Monday was by-election day in Canada. Based on the media build-up you would be forgiven for thinking that the results are consequential to the future of Canadian politics. And they may be. But since none of those ridings changed hands from one party to another, these consequences are less obvious than first appears.
Before focusing on those consequences, it probably is worthwhile debunking a few narratives which seem to be making the rounds. Some suggest that because the Conservative vote share was reduced by 11.4% and the NDPs by 5.6% from their 2010 results in these ridings, these parties somehow lost the by-elections. Sorry, but this ignores the basic realities of our first-past-the-post system: politics is a blood sport, where winners get power and losers don't. The Conservatives won two seats; the NDP one seat; and the Liberals, NDP, and Greens lost on Monday. What is also overlooked in this narrative is that when only three ridings are in play, smaller parties are able to direct their resources in ways that they cannot in a general election. Both the Greens and Liberals used the "star power" of their leadership in these ridings to a degree they could never afford do in a general election. Thus while increases of 12.7% for the Greens and 3.5% for the Liberals may seem encouraging, measured as a return on the investment of inputs into these campaigns, there may be less here than first appears.
No, the chief consequence of these by-elections may not be external at all. The external sign is of disinterest: voters had no chance to change governments on Monday, and so the relatively low turnout suggests more apathy than anger. Instead, if there is real consequence to these by-elections, it may be internal to the parties themselves.
In May 2003, a by-election was held in the riding of Perth-Middlesex. The then-opposition party Canadian Alliance expected this by-election to be its breakthrough in Ontario and poured all sorts of resources into the campaign, only to finish a distant third behind the Progressive Conservatives who won the seat and the Liberals who finished second. The impact on the internal thinking of the parties was profound. Both the Alliance and the PCs realized through this process that attaining government without cooperation was not plausible. Five months later Alliance leader Stephen Harper and PC leader Peter MacKay announced a merger of their parties into the Conservative Party of Canada.
Rather than parsing Monday's results as to what they say about Canadian voters and attitudes, it probably makes more sense to ask whether these by-elections will cause any of the parties to question the plausibility of their dreams of attaining power and influence. On this front, the Greens are playing a different game than the other parties in that they have no illusions of forming government in the foreseeable future. That leaves the Liberals and NDP to sort out whether there are more advantages in working together tomorrow than there were yesterday. With the NDP holding its seat and the Liberals increasing their vote, it isn't obvious how Monday's results will lead to any change.