while if UK was as high as Canada, it would have been a hung parliament with Tories being the largest party in 2019 but not an overall majority and Corbyn would have won a minority in 2017 (It is 45% in both countries vs. our 56%). So while right wing populism may be a way to win over traditional left of centre blue collar types elsewhere, there aren’t nearly as many of those in Canada as in other countries thus a dead end here. Interestingly enough, in the 80s; parties on right used to do better amongst those with a university degree than not, so not all hope is lost for the Tories, but they will have to follow a different path than centre-right parties elsewhere.
An emerging divide you are seeing elsewhere is urban areas vote for parties on left and rural areas for parties on right. Some right wingers I’ve debated on twitter point out Canada is fairly conservative as much of the map is painted blue and that is true, but our population is heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas thus Tories may be winning in land mass terms, but Liberals are winning where the people are and that is what matters. In most recent election, smaller cities like Barrie and Kelowna went Conservative but with Liberals having a strong second place. In Canada, about 60% of Canadians live in urban areas with more people than those two cities whereas in most European countries including Germany, France, and Italy, majority of the population either live in rural areas or urban areas with fewer people so right there if the number living in urban areas over 100,000 people (which was around where the tipping point was on average with regional variations) was the same as most developed countries, Tories would have an easier time winning a majority. Now some are higher and in cases of Asian countries or Latin America, cultures and political systems are so radically different that tough to make accurate comparisons, however if we look at a few who are similar, even there left still has a geographical advantage in Canada more so than elsewhere. UK much like Canada has around 60% living in urban areas over 100,000, but only a 1/3 of Brits live in metropolitan areas over 500,000 while in Canada it is around half the population. Interestingly enough in the most recent British election, their tipping point was around that thus why Labour only got 1/3 of the seats whereas if the same percentage of Brits lived in metropolitan areas over 500,000 as Canada, it would have been a much tighter election. Now true, the Tories did win some posh areas in London and made strong gains in the Birmingham and Manchester suburbs which normally go Labour. And likewise here in Canada, Tories swept Edmonton and Calgary while were competitive in Quebec City. Still on average if half your population lives in such metro areas, it creates a bigger challenge. US has also a similar percentage living in urban areas over 500,000, but unlike Canada a lot more live in the suburbs. More importantly the percentage who use public transit is half what it is in Canada and polls generally show amongst suburban voters, those who use public transit to get to work tend to lean left while those who drive more to the right. Never mind population density of US suburbs is on average about half what it is in Canada as well as suburbs are a lot whiter so something like Maple Ridge here in BC or Newmarket in GTA is comparable to your typical American suburb as opposed to Surrey or Mississauga. Perhaps the one exception is Australia who is even more urbanized than Canada, yet the right still has a much better track record of winning elections than they do here, however even there you are seeing some shifts and unlike Canada, voting along income lines still much stronger there, so will be interesting if they move leftward like us or if their more conservative culture keeps them on the right.
The final issue is diversity. Canada has two official languages and if you look elsewhere often where you have this, the minority one heavily leans left. Whether it be Scotland for UK, Catalonia and Basque country for Spain or Wallonia for Belgium; linguistic minority groups usually tend to vote for parties on left in large numbers. Now first two, they make up a much smaller share of the population while in latter, the Flemish region votes much more heavily to the right (comparable to Alberta) to cancel that out. That means by nature Quebec will favour the left although as 80s showed us under Mulroney and more recently the election of CAQ, it is not an automatic given. Likewise unfortunately the right has seen more racism and has an image of being racist even though that is far from the truth. As such with 25% of the Canadian electorate being non-white, Tories must do better amongst them to win. Also as shown elsewhere, majority groups living in diverse communities are more likely to vote for progressive parties than those living in less diverse ones. In Europe, despite popular perception, usually 85%-95% are white so far less diverse while in US, the GOP can count on getting close to 60% of the white vote. Canada has neither and as a country that prides itself in multiculturalism and tolerance, any party with even a whiff of nativism is DOA.
There is also off course culture and Canada’s culture by nature lends itself more to the left than right. We like to pride ourselves in being compassionate and polite and left does a better job of portraying itself as the side that is more compassionate even if not always true. As a small country living next to the world’s most powerful one, we very much like to think of ourselves as being the country for the little guy. And indeed the left much more than the right portrays themselves as caring more about the little guy even if not entirely true or at least not as straight forward as some think. Likewise the right is often about smaller government, but Canadians have long tended to see government as a force of good so selling the idea of smaller government outside the Prairies is much tougher than in most countries. Having seen the negative impacts of government being too small in the US as well as our history being built on government being a force of good (both early settlers to New France, Loyalists had a strong loyalty to state and rejection of libertarianism thus helped create the culture of government being a force of good) parties that run on a platform of bigger government, especially if it involves redistribution from the wealthy to less wealthy tend to fit well with our cultural values whereas in many other places it doesn’t and some like US even runs against their values.
When you add all these up, I believe Canada clearly has a much stronger leftist tilt than most and small c conservative parties that wish to win face a steeper hill. That does not mean it cannot be done, just means it is harder than in most. I will later post on how Conservatives as they search for new leader need to handle these challenges.
3 thoughts on “Why Canada is one of the most left wing countries”
Excellent analogy. In nearly all provinces, but especially in Ontario, Manitoba and BC, it creates challenges for elections moving forward. We may eventually hit the point where the map looks all conservative but liberal parties (i.e. BC NDP, Manitoba NDP, Ontario Liberals) routinely win based solely on the major urban areas despite getting annihilated in the rural regions. Trying to govern with so many seats locked in, yet so many seats where they are hopeless representing a culturally different region, will be a real challenge. Yet their conservative parties may be challenged to fix that too since they will have issues with a shrinking middle and a restless base that could desert them if they stray too far.
That will be especially true in higher turnout federal elections, but in provincial and even municipal elections too. Note that the gains made in 2017-18 in provincial elections were in lower turnout elections – consider the Ontario PC’s in 2018 and the CPC in 2019, their raw vote totals were very similar in the GTA, but the turnout was much higher federally. I do think that of those who don’t normally vote, the “missing vote” in cosmopolitan, metropolitan Canada tends to be left-Liberal (i.e. straddling between Liberals and NDP) and in rural, blue-collar Canada generally on the populist right. That puts the cosmopolitan seats outside AB/SK out of reach in a high turnout election no matter what.
There have been signs of this trend even developing in Atlantic Canada in the last 3 years or so – most of the CPC Atlantic gains (i.e. where they were at least a close 2nd) in 2019 were in rural ridings, while in the urban ridings they didn’t really improve at all on 2015 (a regional low point). It will be interesting to see if this holds true in future provincial elections.
I do think the Conservatives could get to a numerical plurality the way things are now (I can see maybe 20 to 25 seats that they could flip with a bit of luck or hard work), but getting to 170 seats in this environment will be very difficult – likely requiring miscues on the left such as a badly split vote or many left-leaning voters staying home. Their ceiling is probably around 40% nationally (even though they have the highest floor – around 31%) and that is in a lower turnout election too.
It also creates issues for the NDP – if their traditional vote goes to the Conservatives, they have no choice but to try to outflank the Liberals among the metropolitan left. But that same demographic tends to vote strategically and will only jump to the NDP (or Greens) if the Liberals falter – and will do so en masse.
Agreed, but I do think as we’ve seen provincially Tories can win, but need to win in suburbs and that is a challenge. Also amongst need to be more appealing to university educated types and in doing so that can be risky leading to a split on the right. Unlike most countries, left does seem to have a built in advantage here whereas in most countries right seems to be gaining and left going backwards thus why I think Canada will replace Northern Europe as the focal point for left wing politics in 21st century. The one wild card is immigration since if the Conservatives can somehow find a way to be the dominate party amongst the immigrant communities, that could turn things on its head, but no election have they dominated that group and only in a handful has it been close or them slightly ahead.
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