Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A response to Terry Glavin

Over at The Tyee, Terry Glavin has written an editorial asking for reasons to vote NDP in the next election. After all, he says, if the Stéphane Dion Liberals' policies are at least fairly decent, and they're still more likely than the NDP to form the next government, why should anyone vote NDP?

Of course, "why should anyone vote NDP" doesn't quite cut it as a realistic question. There is, after all, a large chunk of NDP voters who cast their votes based solely on
...gasp! affinity for the NDP's policy proposals. For these people, the Liberals are simply never going to be an option, just as there is a large chunk of the Liberal Party who would never vote NDP even if someone held a gun to their heads. Instead, Glavin's real question is about why Liberal-NDP swing voters wouldn't want to flock to the Liberals in droves in order to defeat Harper. And rephrased as such, it's a provocative, pragmatic question, and it deserves an equally provocative and pragmatic response.

Let me give it a shot:

When Liberals get majority governments, they don't keep their promises.

You've all heard New Democrats saying that Liberals "run from the left and govern from the right," but this is more than just partisan spin; it's demonstrably true. When the Chrétien Liberals had a majority, they promised to implement a national child care program, but didn't actually take action until years later when Martin had a minority and it looked like their government was about to fall. They promised to protect public health care, but weren't willing to put the brakes on privatization. They promised to reform our electoral system, but refused to take action on the issue when the NDP came knocking on their door with a proposal. They promised student tuition relief, but didn't act on that until the NDP forced them to do so as part of the 2005 minority parliament budget deal.

Do the Liberals keep doing this because being a big fat liar is a requirement to join their party? Of course not--they do it because they're susceptible to the pressures of governing. An elected Liberal caucus is made up of centrists, and when centrists are given a nice, safe majority, they're free to give in to the pressures from large corporations. This is why Liberal majority governments have consistently been centre-right, not centre-left, governments. And for all of you swing voters who are so convinced that a Dion-led Liberal majority would be different on this front, there's actually not a whole lot of evidence for that. When he was Canada's environment minister, after all, the policies he proposed were very different from the ones he's proposing now, when he's looking to win your votes.

The fact is, if you're a Liberal-NDP swing voter who likes the Dion Liberals' policies and wants them to be implemented, you don't actually want a Liberal majority government. What you want is a Liberal minority government with the NDP holding the balance of power--or, if you're as sick of minority governments as I am and crave some more stability, an actual government coalition. In a coalition, government policy is a synthesis of the policies of the larger party and the smaller party--a little of this, a little of that, a handful of cabinet ministers for the NDP and many more for the winning Liberals. Try to tell me that's not precisely the ideal outcome for the swing voters we're talking about.

The partisan Liberals reading this, of course, will say that they actually wouldn't be satisfied if they won a minority with the NDP holding the balance of power--they want a majority government of their very own. But wishing it doesn't make it so. Even with their rather sizeable post-convention bounce, the Liberals still fall well short of majority government territory. And those who are thinking that the bounce is only the beginning and the Liberals have nowhere to go but up are deluding themselves--parties always come down from post-convention bounces. The fact is, the NDP and the Bloc are entrenched enough by now that no matter how much the Liberals would like to claim we have a two-party system, we just don't. And with the Greens bursting onto the scene, there's even less of a chance of a majority...for any party.

So let's have a little more of that much-lauded pragmatism from the Liberals, shall we? Of course they will try for a majority--they have to--but they will fail. Realistically, unless two of the parties get it together and manage to form a long-term, stable majority coalition after the next election, the next Canadian government will be another minority. The only open question is what colour it's going to be. Which is where my next point comes in.

When centre-left progressives indiscriminately vote Liberal "strategically," they elect Tories.

There's a fascinating and maddening thing that happens again and again in Canada, partway through every federal election: Liberal-NDP swing voters who have decided to vote NDP look at the nationwide polls, see that there's a threat that the Tories could win, and decide to vote Liberal instead. The problem with this, of course, is that those nationwide percentages have precisely diddlysquat to do with who can win in each individual swing voter's riding. (That's what we call proportional representation, after all, and while it would be awfully nice if it worked that way, wishing doesn't make it so for me, either.) People like to refer to this practice as "strategic voting," but since real strategic voting would require some actual, you know, strategy, it makes a lot more sense to call it "stupid voting."

Let's take British Columbia as an example. In the middle of the 2004 federal election, the B.C. riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam was a three-way race with the NDP in front, the Conservatives nipping at their heels, and the Liberals also within striking distance. But then Prime Minister Paul Martin campaigned in the riding, waving the national polling numbers and telling voters that they needed to vote Liberal to stop Harper. The result? The NDP vote collapsed, and the Conservative candidate won by only a few votes, with the Liberals well behind.
In 2006, however, Liberal-NDP swing voters across the province learned their lesson and managed to go from stupid voting to strategic voting in a single bound. The percentage of the vote didn't change much at all--the Conservatives increased by 1%, the NDP increased by 2%, and the Liberals fell by just under 1%. But real riding-by-riding strategic voting among swing voters gained seats for not only the NDP, but also for the Liberals. Only the Tories lost seats.

So to answer Glavin's question about why Liberal-NDP swing voters should vote NDP in the next election, my provocative answer that will piss everybody off boils down to this: maybe they should, and maybe they shouldn't. Since the outcome that these voters really want is one where the Liberals win but are forced to actually keep their promises, whether or not they should vote NDP depends on the makeup of their specific ridings. If they live in ridings where the NDP candidate can beat the Tory, they should vote NDP, and if they live in ridings where the Liberal candidate can beat the Tory, they should vote Liberal.

If the swing voters we're talking about manage to use informed, riding-specific strategy next time around, they have an excellent shot at getting exactly the outcome they want--a government that will actually implement the progressive policies that they like. If, however, they instead just vote indiscriminately Liberal out of fear--even in ridings where the Liberal has little chance--then they will hurt the NDP, fail to give the Liberals all the votes they need where they really need them, and probably elect another Tory minority government in the process. It's that simple.

[Update: I'm not sure Québec-based blogger Michel Fortin is a Liberal-NDP swing voter as described in this post--given where he lives, I'd guess not--but he sure sounds like he wants the same things they want. En français.]

[Upperdate: Terry Glavin responds...and agrees. Score! *grin*]


Anonymous said...

Though I understand your reasoning.I think NDPers should vote NDP no matter what.This will give the NDP consistent support.And might help to slowly build up more support.The NDP has to be different from the two other parties,by being consistent in their policies and by putting principles above compromise(do not sell out for tactical reasons).
NDP voters have to show faith in their party,wishy washy reasoning ,even if it is about keeping the Conservatives out,is just thay wishy washy.As the party voter have to be principled,no compromise."Strategic" Voting hurts the NDP casts doubts in the minds of others etc etc...

Anonymous said...

You want to mention or link to some of the various how to guides for proper strategic voting. I find DemocraticSPACE's the best, but there are a couple of others.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


The thing is, I'm not talking about "NDPers"--I'm talking about Liberal-NDP swing voters. Those are people who simply never going to be political partisans, of any stripe. And pretending that people like that are "NDPers" like the true partisans is sticking our heads in the sand.

Wednesday Keller,

I actually did link to my own strategic voting guide in the post (but there it is again). I chose that one because it's not election-specific, like DemocraticSPACE's are.

rob said...

Imagine if the NDP put out accurate information about which ridings it made sense to vote NDP in, and which ones to vote Liberal in. They would never do that, but if they did, I think it would help them stop the "Soft NDP Leakage" (my term).

Anonymous said...

The problem: a Liberal campaign under Mr. Dion will make attractive proposals that appeal to the same voter pool from which the NDP draws.

So Terry Glavin asks why vote NDP, and Rogedger wants to know in which ridings it makes sense to vote NDP. The answer is that in some ridings it is essential to vote NDP, while in others it is merely useful. That is because however well-meaning Mr. Dion may be, he is always subject to rightward pressure from the Tories and from the Liberal establishment, and will only be able to keep his left-leaning promises if there is sustained and credible pressure from the left, which every NDP vote, even in unlikely ridings, helps to build. The direction from which they see the threat coming is the direction to which they address their policies in an attempt to poach votes. No threat equals no attention and no follow-through.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Do you think the Liberals would do the same for the NDP? Of course not. So let's not go slagging the NDP for not telling people to vote against their candidates in certain ridings.

Besides, that sort of thing isn't really up to the parties to do, but to non-partisan groups and individuals like Gregory Morrow from democraticSPACE. I actually have wondered whether Morrow may have made the difference in what happened in B.C.--it might be true!

JG said...

Very well said, IP. My feeling is that the (stupid) strategic voting factor will be somewhat less regardless, since there are more NDP incumbents this time around - if you're inclined to vote NDP but want to make sure to get rid of Harper, it certainly doesn't make sense to vote against your NDP MP.

As I've said before, I quite like Dion, but my ideal outcome would be a formal Liberal-NDP coalition along the lines you describe. I would have a hard time voting for Brison - Blue Liberal that he is - unless there was real danger of my riding flipping to the Tories. Yet, at this point, I think I fit into the "swing" category - but rest assured, I will always try to vote smart - not "strategically" in the mindless sense!

rob said...

I'm not slagging the NDP for not doing what I suggest (jeez you're touchy). It would be a tough message to sell to their membership, at least some of which wouldn't like any message that could be interpreted as anything other than all out suupport for all of their candidates - and that is understandable.

Of course the Liberals wouldn't do what I suggested the NDP do; the Liberals don't lose votes due to the "strategic" voting that you're talking about. They only gain those votes.

I understand that the NDP won't do what I'm suggesting, but the truth is that if they did, it would likely win them a couple of seats. The people at "democratic space" and like groups just don't have the platform that Layton does.

Declan said...

Good post. Of course strategic anti-Conservative voting isn't much of an issue here in Vancouver Centre, where there are enough non-Tory votes to go around that even if the Greens, NDP and Liberals all finished in a three way tie they would all beat the Cons, but strategic voting in general (and in specific ridings) is something I plan to make a bigger deal out of next election. Hopefully you and Greg Morrow will keep up the good work next election as well.

susansmith said...

I live in the riding of Huron Bruce in Ontario, and our long serving (suffering) liberal MP would fit nicely in Harper's Con party. In fact, he just voted to reopen the same sex marriage debate. I know feminists in this riding that vote for him out of fear that the Cons would win. This guy is also pro-life, and a gun guy. All I can see, nothing will change if people keep voting this guy in 'out of fear.' Fear of what I may add. Anyway, my point is, voting NDP in this riding gives the federal NDP money for each supposed 'wasted vote' and is one key reason not to swing your vote else where.
And I agree with pragmatic with the notion that Liberals only act as progressives when they are in a minority. The famous RED BOOK in 1993 comes to mind here.

Anonymous said...

Jan_ from_ BruceCounty: Sounds like quite the predicament you're in. In my riding I would do almost anything to keep the conservative candidate out of the house, wether that meant voting NDP, Liberal, or Green. However, at the start of the SSM debate I told myself that if my MP voted in favor of reopening the debate that I could not in good conscience vote for him or her in the next election. Fortunately, it will be a non issue, because my MP is a conservative, and I wouldn't be voting for him either way.

bza said...

Good response to that tyee article. He was obviously stretching when he said there is no reason to vote NDP. Especially in light of the Liberal record when they do get majorities.

At worse, the NDP can hold the Liberals feet to the fire and offer new progressive policy proposals. At best, well, they can be a kick ass government!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Me, touchy? Hardly. Just calling you on faulty thinking. It's not in the NDP's best interest that things go as I have described in this post--it's only in the best interest of Liberal-NDP swing voters. These groups are not identical.

Besides, the Liberals do lose when swing voters swing Liberal in ridings where the Liberals can't win and end up electing a Conservative. Every time that happens, that's one more seat for the Tories, bringing them closer to being able to form the government--the last thing Liberals want.

KevinG said...

Ha! All your votes are our! Just give-up. In fact, it would be nice if you'd just sign those votes over now. :)

I suppose there are right leaning policies that are floated but not implemented as well but likely there are fewer because the likelihood of an NDP government is lower.

I suppose it wouldn't be stretching the point to far to say that it's an argument in favor of some form of proportional representation. If the house seats were allocated closer to voter intention, the leading party would have to compromise with people outside the party and not just with factions inside the party.

rob said...

Me, touchy? Hardly. Just calling you on faulty thinking.

You're really arrogant sometimes. I could take it if you were right, but since you aren't, you may want to think about toning that down.

It's not in the NDP's best interest that things go as I have described in this post

That isn't what I was talking about. My suggestion would have the most NDP'ers elected, because they wouldn't have "strategic" voters fleeing them in ridings that didn't make sense.

TheIronist said...

I am, like Idealistic Pragmatist, an American who chooses to reside in Canada. I never felt quite so much at home until I left my place of origin and started a new life in Toronto. I’ve been here for six years now and am happy to report that the bulk of that time has been spent in the employment of the New Democrats. Remember that where I’m from there is no such option as the NDP. That’s why one of the more perplexing things about my living here is the double standard to which the party is held. I just don’t get it, and may never will. For instance, if I have to read one more article by a left wing writer about how Jack Layton needs to support or prop up the Liberal Party I think I might have to scream.

Just today I read in the Toronto Now an article by Alice Klein calling for this very thing ( It seems that in Canada, nothing the Liberal Party does or fails to do is ever held against it. All it need do is reposition itself (on a dime) and suddenly history itself is effaced. "Look," it says, "we have a new leader. Our record means nothing now. Our scandals, our lies, our failures to act, our institutional links to corporate Canada and to big money in general, mean absolutely nothing!"
And the most confounding part of all of it is that the public goes for it. Not just the average apoltical schmo, mind you, but New Democrats! Meanwhile, the NDP is held responsible for every mistake, real or imagined, it has ever made.

So here is what I know. I've worked in several campaigns for the NDP and I know firsthand that the Liberals are nastier and more partisan than Jack Layton will ever be. The moment writers like Alice Klein begin to call for the Liberals to not run candidates in ridings where there are sitting NDP MPs is the moment I begin to take her seriously. When she proclaims, for instance, that Gerard Kennedy should back away from his plans (to attempt) to unseat the impressive and progressive NDP MP Peggy Nash. Or when Liberal heavyweights take their sights off of the riding of Ottawa Centre, where again, there is already able, progressive representation in the form of Paul Dewar. But who among us really expects Klein, or any of the other double-standard bearers for the Canadian left, to do such a thing?

An American In Canada