Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The NDP and the strategic voting narrative

Given the nature of our electoral system in Canada the shadow of "strategic voting" hangs over many provincial elections and basically all federal contests since 1988, including the upcoming one. Voters, genuinely and rightly scared of the possibility of Harper being reelected to a second majority term, will often begin to think in terms of which party is best poised to defeat his government.

There is little doubt that in the event of a minority parliament the Liberals and the New Democrats (along, one would assume, with the Greens) would work together in a more or less formal way to prevent another Harper administration. No amount of partisan silliness from those inclined towards one-or-the-other of these parties will change the fact that Canadians know this to be true and that it factors into their political thinking.

In an piece about how Justin Trudeau might govern in a minority situation, Paul Adams outlined why, despite some assertions to the contrary, if necessary it is obvious that Trudeau would be far, far more likely to work with the NDP as opposed to with Harper:
Right now, it seems very unlikely Trudeau could win a majority — so let’s look at the two most likely Liberal minority government scenarios, each of which is likely to produce a different style of government. 
The first scenario is what would happen if the current polls were to hold through election day. The Conservatives would end up with the largest number of seats, but not enough for a majority. In this scenario, the pressure on the opposition parties — all of whom are campaigning on getting rid of Harper — to get together and dump him would be enormous. Whatever Trudeau’s pronouncements before the election on coalescing with the NDP, he would pay a huge political price if he were seen to be propping up the Harper Conservatives. 
In this case, Trudeau would have to make some sort of arrangement with the NDP to take power. And that arrangement would have a progressive cast — on taxes and pensions, perhaps. Take a look at the agreement the Liberals crafted with the NDP in their ill-fated 2008 bid to oust Harper. It was sculpted to address the economic crisis of the time, but it gives us a hint of what a future Lib-NDP pact might look like. (The 2008 bid failed, by the way, not because its progressive policies were unpopular, but because of the frail leadership of Stéphane Dion and its reliance on parliamentary support from the Bloc Québécois.) 
The other scenario sees the Liberals win more seats than the Conservatives, which would allow them to take power without an agreement with any other party. In this situation, Trudeau almost certainly would try to govern with an eye to calling another election before long and making his bid for a majority.
The same, I think it is very safe to say, is true of Tom Mulcair. It is basically impossible, despite the attempts of Liberal partisans to point, somewhat misleadingly, to the 2004 letter that Jack Layton signed with then opposition leader Harper, to see a scenario in which he would prop up a Harper government instead of seeking to work with the Liberals and Greens or, should the NDP win more seats than any other party, doing what Adams suggests Trudeau would do in that circumstance.

These political realities are why so many progressive voters intentions end up being predicated, for-better-or-worse, on the idea that they should seek to "Stop Harper" or vote with an eye to making Election Day "Harper's Last Day".

What is less clear is how and why the NDP and its partisans have allowed the strategic voting narrative to again revert to being seen, essentially, as one that somehow naturally means voting Liberal or as one that would primarily benefit the Liberals.

In the latter case, it should be perfectly clear that any sincere strategic voting campaign would benefit the NDP far more than any other party for the rather obvious reason that they hold significantly more seats in parliament than either the Liberals or Greens. 59 more seats than the Liberals in fact.

It would be simply ludicrous to call for "strategic voting" against incumbents!

Thus, a genuine strategic voting campaign of whatever type would have people voting for a New Democrat in, at a minimum, 95 seats as its starting point. Were such a campaign to succeed, in other words, the NDP would be virtually guaranteed to again win significantly more seats than either the Liberals or Greens.

In the past, the fact that Liberals had far more incumbents in parliament (whether as opposition or while in government) formed the basis of their ability to morph strategic voting and getting people to "hold their nose" and vote for the "lesser-of-evils" into de facto calls to vote Liberal. The logic of the appeal being that they were the clear alternative to the Conservatives (or, for a time, the Reform Party) not so much for ideological reasons as for the reason that they could win in far more ridings.

While no Liberal leader ever did, or would, call for actual strategic voting, (as no leader of a major political party outside of a formal electoral alliance would ever  advocate voting against some their own candidates and nor should they be expected to), they and their partisans were well aware that such calls would be primarily of benefit to them.

On its face, this should now be true for the New Democrats. Yet it is clearly not. Strategic voting still seems to be framed in our discourse as meaning, in most cases, as voting for or benefiting the Liberals.

One might expect New Democrat partisans to, while obviously not technically backing actual strategic voting, seek to make the narrative as one that made Canadians naturally think that it meant voting for the NDP as the Liberals did for themselves in the past.

For the most part, however, New Democrat partisans and commentators oppose strategic voting not with a gentle nudge-and-a-wink but with a ferocity that seems totally self-destructive.

As a personal example, when I wrote a piece recently that not so much favoured strategic voting (as I am actually completely opposed to it) but rather pointed out that it is a necessary tactic if your primary political goal is the defeat of Harper above all other considerations, it was not Liberals who were angry about it, it was overwhelmingly New Democrats.

This would be totally counter-intuitive were it not for the fact that strategic voting remains, in their view, despite the existing reality of parliament, as basically still a call to vote Liberal and as long as they continue to see it as such, and allow it to be framed in the broader consciousness as such, that is what it will be.

It is somewhat understandable why they feel this way. After the 2011 election, and with the death of Jack Layton, the polls slowly but surely shifted, despite the NDP's almost over-the-top efforts to present themselves as mature and "ready to govern", back in the Liberal's favour and their new seeming saviour of a leader, Trudeau, did all that he could to reassert the Liberal brand as the one real "alternative".

Despite the objective reality of what actual strategic voting would mean, again he has and will try to frame voting to "Stop Harper" as meaning "vote Liberal".

However, in fact, believing this to be what it means not only aids in obfuscating the actual composition of parliament but it also capitulates to this view and may actually help to facilitate a Liberal renaissance.

Old political narratives, it seems, die very hard. While New Democrats should be framing strategic voting as not something to be denounced but as in essence meaning a vote for them, it is as if a bizarre combination of truly blind partisanship and an inferiority complex is holding them back. Like they have even themselves never accepted their rise as the new political reality. As if they do not realize that "strategic voting" would mean they start at a base of 95 seats!

If the NDP themselves do not think that they are the "natural" alternative to Harper, as a low key, past Liberal style embrace of strategic voting would imply, why would anyone else?

New Democrats should seek to shift the strategic voting narrative so that it reflects the actually existing present parliamentary situation as opposed to denouncing (and thereby also alienating) its proponents as Liberal "dupes" or with some total nonsense about the Liberals and Tories being the "same" that, frankly, absolutely no one outside of the cult believes anymore.

Otherwise they are accepting the way strategic voting was framed in past elections. If they do not want outcomes like those of 1988  or 1993 they need to stop acting as if the political paradigms of those elections remain true today.

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