It's tough, while following federal polls, to avoid noticing a certain number slowly and inexorably inching up, try as you might to downplay it as a mere statictical anomaly, sure to disappear come election day. That number is the NDP's current support in Québec. Historically, the NDP have been, let's face it, a joke in Québec. Given that the Québec branch of the Liberal Party of Canada (as distinct from the PLQ, which is a different kettle of fish) has always had a more socialist bent than its Ontario branch and has always been the main 'federalist' vote-getter in the province, and furthermore given that on non-constitutional matters the NDP and the BQ overlap on a lot of policies, leaving the BQ as the main pro-union 'old left' party in the province, there's never been much reason for Québécois to vote NDP. And given its image - fair or not - as a Western party of anglophones, blind to the realities of life in Québec and built of a rather alien tradition, unable even to keep the provincial party alive (Québec is the only province currently without a provincial NDP party), it's certainly never come near the breakthrough in the province that the party perpetually talks up.
And yet Angus Reid has some new numbers. Certainly they're a bit on the extreme side as regards Québec. Certainly they're to be taken with a grain of salt, or even with a salt lick. But before condemning the numbers, let's take a minute to marvel at them. Angus Reid is showing the NDP at 18% in Québec. Historically, those are unheard-of numbers. How remarkable are they? Well, Angus Reid has the NDP at 13% in Alberta and at 15% in the Atlantic. Now obviously no-one expects much from the NDP in Alberta, but they had recently had reasons to be optimistic about the Atlantic, and more than just Nova Scotia as well. The Angus Reid has the Librals at a laughable 65% in the Atlantic, though, so let's get back to that salt lick. Anyway, Angus Reid has the NDP in monolithic Ontario at... 18%. Obviously Ontario has never been the biggest supporter of the NDP, but it's always considered the NDP to be an alternative, and electoral successes and failures for the NDP down the years have usually depended on their ability to bring in a few seats in Ontario. And 18% is not a bad poll for the NDP in Ontario. Yet it only equals the NDP's numbers in Québec. More incredibly, the entire list for the province reads as follows: BQ 37%, Liberals 20%, NDP 18%, Conservatives 16%, Green 7%. In other words, according to this poll, the NDP are within 2%, presumably well within the margin of error, of the Liberals. They're a whisker away from being the second most popular party in Québec, from being the main federalist option.
If you want to take these numbers and run even further with them, consider the extent to which the NDP rise seems to be mirroring the Liberal decline - and I think we can safely assume that's no coincidence. I doubt I could find it now, but I stumbled across a poll from a few months ago that showed NDP support in Québec was actually higher as a percentage among Francophones than among Anglophones. Since in recent history NDP inroads tend to be in places with significant anglophone populations, this is also a significant stat. If we're really looking at this 18% existing in roughly equal numbers in both the anglophone and the francophone populations, then the NDP could really be looking at seats in various parts of the province - particularly if they can inch past the Liberals' numbers and actually establish themselves as the go-to party for strategic federalist votes. Since Québec seems as ripe as Newfoundland for an 'Anyone but Conservatives' campaign, strategic voting might really matter. And with the Liberal brand so low these days, who would have thought that the NDP could conceivably be the recipient of strategic voting? In Québec? Take it even further - the NDP have a decent amount of respect in Québec, and always have had: not necessarily as a legitimate vote option, but as a decent party. The alien status that has plagued the NDP in Québec has never really meant that the people of Québec don't like the party, just that it's seen as a party of English Canada. But to the extent that that's a factor, it's common to all of the federalist parties at the moment. Jack Layton, by a large degree Canada's most-liked federal party leader and well-liked in Québec as well, is the single federalist party leader with the best chance of seeming 'one of us' to the people of Québec. Anglo, yes, but born and raised in the province.
I don't mention this to say that 'bloquistes will only vote for someone Québécois'. I don't believe that's true. But I think it can possibly increase the comfort level bloquistes would feel toward the NDP - already, according to EKOS, warm enough towards the NDP that 27.7% would vote for them as a second choice (eliminating those who listed 'no second choice' makes this number an amazing 39.6%). I have often wondered what percentage of BQ voters would list constitutional matters and the status of Québec as their prime reason for voting BQ. While undoubtedly a high number, I know it's hardly 100% - additionally, the BQ's progressive economic and social platform brings in voters. There's no reason why those voters - avowed seperatists or not - couldn't be convinced to vote for a snowballing NDP, one who (hopefully) would keep its constitutional policies out of the spotlight (I don't think anyone wants a consitutional election this time out).
Theoretically, a nudge of a few percent in Québec, then, could start a ball rolling that would actually see NDP numbers open up significantly in Québec. This, in turn, might have a minor snowball effect on Atlantic provinces and an even more minor effect on Ontario. And more significantly, it would do much to present the NDP as a truly national party - something they've always struggled to do. With just a few percentage points, the NDP could even start looking like a potential senior coalition partner, and the notion of Canada's most-liked federal party leader actually looking Prime Ministerial? Well, it...
...er, sorry. Time to wake up, I think. As tantalising as it seems, I don't think we'll see Prime Minister Layton any time soon. But in this scenario, a theoretical Prime Minister Layton would have something that neither Prime Minister Harper nor theoretical Prime Minister Ignatieff would have - the support of a significant percent of Québec. It might make certain people angry in this country that a government that doesn't have a measurable level of support in Québec doesn't really have a legitimate mandate, but it is frankly true. And something that really needs to be addressed if we ever want a return to governments that have the support of a broad segment of the population.
The thing is, though, that while it's interesting to see the NDP in a position of relative strength in Québec, and conceivable that it could snowball and lead to a real leap forward in Québec, it'd be tough to call it a 'breakthrough', because one wonders if the current political realities are actually creating long-term NDP voters in the province or merely allowing disaffected Liberal or BQ supporters an exciting new face to vote for until their regular parties become more atractive again. With a different Liberal leader at the helm, or a fresh new constitutional crisis to bear, would 18% of the province of Québec still be voing NDP? It seems even harder to believe.