Who do Canadians think was the greatest opposition leader never to become PM?
Jack Layton the runaway favourite in survey from Pollara
If Canadians have mixed views on who was their best prime minister, only one name really comes to mind on who was the best opposition leader to never get that promotion to the big chair.
He was only in the job for a few months before he passed away from cancer. But the meteoric rise of the NDP in the 2011 election and the death of its architect only a few months later cemented Layton’s legacy in the minds of Canadians. No one else even comes close.
That’s the result from the second part of the Pollara survey conducted at the behest of The Writ on who Canadians think were their best prime ministers and opposition leaders.
Last week’s piece on who Canadians think was the greatest prime minister got quite a lot of reaction. The poll got picked up by a few other media outlets and one of my tweets on it got nearly a quarter of a million views (but less than 200 link clicks — Twitter isn’t always a great driver of traffic).
Much of the reaction lamented Canadians’ limited appreciation of their history, citing either the 40% who had no opinion or the fact that recency bias and partisanship appeared to be driving most of the responses.
Well, the reactions will probably be the same now that we turn our gaze to the other side of the aisle.
Pollara interviewed 4,020 adult Canadians online between December 8 and 20. According to Pollara, “online samples cannot be assigned a margin of error. As a guideline, a probability sample of this size carries a margin of error of ± 1.6%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted by the most current gender, age and region Census data, to ensure the sample reflects the actual population of adult Canadians.”
For the second part of the survey, Pollara provided “a list of official opposition leaders who never became prime minister” and asked “in your opinion, which of them was Canada's best official opposition leader?”
As with the best prime minister poll, we had to come up with a list that was reasonable in length. I wanted to keep it to those who had actually filled the role of leader of the official opposition, so we excluded those who only led third or fourth parties in the House of Commons (sorry, Tommy Douglas). We also excluded interim leaders and, for symmetry with the best prime minister question, limited the list to 14 names — the 14 longest serving official opposition leaders who 1) never became prime minister and 2) were permanent leaders of their parties.
So, without further ado, the results:
It wasn’t even close. While there was still a big chunk of the population who had no opinion at 43%, there was only one consensus choice among the rest. Jack Layton was the choice of 28% of all respondents, nearly three times the number who chose Pierre Trudeau or Stephen Harper as the greatest prime minister.
Layton was the top choice in every province, among both men and women, across all age, income and education levels and regardless of partisan attachment.
There was even little difference between the general population and those who said they were interested in history.
Well behind Layton with about 5% were Lucien Bouchard and Preston Manning, followed by Robert Stanfield at 4% and both Tom Mulcair and Erin O’Toole at 3%.
In the end, it was all about Layton. After that, we see that regional attachments were important for the runner-ups.
With such a big sample size, we still have a robust sample to work with if we concentrate only on those who had an opinion. So, we’ll do that for the rest of this analysis.
Jack Layton, who was leader of the official opposition from May to August 2011 and leader of the New Democrats from 2003 until his death, scored 49.5% among decided respondents.
His support was over 60% among those living in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as among women between the ages of 50 and 64. He generally did best among women over the age of 35 and among progressive voters: New Democrats and Greens.
He scored under 40% in Saskatchewan and among men between the ages of 18 and 34, who would have been between the ages of seven and 23 when he passed away. Many of them would not have had a chance to vote for him. He also scored lower (but still topped the list) among Conservative and People’s Party voters.
With such dominance, let’s focus on who was able to muster any sort of challenge to Layton and at least place second in some of these demographics.
Lucien Bouchard, with 9.2% among decided respondents, was in the role from 1993 and 1996 as leader of the Bloc Québécois. After Layton, he was Quebec’s choice.
Lived experience was an important thing for Bouchard’s backers, as he did best among those between the ages of 35 and 64, who were between the ages of six and 38 when he was leader of the opposition and a little older than that when he was premier of Quebec.
Outside of Quebec, though, Bouchard scored in the very low single-digits.
With 8% support nationwide, Preston Manning did manage some decent numbers outside of Western Canada. But it’s there that he really made his mark. He was leader of the official opposition from 1997 to 2000 when he led the Reform Party, and finished second throughout Western Canada to Layton. As with Bouchard, he did well among middle-aged respondents.
Robert Stanfield, leader of the Progressive Conservatives and official opposition from 1967 to 1976, had 7.8% and was the runner-up for older Canadians, particularly those in Atlantic Canada.
He placed second in every Atlantic province and in Ontario. Among Canadians over the age of 65, who mostly had the chance to vote for him, he had 19% support — twice as much as third-place finisher Bouchard among Canadians of that vintage.
Among decided respondents, Tom Mulcair was the only other leader to clear 5% support. Head of the official opposition between 2012 and 2015, the former NDP leader managed 5.8%.
Following Mulcair, we have the Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole (2020-2022) with 4.9% and Andrew Scheer (2017-2020) with 4.1%. O’Toole did well with younger respondents while Scheer did well among PPC voters and in Saskatchewan.
Next were two Liberals: Stéphane Dion (2006-2008) at 2.2% and Michael Ignatieff (2008-2011) at 2.1%. Dion had just 1.1% support in his home province of Quebec.
Stockwell Day (2000-2001) of the Canadian Alliance managed 1.7% (3% in his own British Columbia), while PC leader George Drew (1948-1956) scored 1% nationally and 2% in Ontario, where he served as premier.
The Liberals’ Edward Blake (1880-1887), had 0.8%, followed by both Conservative leader Robert Manion (1938-1940) and PC leader John Bracken (1945-1948) with 0.5%. Surprisingly, Bracken had 0% support in Manitoba, where he was premier for 20 years, more than anyone else.
Regionally, there are two simple stories: Layton everywhere, and regional favourites second.
In Western Canada, it was Preston Manning — who led the party who had the slogan “the West wants in”. He finished second in all four Western provinces, hitting a high of 21% among respondents with an opinion in his home province of Alberta.
In Quebec, it was Lucien Bouchard, who with 31% had the best regional result of any past opposition leader anywhere (after Layton). But he barely registered outside of Quebec.
In Atlantic Canada, it was Robert Stanfield. He had 16% across the region and topped out at 25% in Nova Scotia, where he was premier.
Ontario was more divided. Stanfield was second with 11%, followed by Ontario’s own Erin O’Toole at 8%.
Regionalism was also behind third-place finishes for Scheer in Saskatchewan at 11% and Mulcair in Quebec with 8%.
It’s impressive just how easily Layton was able to defeat these regional champions. Manning led a Western-based populist party and falls second to a Toronto progressive. Bouchard was a popular Quebec premier and loses to the past leader of a party now polling around 10% in the province. Stanfield was a successful premier in Nova Scotia and has an airport named after him in Halifax, and he doesn’t even put up much competition against a Central Canadian.
That Layton was able to fix himself in Canadians’ memory as an admirable leader is even clearer when we look at the partisan breakdown.
Granted, Liberals don’t exactly have a great list of opposition leaders from which to choose in their own party. But Layton still managed 54% among Liberals with an opinion. In a distant second was the Red Tory Stanfield, with 11%. The top Liberal, with just 5%, was Ignatieff in fifth place.
A slim majority of Conservative voters backed former Conservative leaders of one stripe or another, but Layton was still the top choice of one-third. Second was Manning and third was Stanfield, while O’Toole and Scheer, the two most-recent leaders, combined for nearly 20%.
Two-thirds of New Democrats chose Layton while another 8% backed Mulcair.
Shockingly, even among Bloc voters Layton was at the top with 50%. Bouchard, who founded and led the Bloc to its best electoral showing in 1993, was second with 39%. That’s remarkable.
Bloc supporters were the most decided group, as just 16% had no opinion. Beyond them, there was little partisan difference in the number who shrugged their shoulders. It hit a high of 45% among PPC voters and a low of 35% among Liberals.
The sample was smaller, but among PPC voters the results were 28% for Layton, 20% for Scheer and a tie at 14% for Mulcair and Manning.
Among Greens, it was 58% for Layton, with no one else hitting double-digits. O’Toole and Mulcair tied at 8% while Manning, Bouchard and Dion (of the Green Shift) had 7%.
The legend of Jack Layton
The results are a testament to the political legend of Jack Layton.
The NDP’s breakthrough in 2011 was so unexpected and so unprecedented that it captured people’s imagination. Layton had spent the previous eight years as a relatively minor player in Canadian politics, one who was never taken all that seriously as a prime-minister-in-waiting. But 2011’s rise, and tragic fall, is one of Canada’s most captivating political dramas that culminated in a state funeral and Layton’s posthumous letter to Canadians that has helped him be remembered as an inspirational happy warrior.
Had Layton not passed away in 2011, it is possible — maybe even probable — that he would have become prime minister in 2015. After all, Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats were leading in the polls going into that campaign and Layton might have had a better chance of getting the NDP to the finish line.
But it’s also possible that Layton would not have lived up to the dizzying promise of 2011 had he survived. In that case, our memory of him would be similar to the one we have of Stanfield — a respected leader who almost became prime minister. His tragic passing at the height of his career, as well as the thought of what could have been, makes him legendary.
Recency bias is also a factor here, as most adults remember Layton and the drama of his death penetrated well beyond those who follow politics closely.
The rest of the list is also fairly recent, with Bouchard and Manning being fixtures of the 1990s and Stanfield being within the memories of some Canadians alive today.
In fact, the poll on greatest opposition leaders mirrors the poll on greatest prime ministers. Pierre Trudeau has his Robert Stanfield, Stephen Harper has his Jack Layton, and Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien have their Lucien Bouchard and Preston Manning. Even the scores for Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole roughly match the support Justin Trudeau got.
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But there is no mirror image for John A. Macdonald, who finished in third place on the best prime minister poll. Stanfield, who took over the job of official opposition leader a century after Macdonald became prime minister, is the leader furthest back in history with any substantial support in this poll.
Before Stanfield, none of George Drew, John Bracken or Robert Manion could manage more than 1% — marking them about as memorable as their foes Louis St-Laurent and Mackenzie King, who scored lowly as well.
Also failing to clear 1% was Edward Blake, John A. Macdonald’s only nemesis to fail to become prime minister. Nowadays, he is merely a forgotten bit of historical trivia.
And deservedly so: