Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Unite the left": a response to daveberta

There's nothing more predictable than Canadians talking about party mergers after an election where things didn't go their way, and this Alberta election has been no different. I mostly ignore that kind of talk--I think so drastically differently about this sort of thing that there's simply no common ground for conversation. But daveberta has a thoughtful post about the topic that's at least worth addressing, even though I can't agree with a lot of it. So here's a response to each of his six points, one by one.

1. Bad blood. I completely agree that there's a lot of unnecessary bad blood between the Alberta Liberals and the Alberta NDP--when one party is openly calling the other "irrelevant" and the other party is equating the first party with their archrivals, there's not much room for détente. But bad blood isn't the only obstacle to a merger, or even the biggest one. The only reason to ever merge parties is when there are negligible, if any, differences between them (the Wild Rose Party and the Alberta Alliance spring to mind). It's never a good idea to merge parties when the party memberships have very different opinions about all sorts of things, and there is a world of difference, both policy-wise and party-culturally, between the Alberta Liberals and the Alberta NDP.

2. It's aiming at the wrong target. Dave tells us that "with voter turnout at 41%, I'd be willing to suggest that all the parties are scraping the bottom of their support-levels and need to look at the 59% of non-voting Albertans for growth." I completely agree. The first response to this election, for all parties, needs to be to figure out who those non-voters are and why they're not voting. There have been a lot of hypotheses tossed around about that, but at this point, that's all they are.

3. Pass the vote. Dave argues that a merged party could easily occupy a much smaller part of the political spectrum, and leave a lot of Albertans without a party to vote for. I couldn't agree with this more strongly. Trying to unify such diverse groups under one big tent, even if it were to work, would marginalize a whole big whack of Albertans. This might not matter to those whose political opinions would be encompassed by the hypothetical new party, but believe me, it matters to the rest of us. We can't let that kind of kludge fix be our response to a very real problem.

4. Greens on the left? Dave argues that the Alberta Greens--especially the 22% of voters in Lacombe-Ponoka who gave the party its biggest non-victory victory yet--are not actually very left-wing. I agree with that, and furthermore, I'd argue that this has to be okay with those of us who are left-wing. Trying to shoehorn them into models that work for us but don't work for them is neither fair nor productive.

5. Different aims. Dave says that "it's clear that the Alberta Liberals are in it to form government, but I'm not sure that's the same goal of the New Democrats." I wouldn't phrase it this way at all, but I do think he's on to something. In fact, I'd argue that nothing epitomizes this difference more than his statement that "party archetypes in both camps really need to put aside their biases and prejudices and take a serious and objective look at why their parties are not connecting with Albertans." What am I (or for that matter, what is he), chopped liver?

It has always been a puzzle for me that Canadians in big-tent parties assume that a party that never gets the largest share of the vote "isn't connecting with the people." In fact, if you add up the ~10% of the vote the Alberta NDP tends to take and the ~28% of the vote the Alberta Liberals tend to take, that's a good 38% of Albertans who suddenly don't count as "people" in sentences like those. And I have to say, this attitude is especially frustrating for me as someone who's lived in a country like Germany, where parties like the Greens (at 8%) and the Free Democrats (at 10%) would never think they need to raise their vote totals to 40% or more or else give up entirely on representing the people who support what they believe in.

In any case, the notion that the NDP "doesn't want power" is a silly one--all political parties want power. But "power" is a much larger concept than "forming a majority government all by our little selves." There are lots of models for taking power, and even forming government, that don't require that. By that token, my big recommendation on this front is to think outside the box. Which might well mean looking beyond the borders of this country for possible answers and thereby moving outside of our comfortable Canadian merger-utopia narratives.

6. First-past-the-post. I have to nitpicky-quibble with Dave's talk of changing the system to "STV or PR" (proportional representation is a category of electoral systems, of which STV is one specific example), but I do agree with the sentiment. The only long-term, non-kludge fix to the problem of representation in Alberta is electoral reform. It's is the only thing that's going to make our legislature look like what we actually vote for. Shoehorning in a kludge fix when there's a legitimately available real fix is like tying your car's engine together with twine.

On the other hand, since electoral reform isn't going to happen tomorrow, the short-term solution to making our legislature look a lot more like what Albertans want to vote for isn't fewer parties on the left, but more parties on the right. Right now, the PCs stand for very little other than keeping themselves in power, and they're such a big tent that the actual right in Alberta feels completely alienated. Like it or not, those people deserve to have a party they can really support, too--and it would have the additional advantage of levelling the first-past-the-post playing field a lot more. It wouldn't be perfectly representative, but it would be more so than what we have, in the short term.


Saskboy said...

John Murney was talking about this problem for the provincial Liberals too.

His idea is to also give the right wing more competition, while remaining socially progressive.

Anonymous said...

Let's do something fun, IP.

Need your two cents on the Spanish general election. Zapatero's Socialists win with an increased pluarality 43 per cent of the vote. But their leftwing allies: the United Left and the Catalan Republican Left lost seats and cannot muster the eight seats necessary to from a coalition.
This probably means a coalition with the Catalonia Convergence and Unity Federation.

Ian said...

I think the idea of a "merger" in the hard sense would be the wrong way to proceed. But without electoral reform I think a weak alliance between the NDP and Liberals needs to be formed so that in any riding where the race is tight between one of the parties and the PCs the other party will back down. Essentially I would want NDP votes to go Liberal where a Lib has a better chance and Libs to go NDP in the other case.

Some people would likely be annoyed in some ridings that their "party" wasn't running, but the ultimate goal would be to obtain at least a Tory minority and then push for electoral reform.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, if I were a centre-left Alberta Liberal who wasn't quite left enough to vote NDP, I'd have a lot of problems with that idea. But if all you're in politics for is to win more votes at all cost, it would probably work.


This post is about Alberta, so I'd rather not do that here, but if you want to post about this at your blog, I'll play over there.


I'm afraid I wouldn't go along with anything that would disenfranchise voters like that. I came to Canada as a place that offered me real voter choice, and everyone deserves the chance to vote for a candidate they actually agree with.

Think outside the traditional box, man, not in the same tired old merger narratives. There really are other ways of doing this than the way Canadians tend to. I swear.

bza said...

Thoertically and outside the box electoral reform is the best solution. Alberta and Toronto have long been my favourite two examples of voter disenfrancement from FPTP. Conservative voters are shut out in Toronto while everyone else is in Alberta save for a few ridings.

I've actually met quite a few rural Albertans that love the Liberals and NDP for example. However, given the Conservatives stranglehold on power from FPTP, its also the province where it is most unlikely to ever happen.

In that case, increasing the voter turnout rate is the best bet. Since mergers with vastly different viewpoints and supporters is not a good option.

Anonymous said...

"if all you're in politics for is to win more votes at all cost, it would probably work."

That is why I am not a New Democrat or a Green. I wouldn't get involve in Grit politics if the people I support do not win. Winning in politics is intoxicating. It is a drug that keeps me involved, to be detriment of my sanity.

Tyrone said...


Alberta of course would probably remain in Tory hands even with a Liberal/NDP merger.

But federally, Stephen Harper would not be in office if these two were able to at least contemplate some sort of an alliance - if not a merger, then at least a non-competition pact.

In countries with PR systems, coalitions are an essential part of the the process. The NDP and the Liberals could have done this as early as 1988, but did not. The country has paid a terrible price.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


True--federally in Alberta the situation is even worse than it is provincially (mostly because of the locations of riding boundaries). At least provincially we do have some opposition.

Wilf Day said...

I see that new Liberal leader David Swann said this May that he "sees proportional representation as key to overcoming the perceived political apathy among Albertans."

Seems logical: in their last provincial election the Liberals got more than 26% of the vote, and less than 11% of the seats. Luckier than their federal counterparts in Alberta, who just got 11% of the votes and zero seats. Luckier than Alberta voters in 2004, who voted only 46.8% for the Progressive Conservatives but saw them somehow end up with almost 75% of the seats. Rather like the Bloc Quebecois, which just got 38% of the votes in Quebec, yet somehow got 65% of the seats.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


The Alberta Liberals have been in favour of PR for a long time, so this is nothing new. In fact, the previous leader, Kevin Taft, wrote a book about democracy in which he argued for PR, among other things.