March 2012
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In support of Nathan Cullen

It’s been a while since I posted something here. I wanted to post analyses of the various Provincial elections that took place throughout Canada last year, after the Federal election… as usual, the results were fertile ground for showing just how awful our voting system is and how it skews voter intention in the seat allocations. Frankly, it’s depressing, and given various other stresses I’ve been under, I just couldn’t get my head into it.

The unfortunate passing of Jack Layton last year has led to the NDP now having a race for a new leader.  And out of the many candidates, one stands out to me: Nathan Cullen.

Before the last election I wrote an open letter to Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff, and Elizabeth May – which I doubt any actually read, but I posted it anyway – which described how I felt that working together strategically in various ridings was the best way to give Canadians a progressive, working government, and a path towards electoral reform.  My thinking was – and still is – that:

  • sharing power between the NDP, Liberals, and Greens is still better than them having no power at all if the Conservatives won a false majority.
  • working together would engage traditional non-voters who have grown accustomed to their voice not counting under FPTP, and result in higher turnouts.
  • we could see politics in Canada become one where reasoned argument and compromise would be the basis of legislation, rather than the dogma of one party.
  • voters wouldn’t feel like they had to vote for the lesser of two evils, be threatened that they needed to vote a certain way, even if it wasn’t their first choice, or – as many tried – entertain notions of vote-swapping in a loosely-organized effort. Instead, the parties worked strategically so voters didn’t have to.

Obviously, this failed to transpire, and we can see the results today in a Parliament comprised of a majority of Conservatives who received 39% of the vote, and record-low turnout at the polls.  My letter was written before the decline of the Bloc in Quebec, and the rise of the NDP in that province, but I think the principle still stands on its own merits – after all, the NDP gains outside of Quebec were quite modest… vote-splitting in Ontario was a major factor in giving the Conservatives a majority.

Nathan Cullen

Charismatic, fluent in English and French, world-wise, experienced campaigner against Conservative candidates, a champion for the environment, and a sincere backer of Proportional Representation, I think Nathan Cullen would be an ideal leader.

But there’s more – he has a plan to win that doesn’t rely on blind hope and fighting against the Greens, Liberals, and Conservatives – the old-fashioned politics that have led us to this state where the unified right profits from a fractured left under our broken First-Past-the-Post electoral system. He wants to cooperate strategically; pretty much the same thing I was hoping for last year.

In a nutshell, he proposes that in Conservative-held ridings, the riding associations decide in conjunction with the Liberals and Greens whether they want to field a single candidate between them, and vote on which.  With clear communication to their supporters in that riding as to why they’re doing this, the goal is that their candidate will win over the Conservatives where before vote-splitting cost them, and led to Harper’s majority.

Brian Topp, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash, and the other candidates dismiss this strategy, outright or without seeming to grasp the elegance of the plan.  They think that Liberal supporters, denied a Liberal candidate in their riding, would instead vote Conservative in great numbers (some say as much as 50%!) – or NDP supporters, denied an NDP candidate, would do the same.

I think they’re wrong, and not giving these voters enough credit. The voters in these ridings aren’t stupid. These are voters who absolutely know how vote-splitting has given the Conservatives a majority of seats, and I think many of them are not happy with this situation.  Given a solution that might give their party a voice in government – even if it means they have to vote for “the other guy” – I think most would jump at the chance.  And I think apathetic non-voters in those ridings might vote as well.

Another argument is that denying an NDP supporter the chance to vote for an NDP candidate is unthinkable. To this, I’d simply say – our voting system is what has denies the NDP a voice in government. By not working strategically, by letting them vote NDP when doing so has a high probability of splitting the vote – that is what has cost the NDP and Liberals a voice. If you explain to those voters why you’re doing this (and as I said above, I think most would understand), they’ll accept it.  Particularly if the joint candidate runs with a combined party label (eg. “Bob Smith – (Liberal/NDP/Green Joint Nomination)”).

EKOS polling data just before the last election included information about voter’s second preferences – with that data, I previously simulated how an election using the Alternative Vote might have turned out.  But it was clear from the raw data that the majority of Green, Liberal, and NDP supporters had either another of those parties as a second choice – only about 15% of each would have chosen the Conservatives second.  This is quite different than the “50%” number – these people are progressive-leaning, and want a progressive government.

I would strongly recommend reading Stuart Parker’s study of Nathan Cullen’s proposal – The Logistics of Cooperation – for an in-depth explanation and analysis of the idea.  But in summary, he concluded that at best, 35 seats could be switched from Conservative to a cooperating party – at worst, they’d stay Conservative-held, which is exactly the same outcome as if no cooperation were attempted anyway. In my mind, why not try it?

(Of course, the NDP shouldn’t rely on this strategy alone, and Cullen doesn’t propose that. They’d still need to push for more of the rural vote across the prairies and the maritimes, for example – traditional Conservative strongholds. But fighting the Liberals and Greens tooth-and-nail should not be relied on; this just benefits the Conservatives)

Tomorrow I hope to post an analysis I did of my own, based on the election results and the “second choice” selections of voters, to illustrate how Cullen’s proposal might work.

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