case study: electoral cooperation, ladies and gentlemen, in labrador

Electoral cooperation has probably never seen as much mainstream media coverage in Canada as it’s seeing now. First the Calgary Centre byelection, then Joyce Murray’s bid for Liberal leadership, now the Labrador byelection. Those last two things are actually linked: Murray’s support comes significantly from the grassroots push for electoral cooperation and electoral reform by way of organisations like Fair Vote Canada, Leadnow and the David Suzuki Foundation. Now Murray has (allegedly) asked Green leader Elizabeth May not to run a candidate in Labrador. The Green Party is not only not running a candidate in that riding, it then called on the NDP to similarly stand aside/down so that the so-called ‘progressive vote’ can unite behind the Liberal candidate in order to defeat the Conservative candidate.

Fun fact: the Conservative candidate in question is Peter Penashue – the former MP of Labrador, and the same guy whose 28 “improper donations” receipt led to his resignation and hence the byelection in the first place. I mean. Politics…

Annnnyway. You’re probably thinking, “And this is interesting how?” Well, in the 2011 federal election Penashue’s victory margin was a measly 79 votes over the 2nd-place Liberal candidate. Labrador could be the poster child of swing ridings. So it’s (probs) gonna be a close one again. The big question then:

Is electoral cooperation important or even relevant in this byelection?

On the one hand, yes, absolutely. The small victory margin in 2011 means that the so-called progressive vote appears to have once again split over 2.5 parties, allowing the Cons to seize power. (Yeah I’ll explain later in this post why I keep saying “so-called”.) If the Greens and NDP both stand down, their supporters will tend to vote Liberal rather than Conservative, allowing the Liberals to take this one.

On the other hand, electoral cooperation in this case would be mainly symbolic. Even without Labrador the Cons still have a majority in the House of Commons. The Greens raked in a grand total of 1.1% of the popular vote in this riding last time, so cooperation is no biggie for them. In fact, it saves them a ton of money by not campaigning and also makes them look good as they demonstrate Electoral Cooperation in Action! The NDP is, understandably, not as thrilled. Actually it outright rejected the idea. I mean, it is the Royal Opposition for the first time in history, and complying with this request would be tightening its own noose by letting the Liberals waltz in to grab a seat.

And that’s one of the main criticisms I hear about Green support for electoral cooperation: that the Green Party stands to lose next to nothing, while the NDP and Liberal Party, which run relatively more viable candidates in most ridings, stand to lose a lot. What some people seem to forget, though, is that the ousting of Harper and the Conservatives is only a necessary intermediate step on our way to electoral reform. That is, electoral cooperation, if it happens in the 2015 election, will be a one-time deal that temporarily removes the Conservatives and puts into power a government that will pass electoral reform – scrapping the current and antiquated single member plurality system (commonly known as first-past-the-post, or FPTP) in favour of a form of proportional representation. Ousting Harper, satisfying though it will be, is not the be all and end all of this pact.

The NDP need to be reminded of that, I think. The biggest threat to its power right now are the Liberals, not the Conservatives. So despite previous public support for electoral reform, I doubt very much it’s gonna play nice to achieve that goal. The Liberals never supported electoral reform to begin with, since FPTP had been doing quite well for them up until recently, thankyouverymuch. Frontrunner for the Liberal leadership Justin Trudeau has been very vocal in opposing electoral cooperation too, so neither cooperation nor reform are likely from the Liberals. As Mat Savelli said in our interview for my thesis, the scenario that might elicit reform is a Liberal minority government given an ultimatum by the NDP to reform or face a vote of no confidence. That would require the NDP to view reform as a high enough priority.

As everyone always points out, FPTP favours parties in power. That’s why it’s so freakin hard to reform the system through legislation – the government in power, by definition, is unlikely to want reform. So ultimately we’re screwed, since various referenda haven’t gotten us very far.

Last thing: Why do I keep putting ‘progressive vote’ in inverted commas and calling it ‘so-called’? Because the concept of a progressive block, or a united group of left-wing voters, is false, and also because I absolutely do not consider the Liberal party progressive. But the media peddle the idea of a unified left, and a lot of progressive voters who are seriously sick of Harper and the Conservatives want to believe in the existence of such unity. They want to believe that all non-Conservative supporters have an ABC preference – Anything But Conservative. Unfortunately, not true. Personally for me, it’s mainly that I see the Liberals as a very centrist party with far, far more in common in terms of policy with the Conservatives than with either the NDP or the Greens.


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