Dear bedfellow

An open letter to New Democrats, Greens, and progressive Liberals

By Lorne Brown

February 2007

Selective co-operation among parties in several dozen constituencies could deny Stephen Harper control of the country in the next election.

Much of what I am about to say would be unnecessary if Canada had a system of proportional representation like most countries claiming to be democracies. A proportional representation system would ensure that the percentage of seats allocated to each party in Parliament actually reflects the percentage of Canadians who voted for that party. Canada, however, like the United States and Great Britain, still uses the old “winner take all” system, in which only voters who support the most popular candidate in their riding are represented in Ottawa. Given Canada’s geographical and cultural peculiarities, this virtually guarantees that even most so-called “majority” governments are elected by a minority of the population.

The present Harper minority government, for example, received only about 36 percent of the popular vote. Even with a minority, this government has already seriously damaged the social fabric of Canada and ruined our reputation abroad. Harper and his crew have scuttled child care, abandoned programs for women and the poor, renounced the Kelowna Accord and the Kyoto Protocol, and are busy dismantling the federal state as fast as they dare. They have also committed us to what is rapidly turning into a quagmire in Afghanistan, adopted a totally pro-Israel stance in the Middle East, and declared Canadian solidarity with American imperial intentions in numerous ways.

All of this in a single year, with only a minority. Imagine how much further they would go without the threat of another election always only a no-confidence vote away?

A Conservative majority government would change Canada beyond recognition. They would privatize everything they could get away with, potentially including the CBC, the Post Office, medicare and the Canada Pension Plan. The economic powers of the federal state would be gutted and we would be thoroughly integrated into the US economy. Our foreign and military policies would be indistinguishable from the US. Civil liberties would be fiercely attacked, the courts politicized and the prison population greatly increased. An unfettered Conservative government could well provoke the secession of Quebec because there would be no incentive to remain part of Canada.

A Harper majority government in 2007 is both a real possibility and, for progressives, a nightmare scenario. I fear that too many of us are overly complacent in assuming it will not happen. The Left spent much of the last century underestimating the Right“”to their great cost and the detriment of the majority. Progressive people in Canada must challenge the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens to stop playing sectarian games and begin treating voters like intelligent adults.

Intelligent and informed people know that the ideological differences between the major parties are not very significant. We also know that the old NDP dream of replacing the Liberals as one of the two major parties is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. We know as well that the Greens are unlikely to elect any MPs in the coming election unless they were to be backed by other parties in a few key ridings. And the Liberals, who are likely to remain shut out of most of Alberta and Saskatchewan and more than half of Quebec, can probably achieve a minority government at most.

Most importantly, we know that outside of Alberta, most Conservative seats were won in 2006 by a plurality“”and often a small one“”because of the non-Conservative votes being divided among three and, in the case of Quebec, four other parties.

This leads me to my proposal for the coming election. Progressives across the country must mount a pressure campaign to convince Liberals, Greens and New Democrats to co-operate in ridings where such co-operation can defeat a Conservative. This will not apply in some urban seats in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere, where the main fight is between the Liberals and the NDP, with the Conservatives a distant third. And it is not relevant in most of Alberta and a few seats in Saskatchewan and elsewhere where Conservatives have won the last two elections by large margins. But selective co-operation among parties in several dozen constituencies could deny Stephen Harper control of the country.

If, however, the NDP, Greens and Liberals insist on carrying on in their old sectarian ways, people should take matters into their own hands. Non-partisan committees should be formed to campaign on behalf of strategic voting and back the candidates“”assuming such people are reasonably progressive“”most likely to defeat Conservatives.

In Saskatchewan, for example, there are several constituencies where this strategy would make sense. The Conservatives now hold three of the four constituencies in and around Regina and Moose Jaw by fairly narrow pluralities. The fourth, Wascana, is held by Liberal Ralph Goodale by a very large majority, and he will certainly win again. In two of the other three seats, Regina-Qu’appelle and Palliser, the NDP are the obvious challengers and could easily win if enough Liberals and Greens see the writing on the wall. In the fourth, Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre, the Liberals came in second in 2004 and the NDP in 2006 but the two parties are grouped very close together and either one might be able to defeat the Conservatives depending upon the candidate and local issues. A strategic voting détente might involve the Liberals backing off in two seats and the NDP in the other two. And if the parties will not co-operate, a non-partisan committee of concerned citizens should appeal directly to the public to vote strategically.

In ridings across the country, similar opportunities for strategic intervention can be found“”and the two recent elections will provide concerned voters with plenty of election data to analyze in determining whether strategic voting makes sense, and if so, where to throw their anyone-but-Harper vote.

The most we can hope for from the next election is a Liberal minority, preferably dependent upon NDP support to govern. In such a case, the Greens (should they elect anyone) and the NDP should demand proportional representation as a price for their support so that in future elections people can vote their preferences rather than their fears.

Lorne Brown is a labour historian and occasional political activist.

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