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Manitoba History: Review: Christopher Adams, Politics in Manitoba: Parties, Leaders and Voters

by Christopher Dunn
Department of Political Science, Memorial University

Number 61, Fall 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Every self-respecting Manitoban should own a copy of Politics in Manitoba and every political scientist and historian in Canadian Politics should keep it at hand for references to the political history of the keystone province. For too many years the secrets of this eminently workable central jurisdiction have gone unrecorded, and Adams does a fine job of revealing some of them. Of course, ambitious undertakings of the global sort often have problems of a Sisyphean scale associated with them. Adams’ effort is no exception.

The great value of this book is that it provides a model for other province-specific studies of political parties and party systems to follow. The work begins with a review of the Manitoba party system, emphasizing party support patterns. Following that is the most complete review of the history of each of the political parties (Progressive Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic Party) ever done in a book of an overview nature. After that is a review, called Understanding Manitoba Party Politics, which is a bookend to the initial chapter, offering theoretical explanations of the evolution of the party system. Handy surveys of survey information and election data are provided.

Reviews of other provinces’ parties have been done by the academy, but they largely tend to be party-specific. Saskatchewan had its David Smith and the Liberals and of course Lipset and the CCF; Alberta had its Macpherson and the Social Credit; and even Manitoba had its Wiseman and the CCF-NDP. But few had all of the parties. Here, then, is the way it should be done.

One of the particular strengths of the book is the way in which the historical strengths and dilemmas of each of the parties is offered. Sometimes the two are intertwined. The Conservatives have come to office over a history based on their two great bulwarks, the business class and the farmers. The former brought Duff Roblin and Gary Filmon to power, the latter Walter Weir and Sterling Lyon. But these are narrow bases and they often provide internal tensions for the party in its efforts to broaden its base towards blue collar and white collar service-sector workers. The winning strategy seems to be to have a leader with urban appeal—Roblin, Filmon—cajoling the rural vote in the “march towards the centre.” But there, most of the time, the PCs meet the NDP which has long staked out its bona fides with centre-left social/educational/health policies. What is left for the Conservatives is simply to wait out the NDP.

The Liberals have suffered traditionally from being three different parties at three different times, thus having an indistinct image, and now being internally divided. The party formed one element of the two party system that lasted until 1922, forming governments under Thomas Greenway and T. C. Norris; then it was a rural party, dominating during the “quasi-party system” of 1922-1958; then it was one of three parties in a three-party system that slowly drifted into a two-and-a-half party system thereafter, leaving it as the “half-party” until into this century. Its dilemma is deep: it is essentially an urban party, unable to break out of Winnipeg since hostility to federal Liberals put it there forty years ago, and voters have kept it to the 12-13% range for the last decade.

The NDP partakes of a long tradition of urban-based labour politics. Moreover, it is a class-based labour party which benefits from a history of moderate leaders (Schreyer, Pawley and Doer) establishing a working coalition between urban voters and less prosperous farmers, Aboriginals and northern labourers. Being in power, its dilemmas are not evident, except to worry about a post-Doer future.

Such is the interesting story Adams tells, but there are other aspects that need mentioning. At one point, the book seems to have two different theses. One thesis, of a sort, is that the many “themes” that are common in the international political science literature have affected the development of parties in Manitoba. There is, first, geography. There are three regions linked to three different forms of social and economic development and each of the parties is linked to them. A second is that over time ethnicity is replaced by economic self-interest: the initial wave of British Ontarians with their monarchism and liberal individualism was later joined by non-British immigrants forced to survive on clientelist politics until radical class analysis during and after the Winnipeg General Strike moved the province to working-class electoral politics of a “Third Way” kind.

Then there follows a hodge-podge of factors: the parties are shaped by the international political economy (137), by national policies (137), by the effects of their national party counterparts (137-8), by the special nature of party leadership at particular points in history (138-140), by party organization (140-1), by party funding rules (141), by the effects of modern media (141-3), and lastly by electoral systems (143-4).

One is left with the impression that Manitoba parties are affected by just about everything. That could be a bit of a stretch. However, this is not the end of the story. It seems there is in fact a second overarching explanation (145-6): that there are longer term factors and shorterterm factors which determine whether parties succeed or fail in gaining voter support. The tendency in the social sciences is to see factors in a kind of nested relationship with one another: some factors are more important than others, or some factors are acted upon by others in a kind of prepotent relationship. So it seems that there is in fact a kind of nested relationship offered by Adams. Longer-term factors involve regionalism, economic classes and social groupings. Then, “coupled with these [longer-term factors] are historically significant events such as the introduction of railways, economic recessions and world wars.” (Thus, added in one throw-away line and not explained further, is a combination of something like Lipset’s formative events thesis and catastrophic events reasoning.) Then there is the explanation that “together these factors largely shape the values and perceptions within the political culture.” Then is added to this the fact that there are the shorter-term factors which influence voter preferences like media coverage, economic conditions, platforms, strategies during campaigns. Then to the shorter term factors is added the electoral system, representative democracy, and the degree of voter participation. And I won’t even go into the chart accompanying all of this (“Schema for Understanding Party Preferences”) which hints at a whole different range of explanation.

This is nestedness with a vengeance. There are of course problems with this framework. It is overly complicated. It is only hinted at in the first chapter. It is mentioned only in passing in most of the party chapters. It is not fully explained. It is also advanced without much reference to the broader international party or theoretical literature that is made reference to in passing in the “Introduction” chapter. Is the nestedness in Adams an addition to the literature? A departure from it? A part of an already established school?

There are other things that could have been done in the book. One could compare Manitoba’s to the party systems of other provinces, or to place it in the context of families of party systems in the country. A book on party systems needs more context.

One could also give some sort of homage to competing theories of provincial political culture or provincial politics. If one is going to mention the ethnicity-based explanation of Tom Peterston, then the fragment thesis of Rae or Hartz/ Horowitz/Wiseman needs equal time.

In the final analysis, however, these are all cavils that do little to hint at the essential value of the book. This is a book of depth and breadth with regard to the party story in Manitoba. It provides in one source the perspective and sweep of its last 140 years and allows both neophytes and the well-informed to benefit from the work of one who is exceedingly well-steeped in its lore.

Page revised: 13 May 2016

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