Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The NDP and the trap of our political culture

A piece by Rafe Mair in the Tyee tells the story of the collapse of the British Liberal Party and how, with help from their newly centrist and newly accepted Tories, it was supplanted by the Labour party as the party of the centre-left. Mair then goes on to propose that this is exactly the process that could be happening in Canada, with the NDP playing the role of the UK's Labour. I'm sure many NDP supporters were salivating over the suggestion that real power on the federal level is within their reach, but I don't share that particular brand of excitement. In fact, while some of you are planning the erasure of the Liberals from the federal scene, I'll be over here banging my head against the wall.

I've been scoffed at many times for this view. I've been told that I'm resigning the NDP to an eternity of third-party mediocrity, that I'm one of the ones holding the party back from achieving all they can achieve. Look, I'm an electoral reformer, okay? I don't think anybody can accuse me of being insufficiently willing to embrace substantive change. But the scenario outlined in Mair's article, whether likely or not, would be a terrible thing for Canada. I'd even go so far as to say that those on the left who think annihilating the Liberals would be a good thing are offering Canadians a frustratingly short-sighted view of what Canadian politics can be. There are far too many supporters of the NDP these days who are so busy priming the party to go for broke that they don't realize that they're actually going for broken.

Think about what it would take for Mair's scenario to come true in Canada. The Liberals would collapse completely and be unable to bounce back from their internal rifts and their recent defeat. The NDP, noting the gaping hole to their right, would drift toward the centre. They'd start choosing centrist candidates--maybe even some wayward Liberals abandoning the sinking ship--and moving away from social democratic policies in their platform. After a decade or two of this, they'd be able to win over even the most centrist of centre-left voters and start occupying the territory currently staked out by the Liberals. With no party to their left, they'd have a lock on the entire centre-left and be able to vault themselves into an easy victory. Anglophone Canada would have a neat little two-party system once again.

I'm sorry, but don't want to be a part of that NDP. Heck, if I did want that, I'd join the Liberals now and skip all the steps in the middle--it would be a heck of a lot simpler, and at least there would still be a left-wing party in this country. The solution to the current problems among Canada's centre-left isn't replacing one natural governing party with another--it's electoral reform. I want to see an NDP that represents the 18% of Canadians who vote for them (or 20%, or 22%, or whatever it ended up being under a system where people actually voted the way they wanted to vote) and does it well. I want them to have precisely the amount of power the voters have given them, no more and no less. And most of all, I want an NDP that can play the role of representing left-wing voters in a parliament that requires compromise on all sides.

I realize this is hard to envision for many Canadians who've only known their own system, but politics really doesn't have to work the way it works in this country. It's not part of the nature of the political process to have politicians too busy going for each other's throats to actually run the country--it's the voting system that makes our politics so toxic. For those who doubt me on this, I'd recommend spending a little time reading up on how the stable democracies of Europe function. The entire political culture is different, from campaign advertising to governance. Cabinets consist not just of one party stretched thin, but members of multiple parties sitting side-by-side. Politicians work together to create stability and find creative solutions to their differences. Prime ministers work to win the trust not just of those in their own party, but of those beyond party lines as well.

This isn't some utopian fantasy, this is the day-to-day political reality of countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden, just to name a few. The politicians there are still fallible human beings, so the system doesn't always work exactly the way it's designed to, but it sure works that way a lot more often than our current system does. Switching to a system like this would be a huge adjustment for our politicians, who are used to a politics based on mistrust, animosity and back-stabbing, and the transition period would be incredibly difficult. But in the end, what we'd have is a Parliament that's not only more effective, but culturally far more suited to a country known more for its peacemaking and its pragmatism than for its nastiness and its unswerving ideologies.

Canada is a centrist country--inherently so. This is not just why the Liberals have become the "natural governing party" under the first-past-the-post electoral system, but also why Stephen Harper's Conservatives have had to move to the centre in order to achieve even a minority government. The fact of this country's centrism wouldn't change one iota under a system of proportional representation, so those on the left who are only supporting PR because they think it would make for a more leftist Canada can get that idea out of their heads right now. But with electoral reform, we have a real chance to transform the nature of that centrism. The kind of political culture that proportional representation fosters would move us from a centrism that depends on a single party to come up with every good idea and ignores all but the milquetoast middle, to one that requires parliament to look at the best ideas from all across the political spectrum and mold them into something that works for Canada. And the left could play a huge role in that--a far more crucial role than it would play if our only left-wing party drifted toward the centre in a kamikaze mission to demolish the Liberals.

That's the future I envision for the NDP. That's the future I envision for Canada.


Simon Pole said...

I agree with you on this. The NDP is more than a political party, it is also a social movement (and always has been). That would be lost if we ended up with a Dem-Repub system or a Labour-Tory system.

Greg said...

I am with you too. We need to foster a multi-party state so we are forced to listen rather than dictate.

freshly_squeezed said...

Great post IP

Phugebrins said...

I think the idea of PR moving Canadaian politics left seems not so much to be derived from the idea that PR will move opinion left - rather that the NDP's vote share (not just its seat count) will increase as voters currently in Lib/Con (or BQ/Lib) marginals who prefer the NDP will then actually vote for the NDP. The claim is essentially that voters are already left of centre, but that the system distorts this so that it appears that public opinion is more centrist.
To come full circle, in the UK, the Liberal Democrats probably had about 30% support last election - but gained only ~21% of the vote. The other 9% or so (i.e. close to 1/3 of their supporters) mostly voted Labour to keep the Tories out.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


The real problem is that we already have a multi-party state. Somehow more than two parties have flourished in Canada, despite a system that tries to prohibit that. And when you have more than two parties trying to shoehorn themselves into a system that's designed to force two clear choices, it results in a profound failure of democracy. (I wasn't nearly so adamant about PR when I lived in the U.S., where first-past-the-post results in unfair elections once in a blue moon rather than every single time.)


Oh, I do think the NDP's percentage of the vote would increase slightly under a system that didn't encourage so much strategic voting, and I agree that this would result in a slightly increased influence of the left. (I even mention this in the post, in passing.) But a lot of people seem to think PR would mean a constant minority government situation, in which the NDP got to ram their own policies home by threatening to withdraw support for the governing party. In practice, though, PR tends to produce a system that requires a lot more rethinking of policy through compromises between parties, resulting in more moderate--but also more creative--solutions.