Electoral Cooperation sounds great… except for the part where I don’t get a choice

As a longtime Green, I’ve been following the Liberal leadership pretty closely.  Obviously environmental issues are important to me, but so are issues of good governance, fiscal responsibility and strong social programs. I also see typically Conservative values like smaller government and fiscal restraint as core Green values. Having said this, I think arguably Greens are still at their core an environmental party. As such, many Greens are on the “ABC” bandwagon – Anything But Conservative. The Liberals are the only party likely to defeat The Conservatives, as such it stands to reason that in the wake of particularly brutal Conservative attacks on the environment, Greens may suffer some losses to an invigorated Liberal party. A recent informal poll bears this out, indicating that an astounding 35% of Greens would vote for Justin Trudeau if he were leader of The Liberal Party.

Another issue that has become front and center in this race is electoral cooperation. Prominent Greens, NGO’s and celebrities have all been touting this idea and throwing their support behind Joyce Murray – a competent if underwhelming candidate who is now surging in this wave of ideological cooperation glee. Hey – after all, it worked for the Conservatives, right? While “Uniting the Left” and restoring all that is right and good in the world is an attractive idea, something just does not feel right to me.

One of the biggest simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of left-leaning social liberals is their faith in humanity, and by extension, human nature.  “The Left” is a very large disparate group made up of a lot of different ideas. There is no greater enemy of truth than idealism. But let’s face it, most of us are idealists, and will not give up our party affiliations that easily -  no matter how rational the arguments.

Another recent poll bears out that while many may be amenable to some form of cooperation, many are not. If the parties on the left decide that they will merge, not compete or cooperate in some way, broad consensus on this decision is simply not practical. This begs the question, if you have your traditional choice taken away from you and you are left with either a coalition you didn’t ask for or voting for a party whose ideals you disagree with, what choice will you make? I suspect many will simply stay home. When you add in the folks that stay home, some interesting things happen. I did some quick analysis based on the aforementioned polls, so let’s have a look at the numbers.  First, I made a few assumptions:

  1. If a given percentage said they were for a certain co-operation, I assumed those who did not indicate approval would not vote for a cooperation party.
  2. For argument’s sake I assumed 1/3 of disaffected “leftists” would defect to “The Right”, and a proportionate number of right-leaning voters would move left.
  3. I assumed the balance would stay home.

Figure 1 is the 2011 Canadian Election Results. As we know, The Conservatives won a majority with less than 40% of the vote. When you factor in non-voters, it’s less than 25% of the vote.  Clearly, not voting is bad for democracy. Many do not vote because they feel the current system does not represent them.


Liberal Candidate Joyce Murray, as well as many high-profile NGO’s, Greens and celebrities have been talking co-operation. In Figure 2, we see what I assume they must imagine co-operation looks like.  Murray isn’t talking much about working with The Greens, and would arguably roll The Liberals into The NDP. As such, I sent 35% of Greens over to the New-Democratic Liberals.

This makes a couple of dangerous assumptions. The first, in the case of backing Murray as Liberal leader, is the assumption that she can actually win against Harper! Consider what happened the last two times Liberals chose candidates strong on policy for lack of a candidate with popular appeal. The second assumption is that a merger will not alienate large swaths of their traditional base.  Nobody likes being told what to do. Here’s what I suspect that would really look like:

Man, Figure 3 looks pretty grim, if you were betting the farm on co-operation to kick The Conservatives out of office. Here we end up with an even stronger Conservative majority with even less voter engagement, and a democracy that is even sicker than it was to begin with. What this data tells me is that The Left does not lose because The Right Wins, they lose because too many have stopped caring!

I’m not going to make predictions on how the next election will turn out. I do know this: The NDP is the strongest they have ever been, The Greens are making surprising inroads in Ontario, BC and even in Calgary Center. Recent polls put a Trudeau Liberal Party in Majority territory. So, what is the left doing wrong? One thing is for certain, taking choice away, regardless of how altruistic the motives, is never a good option. The Conservatives thrive on voter apathy and a proposed merger is a recipe to hand it to them on a platter.

Many on what would be considered “the left” tend to think that sensible policies and goodwill will ultimately win the day. Regrettably, in reality it boils down to what Trudeau retorted when Marc Garneau accused him of being weak on policy: “It’s about being able to win”. Winning elections has never been about policy, it’s about capturing the imagination of the electorate. The Conservatives do it with fear, but the most powerful way to do it is with vision. The “left split” is simply a cop-out for a failure to deliver vision. Unless we start seeing the trees for the forest, we will remain lost in the wilderness.

So, what do we do? Well, to leverage the over-quoted leftist Gandhi mantra, we must “be the change”. There is still a 40% piece of electoral pie up for grabs. If the left wants to win, we need to sell our vision to the disenfranchised. They are tired of rhetoric and division, so let’s be different by actually being different. We can still cooperate by sharing ideas and stopping the partisan rhetoric – by doing politics differently. If the left is not winning, it’s because we need to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work, fight and win the ground war. We need sell the vision of a better world – that is how to restore and preserve all that is right with the world.

My views are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CMM Greens or the Green Party. Visit acaldwell.ca for more.

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