Though the cartoon above sort of sabotages my point below, it still describes the Canadian campaign in a nutshell, doesn’t it? The above cartoon is courtesy MacKay Editorial Cartoons and is reprinted with permission.
As Conservatives and Liberals dance this election campaign, with the former leading by anywhere between five and eleven percentage points, there are some individuals who fear a Harper government so much, they believe extraordinary measures should be taken.
Consider this post by the blogger Steve V. Understandably concerned that the Conservatives could well form a majority government with just 37% of the vote, what with the “progressive” vote split between the Liberals, the Greens and the New Democrats, he calls upon “the left” to do what “the right” so successfully did in 2004: unite into a single party that would launch Stephen Harper into the prime minister’s chair barely two years later.
It’s time for compromise, it’s time to think beyond our limited self-interest and embrace a united alternative. That alternative becomes more attractive if people engage, because their presence actually changes what they resisted in the first place. Imagine if every riding association was inundated with former Green and NDP workers, does anyone think that wouldn’t change the Liberal Party, does anyone think a progressive voice wouldn’t be stronger, does anyone think the party wouldn’t morph into something else. So long as nobody assumes absolute adherence to old doctrines, it would be the first and biggest step to taking back our country, the minority conservatives put in their rightful place, electoral obscurity, apart from a rump here and there. It’s only the lesser of two evils if everyone is scattered, if we were to unite behind one party, I suspect it would seem far more credible and accountable, so that the principles do become practice, give and take aside.
There are a couple of problems with Steve V’s assumptions. A significant one is that the Liberals aren’t really a party of the left, they are a party of the centre. He forgets that there are a number of Liberals who wouldn’t tolerate shifting the party further left than it is. These people could well swing to the Conservatives, strengthening rather than weakening the enemy as he hopes.
But Steve V is not alone on the Liberal side. A number of partisan Liberals look to the New Democrats and the Greens and salivate over the voters (as much as 28% of the electorate at last count) that they believe belong to them. They’ve expressed their desire to snatch those votes in a number of ways — calling for a debate between “only two people have a serious chance of being prime minister after October 14” (Dion and Harper), calling the Greens “fringe voters”, accusing Jack Layton of propping up the Harper government when Dion himself ducked 43 chances to topple the government.
I find these sentiments to be arrogant and undemocratic — the very sense of Liberal entitlement that made me gleefully vote to bring them down in 2006. Despite the Liberals being a party of the centre, when they call for a “unite the left” movement, they expect that those NDP and Green voters subvert their democratic aspirations, using lines like “Jack can never win” or “Elizabeth May can never get a seat” and “you’re stealing our votes and letting Stephen Harper win”. Indeed, I’m reminded of the West Wing episode when Josh Lyman rails at a supporter of a third party candidate:
“You know he’s not going to win, and he’s taking away our votes!!”
“They’re not your votes.”
Merging distinct parties, whether it be to unite “the right” or “the left”, is an attempt to reduce the number of legitimate choices for voters. It’s an artificial polarization of our country, which is full of voters who aren’t always progressive, and aren’t always conservative. It’s an attempt to silence credible voices on the left and right in the one place it matters: Parliament Hill.
Steve V says it’s time for the New Democrats and Greens to compromise their principles and vote Liberal. People do say, politics is the art of compromise, and I believe that, but various movements to reduce our choices goes beyond such sentiment. Essentially being told to sit down and shut up isn’t compromise, it’s surrender. I firmly believe that more damage would be done to this country should a “unite-the-(center)-left” movement succeed than if Stephen Harper successfully obtained a majority government in this election. It would be the unite the left movement that would have succeeded in silencing voices in this country. It would be the unite the left movement that would cut choices in this democracy.
“You’re either left or you’re right” these people are saying. “You have to choose one or the other”. No, you don’t. And I’ll go to the wall to defend that right.
I believed that the unite the right movement was equally wrong-headed, as I suspected it would mean that red tories such as myself would have little part to play in the new “big tent” Conservative party. It’s important to note that the Conservatives as a single party have yet to receive more votes than they did as two parties between 1993 and 2003. A “big tent” Liberal party will either eliminate voices on the left or, worse, voices on the centre. In the United States, the country is badly polarized because the political system artificially divides the country into two camps. Both the Democratic and especially the Republican parties are tarred by the whackos on the fringe. No party really speaks for moderates anymore, and moderates end up having to throw their lot in with one set of loons or the other.
If you’re upset at the prospect that the Conservatives might win a majority government with just 37% of the vote, that’s understandable. But I have a two word solution for you: proportional representation. That’s what this country needs. It’s time to stop trying to forge artificial majorities by limiting the choices available to voters. It’s time to allow the minority voices to be heard. It’s time for Liberals to compromise and campaign to redesign the system so that the other parties have a place at the table.
Strategic Voting, on the Other Hand…
It should be noted that it’s entirely possible that people currently supporting the NDP and the Greens may move to the Liberals of their own accord because they fear the prospect of a Conservative majority. I have no problem with that. That is their democratic right. Likewise, given that in 2006, Jack Layton asked former Liberals to lend him their votes, it’s reasonable for someone like Bob Rae to suggest that those votes be loaned back to the Liberals, especially in key ridings to defeat high profile Conservatives like John Baird and Jim Flaherty.
What the people choose to do at the end of the day is their own business, and how politicians choose to campaign up to the end of the day is their business. As long as the ballots aren’t tampered with, the end result is still democratic.
So, let’s just hope that if centre-left voters do decide to vote strategically against a Conservative majority, that they do so with an eye to the unique conditions of their riding. For instance, if you want to topple a Conservative in rural Ontario, you may have little choice but to vote Liberal, but if you want to topple a Conservative in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, or Edmonton-Strathcona or Oshawa, then the answer may be to vote NDP.