Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Political culture and the post-2008 NDP

There are some terrific conversations going on out there right now about what's next for the NDP after the 2008 election. First, we have the NDP Strategic Review series over in Accidental Deliberations (parts one, two, and three), we have the Globe and Mail discussion between Brian Topp and Les Campbell, we have NDP Outsider's thoughts on the election and analysis of the Topp-Campbell discussion, and last but definitely not least, the thoughtful post over at EnMasse.

I have to admit, though, every time I've tried to participate in one of those discussions, I've found myself feeling a fundamental disconnect with the assumptions behind the points being made. It's not that I disagree with the NDP's policies, because I'm still just fine with most of them. It's not even that I think there's anything wrong with the leader of the NDP running to be prime minister. It's that as long as the NDP was just trying to do the best job it could in opposition, I could pretend that I don't have issues with the core assumptions of Canadian political culture. I do, though. And given the NDP's new strategies, it's getting harder and harder to talk with my fellow partisans about the future of our party without running up against that wall.

I alluded to this issue once before in my discussion about the NDP policy convention in 2006:

The most interesting thing about Sunday, though, was watching the talk of the prospect of an NDP-led government--which for the rest of the weekend had been bubbling under the surface--come out full force. One delegate, in debating one of the "building the party" resolutions, even slammed Jack for his "lend us your votes" rhetoric from the last election, saying that the NDP should instead start talking seriously about leading. I have to admit that I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, if the NDP wants to be taken seriously as a major force in Canadian politics, they have to instill confidence that they're ready to lead. To do this they need not just the right rhetoric, but also a serious effort to truly build the policies that would enable them to take the reins. I support this part of it wholeheartedly.

But at the same time, the NDP is supposed to be the only major party that completely supports an electoral reform in the direction of proportional representation. I know how PR elections are fought from my time living in Germany, and the people who fight them don't make statements like: "we want to form a government [implied: on our own]." They certainly don't say things like: "If we're ever going to form a government, it's going to be because we can beat the Liberals and the Tories at their own game." The fact is that PR makes single-party majority (or even minority) governments vanishingly rare, and majority coalitions--a form of government that's commonplace in most of the world but not currently a part of Canadian political culture--utterly normal. I brought that fact up with another delegate at the convention, and his argument was that the NDP needs to get elected before they can make the shift to PR, after which the necessary changes to the political culture can happen. I think this is the wrong tack to take, for two reasons. First, I agree as strongly as humanly possible with Wilf Day's statement that the voting system belongs not to the politicians, but to the voters, and that electoral reform needs to come from the people and not from their government. But much more disturbingly, it suggests to me that the NDP may not have thought about what PR would really look like once implemented. It suggests to me that the NDP may not want PR because it's the best thing for Canada, but because it's the best thing for the NDP right now, and they might well change their tune if the voters were to grant them their coveted chance to lead.
As I've mentioned before, I came of age politically not in Canada, and not in the U.S., but in Germany. It's difficult to underestimate the extent to which German political culture has been influenced by its voting system (which is based on proportional representation), because not only are coalition governments the norm, but political strategies are also correspondingly different. In that kind of culture, parties grow in influence not by changing their fundamental ideologies in order to expand their appeal to ever-expanding groups of citizens, but by coming up with good ideas within the boundaries of their fundamental political identity, and doing a good job of selling those ideas first to voters in an election, and then later to coalition partners in government. So Canadian talk among both professional and armchair party strategists about winning ever-increasing pieces of the pie by developing policies that appeal to a bigger and bigger tent of voters (and let's face it, that's exactly what the NDP is trying to do right now) has always collided with my basic ideas about how to do politics right.

So what am I suggesting, then--a coalition government with the Liberals to Stop Harper, like what Murray Dobbin is advocating? Not exactly. First of all, there's no sense in forming a coalition government unless that government can be a majority one, and second of all, it's difficult to imagine joining forces with a Liberal Party whose main raison d'être isn't the execution of a particular kind of policy, but getting back into power at all costs. But when I think about what Canada would look like with the kind of political culture that most shaped me, it seems obvious that parties and their strategies would be very different. And a coalition between a left-wing party (whether it's called the NDP or something else) and a centrist party (whether it's called the Liberals or something else) is a completely reasonable outcome in a scenario where the only real reason to vote for or join a party is because you like their policies. But until we reform our electoral system and the assumptions behind our political culture change, these kinds of discussions about party strategy beyond the constituency level aren't anything I'm going to be particularly interested in participating in.

I have to admit, I feel ambivalent about making this post in the first place, out of fear that it will be misread. I certainly don't mind criticizing the NDP when they deserve it, but this post isn't so much a criticism of the NDP as it is a criticism of what our voting system has done to our political culture and the results of that for the NDP. I absolutely understand why the leader of the NDP doesn't run for leader of a coalition government--within the constraints of our political culture, any acknowledgement that they can't form a majority on their own would be read as a glaring weakness. Voters would be at best puzzled and at worst scared off. I know all that.

But I don't like it. And more importantly, I don't accept it. Running to form government on their own may be the best the NDP can do within the current political culture, but Dymaxion World's axiom applies here as well as it ever has: Basic politics in a democracy: If you want to change the behaviour, don't change the actors, change the rules. Until we have proportional representation and the political culture that would result from it, partisan politics in Canada is always going to be more about how to get a bigger and bigger piece of the pie than it is about promoting good people and good ideas. And that's always going to limit the level at which I'm willing to get involved with my party of choice, no matter how good their candidates and their ideas are.


Chrystal Ocean said...

Excellent, excellent post.

Have commented elsewhere that the only way I'd support a coalition among opposition parties to form the government is if they stated - in writing, on air, in a statement that is notarized - that they'd make proportional representation their first order of business. AND that the process for determining that system would be debated and chosen by citizens of this country, not by MPs or the backroom boys of the various parties.

Tyrone said...

But remember just how unpopular an idea PR is. MMP just went down in flames in Ontario. Examples from Europe have not convinced Canadians; they need to see an example *in Canada*.

The only real hope for that is BC's STV vote next year, which even if it passes won't actually take effect until 2013.

So national PR is *at best* at least ten years off. The NDP cannot wait until then to make the attempt to win power. That means they must deal with the voting system as is, not as they wish it was.

I'm not even sure how much difference PR would really make in governance. Germany's political history seems to be remarkably similar to Canada's. Since 1945, there have been two major parties (CDU, SPD) and one minor one (FDP). In the 80s and 90s these were joined by a Green party and a leftist party with support mostly in one region (PDS).

Bottom line is that dollars-and-cents policies of a party - health care, social programs, taxes etc - are always going to matter much more to voters than the electoral system. Especially in a country like Canada that has been plagued by divisive constitutional questions. For a party to campaign primarily on the PR issue seems unwise.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


In all my years paying attention to the issue of electoral reform, I have never seen so many discussions of proportional representation in the media, on the streets, at meetings, and at work than I have after this election. That is not the mark of an idea that is "unpopular." You don't get to point at one election in one province and proclaim based on that how unpopular it is.

As for your comment about Germany's and Canada's political structures being similar--isn't that all the more reason to attribute the differences in the political cultures (not the number of parties or their configuration) to the voting system? Thank you for making my point for me.

Having addressed those points of your comment, though, you might want to read this post again for the words that are actually in it rather than the ones you're envisioning between the lines. What it is about: why I'm not getting more involved with the "future of the NDP" discussions that are going on (or with the party at all on a level any higher than the constituency). What it is not about: advice for the future of the NDP, how I think the NDP should gain power, which issues I think the NDP should put at the top of its agenda, global warming, purple cows, the new James Bond film, any other subjects other than the one listed above.



Ken S from Ramara said...

As a Green supporter in Central Ontario, I have recommended to our EDA that enter into an "Un-holy" Alliance with the LIBS and NDP, to unite the left.

Electoral Reform will only happen if the CPC is defeated and this can only happen by running 1 candidate against the CPC and not splitting the vote.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, I certainly agree that electoral reform isn't going to come from the Conservatives. Where we part ways is in your thinking that it will come from any other party or combination of parties. The Liberals have shown no interest in the issue, and while the NDP and the Greens' support for it is laudable, they've yet to prove that they understand what a change it would make to our political culture. I strongly believe that successful electoral reform initiatives have to come from the citizenry and not from political parties.

However, I'd love to be proven wrong on this. If you think you can implement proportional representation (which is the antithesis of "uniting the left", incidentally--you are aware of that, right?) in some other way than through a citizen-driven process, I wish you the best of luck. I'm not going to look an electoral reform gift horse in the mouth if rides up to us wearing an orange, green, and red striped blanket. But I'm not going to hold my breath, either.

laura k said...

Excellent post! Thank you, I/P!

Anonymous said...

Good post IP.

I just had a comment to make regarding tyrone's "MMP just went down in flames in Ontario". I think the loss on that vote is more complex than an electorate that was opposed to MMP.

The set up of the referendum was such that the proposition was doomed to failure; I believe it was the NDP leader in Ontario (Howard Hampton) who mentioned that he was pretty much muzzled from talking about MMP by the rules imposed by Elections Ontario.

As a poll clerk during the election I was shocked about how many people didn't realize that there was a referendum going on, the major players didn't (or couldn't) talk about it.

The vote seemed to have been designed to fail by Elections Ontario. Perhaps under better rules it would have done better (or perhaps with a better system proposed, like STV), but that's all wistful thinking now.

Jacques Beau Vert said...

Ontario's rejection of MMP is no indication whatsoever of the popularity or unpopularity of PR.

The new James Bond film sucked! It's even worse that Man With The Golden Gun and Moonraker put together!!!

The Liberals in all I've ever seen oppose PR.

IP: Very interesting post.

MSS said...

Spectacularly good post, IP. I am even going to recommend it to my students.

Meanwhile, the thread you started over at F&V about what is "Canadian style" minority governance continues to grow.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Oh, I hope it's interesting to your students as well! What a nice thing to say.

As for the "Canadian-style" thread, it sure looks interesting. I just wish I had some time to contribute to it...