No opposition party is going to beat the Tories until they unite behind electoral reform
NationalPost.com – FullComment
Jan 25, 2013. Andrew Coyne
Let us just take stock of where we are. There are three opposition parties represented in Parliament, not counting the Bloc: the NDP, the Liberals, and the Greens. Whatever else they disagree on, all three profess to believe the Harper government should be removed at the next election.
Indeed, to listen to their rhetoric it is not just desirable, but urgent, not least to prevent the Conservatives from consolidating their grip on power: the longer they stay in power, the more opportunity they will have to change the rules to their advantage, and the harder it will be for any opposition party to dislodge them. Defeating the Conservatives, all three parties would say, is not only a matter of partisan preference, but of democratic necessity.
Not coincidentally, all three parties broadly agree on another matter: the need to reform our democratic institutions, to prevent such accumulations of power — by any party. In particular, all three support, or say they do, some form of electoral reform. The NDP has long been an advocate of proportional representation, as have the Greens; the Liberals have as yet restricted themselves to a milder reform known as the “alternative vote” or ranked ballot, but many in the party would be open to going further.
It will be objected that much of this is merely an expression of the parties’ self interest, or more charitably that their principles show a remarkable tendency to align with their self-interest: under proportional representation the Greens would win many more seats than the one they have now, as until recently would the NDP, while the alternative vote tends to favour middle of the road parties like the Liberals. Fair enough. I happen to think these are also useful reforms in the public interest. But it is to those parties’ supporters I address myself here: to their self-interest as much as their ideals.
Because none of this is going to happen as things stand: neither the Conservatives’ defeat nor the democratic reforms each party proposes would follow. It is not going to happen so long as the Conservatives maintain their apparently unshakeable hold on 35% to 40% of the voters that have stuck with them for much of the past decade. And it is not going to happen so long as the rest is divided so evenly amongst the opposition parties.
But mostly it is not going to happen so long as we continue to operate under the current electoral system, since it is only under that system, known as “first past the post,” that either of the first two points matter. Only under first past the post can a party with 35% or 40% of the vote govern as if it were a majority. Only under first past the post does it matter how the remainder — the larger part — of the vote “splits” among the other parties, since under any other system they would be represented fairly in Parliament regardless.
So the long-term answer to the opposition’s dilemma is electoral reform, based on some form of proportonal representation. But that isn’t going to happen until they can figure out how to beat the Conservatives in the short term. The obvious answer is for the three parties to cooperate in some way at the ballot box: to combine, rather than split their votes. But how? How, especially when the same winner-take-all logic of first past the post that keeps the Tories in power also militates against cooperation amongst the opposition parties, since one or another will forever be tempted to think it can pick up enough votes on its own to bury the others.
The wrong way out of this box, as I’ve written before, is merger. It asks too much of the parties and their supporters, presuming a commonality of purpose that isn’t there, and as such risks losing many votes to the left or especially the right: a different kind of “vote-splitting.” A formal coalition would run into many of the same objections. The parties’ interests, loyalties, and ideologies are too divergent.
As it happens, however, an alternative has emerged that has found significant support in all three parties. It is to forge a purely temporary alliance, a one-time electoral pact. Party riding associations would agree to run a single candidate against the Conservatives, on a platform with essentially one plank: electoral reform. Were they to win they would govern just long enough to reform the electoral system, then dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections.
Such a thing has never been tried in this country, of course, and so runs into the objection, so attractive to many of my colleagues, that such a thing has never been tried. A favourite counterargument is to rattle off a number of obvious practical questions in quick succession — How would these common candidates be selected? Would this apply in all ridings, or just some? Could voters be persuaded to turn the election into a referendum on electoral reform? — in a tone that implies they could not be answered. Which is certainly true, as long as no one bothers to try.
Fundamentally, it comes down to this: are the opposition parties serious? Do they really want to beat the Conservatives, or just talk about it? Are they serious about electoral reform, or is it, too, just a talking point? And assuming they mean either, do they realize how crucially each depends on the other? Let me put it plainly: They aren’t going to beat the Conservatives until they change the electoral system. They aren’t going to change the electoral system until they beat the Conservatives. And they aren’t going to do either until they find some way to cooperate.
The first necessity is for the opposition parties to understand the fix they’re in. That’s the biggest hurdle. Everything else is comparative child’s play.
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