Stalemate: On the By-Elections

Last night’s three by-elections produced…the status quo. The Conservatives held their two seats, and the NDP held their one.

Nonetheless, there’s good and bad news for every party in the results:

Conservatives
Good News: They held their 2 seats, winning convincingly in Durham, and still pulling 37% in Calgary-Centre with a controversial candidate.
Bad News: Their vote share dropped substantially in Calgary-Centre, supporting the idea that it could become competitive. They lost a significant share of votes in Victoria, as well, dropping to a distant third.

NDP
Good News: They held on to Victoria, and held their second place standing in Durham, gaining vote share to put further distance between them and the third place Liberals.
Bad News: Their vote share was down 13% in Victoria and they nearly lost what should have been a safe seat. They lost 11% in Calgary-Centre, finishing a distant fourth with less than 4% of the vote. Even though they were a clear second in Durham, they’re still nowhere near competing to win.

Liberals
Good News: They finished a strong second in Calgary-Centre, up 15% in vote share from 2011. The comments from David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau may have stalled their momentum, if they had any significant impact at all, but they didn’t cause the vote to crater. Harvey Locke finished on the high end of where the three polls conducted had him placed. Vote share-wise, they at least stopped their bleeding in Durham and Victoria.
Bad News: They got fewer votes cumulatively in the three ridings than the Greens, and were not a factor in either Durham or Victoria (where they finished third and fourth, respectively). There’s an argument to be made, as Colby did, that they simply turned out the loyal base in Calgary-Centre.

Greens
Good News: They finished a strong second in Victoria, nearly tripling their vote share from 2011, and a strong third in Calgary-Centre, where they more than doubled their share.
Bad News: Not much, actually. Both Donald Galloway (Victoria) and Chris Turner (Calgary-Centre) are strong candidates with local profile, so it would remain to be seen if they could hold their gains without these candidates running again in 2015.

3 Things We Might Have Learned
By-Elections Can Rarely Be Extrapolated for Broader Trends
It’s tempting to look for trends (A Green Wave in Western Canada? Stalled NDP growth? Liberals hit their ceiling? Conservatives drop votes?)

There may be local trends to watch, though. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the Greens could be growing a beachhead on Vancouver Island (Liz May’s riding is next door), in Calgary, the Liberals still have life, and Chris Turner has local appeal, and Durham is rock solid Tory country.

The Political Climate is Still Unsettled
2011 may yet prove to be a realignment election, but further movement to solidify that was absent from last night’s result. The Liberals held their share in two ridings, and nearly doubled it in another. The Green Party saw the major growth last night, not the ascendant NDP. As mentioned, they themselves nearly lost an incumbent seat, and barely factored in another.

What I take this to mean is that we’re in an unsettled period, and while a two-party CPC-NDP system may be the end result, it’s still too fluid to call.

The Vote-Splitting and Unite-the-Left Arguments Miss the Point
In Calgary-Centre particularly, vote splitting was named as the cause of the Conservative Party victory. Let me be unequivocally clear: no party lost because of vote splitting. They lost because of a failure to appeal to and/or turn out enough voters. No party of the left will win unless they understand this.

As the Conservative Party experiment teaches us, 1+1 does not = 2. I put together a table of votes by party from 1984-2011, combining the ‘right’ and ‘left’ vote. For the latter, there’s a column for it with and without the Green Party. As you can see, it took three elections for the CPC to reach the combined vote of the PCs and Canadian Alliance from 2000. The party has never reached the vote share earned by the PCs in 1988. 1993, in fact, saw a major shift from the NDP to the Reform across Western Canada, which would seem incomprehensible if voters made decisions strictly on ideological grounds. This piece makes a good argument that last night, the Greens gained, more than anyone else, from Conservative losses. Rather than being seen as a third pillar of the progressive/left, the Greens, like the Bloc, probably pull from all across the spectrum, or at worst, being a safe place to park a protest vote.

There is some merit to the argument when examined another way. Rather than looking at votes in raw numbers, we need to examine voting coalitions. Our system, for better or worse, rewards brokerage parties – those that appeal to a broad spectrum of interests. When I have argued in previous posts that no progressive/left-centre party can form a majority government, it’s based on the fact that none of them have a broad enough coalition. Merger may bring this about, but it’s likely that voters from one or both previous parties would park their votes elsewhere, or stay home. The same would happen with attrition. Strategic voting, or dividing ridings won’t accomplish this, but brokerage will.

The way to a progressive government in this country is for one of the three current options to find a way to appeal to enough citizens and interests groups to form a coalition that can appeal to 40-45% of voters on a regular basis. The big lesson for me from last night is that the window for either the NDP, Liberals, or Greens to accomplish this is still wide open.

The Left’s Calgary-Centre Challenge

Tomorrow, three by-elections occur across Canada. In two – the Conservative stronghold of Durham, and Victoria, where the NDP have won comfortably the past three elctions – the incumbent party is expected to win by a large margin. The third, Calgary-Centre, has unexpectedly turned into a hotly contested race.

Calgary, as a city, last elected a non-conservative MP (PC/Reform/Alliance/CPC) in 1968. The closest thing to a disruption occured in this riding in 2000, when the non-Canadian Alliance vote coalesced around Progressive Conservative Party leader Joe Clark, boosting him to victory.

Now, the riding appears to be close. The Conservatives opened the door to a challenge by nominating a controversial candidate in Joan Crockett, and exacerbated it by shielding her from most public forums. All three opposition parties nominated strong candidates in their own right – the Liberals with notable conservationist Harvey Locke, the NDP with Dan Meades, the Director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, and the Greens with notable author Chris Turner. (Personal disclosure: I have some acquaintance with Harvey Locke, and serve on a board with his wife).

Two polls from Forum Research show a potential three-way race with Crockett ahead, Locke just behind, and Turner as the stalking horse in third. A poll from Return on Insight shows Crockett just ahead of Locke, with Turner comfortably in third, but far behind.

While I would love to see Harvey Locke (or Chris Turner) win this seat, safe money is still on Crockett. While by-elections do often produce abnormal results, one has to figure the floor for a Conservative candidate in this riding is in the mid-30s even with a weaker candidate. If you have the third and fourth place candidates pulling in around 30% of the vote (in ROI) or higher (in Forum), that leaves about 30-35% of the vote, if the Conservatives hit their floor. In other words, not a lot of space for another candidate to pull ahead.

This is a problem that will continue to repeat itself, until the three left of centre parties sort themselves out. I expect this to happen over the next two election cycles through attrition or merger. If three survive as viable entities, it will be because at least one retreats to becoming a largely regional entity.

Win or lose tomorrow, the Calgary-Centre by-election points to some key challenges centre-left parties, no matter which ones survive or emerge, need to overcome to be a true threat to government.

Calgary Tower
Calgary-Centre is a bellwether for progressive hopes in the west.

The Need to Stop Beating Up Your Own
The most biting attack of this campaign was a Chris Turner mailer where…he attacked Harvey Locke. Echoing the Conservative “he didn’t come back for you!” attack on Michael Ignatieff, Turner chastises Locke for spending many years away from Calgary. These are far harsher words than he has for Crockett at any point. Reminiscent of the PC/Reform battles in Ontario through the ’90s, the centre-left is likely to continue beating itself up in order to try to become the alternative. In the meantime, the Conservatives will be able to largely coast into office until this is sorted out.

Someone suggested to me that Locke and Turner are drawing strengths from two different constituencies (more established liberals vs. young civic activists), and while this may be true, the broader point is that it is unlikely that any non-Conservative candidate can win regularly without the support of both.

The Need to Be Competitive Across the Country
To their credit, Liberal Party leadership candidates have grasped the need to reach out to the west, and Alberta in particular. The NDP have made inroads in Edmonton, winning one riding in 2008 and holding it in 2011. The province is not only influential because of its role in the economy, but because of its fast growing population. It will gain another 6 seats prior to the 2015 election.

It is still possible for a party to win a majority based on strength elsewhere in the country (Ontario, Quebec, and BC remain seat-rich), but it’s hard to see any party but the Conservatives winning a majority without at least some seats from the prairie provinces, Alberta in particular.

Another consideration is this – the need to simply make this area of the country more competitive. At the moment, the Conservatives can effectively bank at least 24 of 28 seats in Alberta prior to the writ drop (that’s being generous by including Calgary-Centre, along with NDP-held Edmonton-Strathcona, and once Liberal/NDP-held Edmonton Centre and Edmonton East). That means that the party can redirect advertising dollars and human resources elsewhere, both organizers and its leader (and leading cabinet ministers). While other parties need to defend their home turf, so to speak, the Conservatives can focus on swing ridings and areas of growth. Simply making at least Edmonton and Calgary more competitive would help centre-left parties across the country in that respect.

As an aside, it’s striking how few centre-left MPs of significance Alberta has produced in the past 80 years (if not longer), aside from Anne McLellan. While many prominent Liberals or CCF/NDPs have carved out notable careers at the provincial level or as Mayor of Calgary or Edmonton, none have made a successful breakthrough to the federal level. While the province gets labeled as a bastion of conservatism, that list of prominent centre-left politicians would include Laurence Decore, Grant Notley, Grant MacEwan, Nick Taylor, Ivor Dent, Jan Reimer, Al Duerr, and Dave Bronconnier, to name a few. Every other province can point to both prominent progressive and conservative politicians it has produced, even if it reliably supports one party (or ideology) over others.

The Need to Win Across the Country
Having said all that, Calgary-Centre is precisely the type of riding that a centre-left party will need to win in order to compete for and win government on a regular basis. It’s demographics largely resemble areas that support centre-left parties across the country, and provincially, it includes parts or all of ridings that have elected Liberals in recent elections, such as Calgary-Buffalo and Calgary-Currie.

Without a major realignment, it’s hard to see any centre-left party winning government except, as I said earlier this year, in case of a charismatic leader who disrupts voting patters or when scandal and voter fatigue catch up to government.

In figuring the road to a majority government for the NDP, Liberal Party, Green Party, or some combination thereof, it’s hard to see how that happens without winning 3-6 seats in each of the prairie provinces.

Some pundits are predicting a historic upset, and I do hope to see it change hands. However, what I think is more likely is that Calgary-Centre can the launching pad for progressive inroads in the west. In this respect, Edmonton-Strathcona is a model. While most remember “Liberals for Linda”, and how the progressive vote coalesced around her as she squeaked out a win in 2008, fewer seem to remember that she effectively kept campaigning from the 2006 election onward. The NDP also targeted that riding with regular mailings and appearances. If the Liberals, Greens, or NDP are serious about winning Calgary-Centre, they can’t give up after tomorrow night, should they be unsuccessful. If they do, it will start inching back towards the status quo. Tomorrow’s by-election should be the start of a consistent, steady campaign to build inroads and support so that it’s a true race come 2015, and if it doesn’t change hands then, that it’s poised to soon afterwards. Making the necessary inroads to win support in Western Canada is going to be a long process. Done right, tomorrow night can be a catalyst for that.

Progressives in the House: New Opposition Leader. Now What?

Thomas Mulcair was elected as the new leader of the NDP last weekend. Previously, I wrote about what I see as a missing agenda amongst all progressive leaders in Canada. Today, I’ll take a different tack, looking at some of the things progressives can expect going forward, and some opportunities I see to make gains moving towards the next election in 2015.

Thomas Mulcair
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The Conservatives will Test Mulcair, Early and Often
The attacks started early and often, with a news release the night of his election, and a members’ speech decrying him before his first question.

The long-promised austerity budget is short on austerity, but expect a fight on a few fronts.

The Conservative Party is likely challenge Mulcair on some of the NDP’s traditional beliefs and constituencies, attempting to force him back to his party’s traditional corner, or cause a rift. Labour will be one way. They’ve started this in the past year with back-to-work legislation for striking Canada Post and Air Canada workers, and will ramp it up with public service cutbacks. Expect the public service to make a big deal, and the Conservative government to respond accordingly.

Jack Layton, Leaders Tour - Tournée du Chef - Rebecca Blaikie
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The NDP’s ‘Traditional Base’ Will Cause Problems for Mulcair
Mulcair will have to walk a fine line of moving the party to the “centre” in the public’s mind, but also keeping his party’s constituencies happy. As noted above, the Conservatives will likely try to exacerbate any tension between him and, say, unions. In addition, Mulcair is going to have to craft a more thoughtful response to the oil sands – one that satisfies his more militant members, but that also speaks to the aspirations of Western Canadians. Or, as that may be impossible, one that enough people on both sides can live with.

Mulcair Complicates the Liberals’ Obvious Path Back to Official Opposition (Nevermind Government)
The Liberal Party’s best hope was for the NDP to fall back, through one of two ways – losing a significant chunk of their gains in Quebec, or electing a leader who will pull the party further to the left.

Of course, predicting outcomes in politics is a very inexact science. It’s entirely possible that Mulcair will alienate voters in some form, but on the surface he looks like a leader likely to stay the course, and at the very least hold most of the NDP’s gains from the past decade.

That leaves the Liberals in a precarious position – barring a charismatic leader who connects strongly with voters, they’re unlikely to make gains trying to own the centre-left with a similar, more viable moderate party already there. In addition, Mulcair figures to be, if nothing else, an effective advocate in the House, meaning the value of an orator like Bob Rae is diminished as a potential competitive advantage. It may in fact force them to the place they should have gone years ago, which is to evaluate what it means to be a liberal (nevermind a Liberal) today, what one should stand for, and if there’s a place for those beliefs in an independent political party. Some self-reflection that leads to a clear raison d’être would do them good.

The Conservatives Will Get Their Wins. Can The Oppositions Make Them Pyrrhic Wins?
With a majority of seats in both the House and the Senate, it’s likely the Conservatives will be able to pass the legislation they want to. The major impediment would be public opinion. On this, should the Conservatives pursue legislation that will be controversial, or unpopular, the opposition needs to engage the affected parties, working with them to earn support, and ensuring the Conservatives wear any controversial issues in the public eye. In other words, if they’re going to get what they want, make sure it’s at a cost.

Work Needs to Happen Outside of the House
Building on the previous point, the opposition’s ability to affect change legislatively is limited. There are private members’ bills and amendments they can advance (which I’ll talk about in the next section), but the work to build a broader coalition needs to happen off Parliament Hill. It’s both issue-based, rallying support to attempt to stop or at least dilute unpopular legislation, but also in building a broader coalition of voters – one that can realistically form government. Right now, the best chance they have in 2015 is to default into government through Conservative unpopularity – but that’s not sustainable. The fundamentals favour the governing party, and will until there’s a coalition of voters that can realistically win 170 seats (with the seat count increasing to 338 next election).

That Said, the Opposition Can Make Gains By Changing the Terms of Engagement in the House
As noted, the opposition should seek to introduce legislation (which can hopefully pass) that will earn favour with its constituencies (current and potential). Stressing a more collegial environment overall, for example, highlighting instances where it works with government, and enhances, rather than simply opposes legislation, is key. Most importantly, however, would be to change the terms of engagement, bringing a more collegial, collaborative approach, and toning down the rhetoric in Question Period. This will appeal to voters who are tired of the constant bickering and partisanship.

Avnish made a great point on Twitter, saying:

(NDP Leadership Candidate Nathan) Cullen, I think, understood how young Canadians view politics with his coop approach. Results matter, not the party that’s behind it

I agree with that, and think that this is a point where process, rather than policy, can win substantial votes.

There are both challenges and opportunities ahead – I hope last weekend turns out to be a step towards a stronger progressive presence in Canadian politics over the next three and a half years.

The Missing Progressive Agenda (and Other Thoughts on the Eve of the NDP Leadership Vote)

The NDP leadership convention begins today. It appears that Thomas Mulcair is the undisputed front-runner, judging from his tremendous lead in support from MPs and other officials, as well as the recent arguments from Brian Topp’s surrogates. This also may mean that Topp is struggling to separate himself from a second tier of candidates that would include some, or all, of Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, and Nathan Cullen (who himself is showing strong fundraising numbers, at least).

The prospect of a Mulcair victory is causing angst amongst some NDP stalwarts, fearing that he plans to move the party to the dreaded “centre”. Meanwhile, pundits are pointing out that the much revered, late Jack Layton, already did that. Cullen joins him on the “change” front, explicitly calling for cooperation with the Liberals in ridings won by the Conservatives last election. The candidates are disagreeing more on process than policy. Topp argues for a more traditional social democratic approach, and to “bring the centre” to the party. Nash and Dewar focus instead on tactics to increase the party’s base of support.

Thomas Mulcair
NDP frontrunner Thomas Mulcair.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Granted, I haven’t paid close attention to the contest, but what seems to be missing is a discussion on what the NDP agenda will look like, or who the voters are that will rally around that and form the core of a majority government, regardless of how aggressively the party moves to the centre (or not). This criticism applies to the Liberals (and Greens) as well, so from here on out, I’ll simply use the term ‘progressive’ as a proxy for any one of these parties. Whoever leads those parties (or whatever progressive parties may emerge through merger/attrition/split from existing ones) will face this challenge.

Brokerage Politics and the Minimum Winning Coalition
Any party that wishes to form and hold a majority government must be a ‘brokerage’ party of some sorts, encompassing identifiable constituencies of voters that are somewhat disparate, but have enough in common. Conservative organizers have understood this in recent years, advancing a strategy to build a minimum winning coalition of voters throughout the country. Progressive parties are lagging here. They understand on the surface that they must, for example, win more seats in the western provinces. Yet, the agenda and tactics to do so in sufficient numbers is missing.

The Missing Progressive Agenda
I understand that parties must occupy the “centre’ to win and hold office, and that it’s better to implement some of your agenda, rather than getting to implement none of it. Nevertheless, while a party must broaden its appeal to win (regularly), successful parties start from a foundation of principles and beliefs that can be easily distilled into an agenda for supporters. Yes, every party has principles it theoretically start from, but how many can explain in a few key themes what they stand for?

In the practical arena of politics, the conservative agenda has been ascendant for some time. It can be roughly distilled into the following ideas:

– lower taxes and regulation (for individuals and business)
– tougher sentences for criminals
– more individual choice in programs, instead of centralized, state-run initiatives
– an overall reduction of the state and its activities (reorienting towards its traditional functions)

Conversely, the contemporary progressive agenda has been in decline, in part because it has been difficult to pin down. Certainly, this camp is not short on ideas, but has struggled for decades to put them into a clear, coherent agenda. Progressive parties have tended to put forward an agenda seen as reactionary (defaulting to limits on trade/globalization, and a knee-jerk instinct to solve every problem with a centralized government program) or neo-liberal (embracing smaller government, and essentially conceding the argument to conservatives that the state is not the vehicle for social good).

I believe it’s a lack of a clear progressive agenda that in large part holds back a potential movement. Anecdotally, I see many of the progressive-minded people I know channeling their efforts into international issues, or politics on a local level. It’s not that they view the federal government as irrelevant, rather I believe there’s nothing engaging them in a meaningful way. They may show up to vote for the NDP (or Liberals or Greens), and in some cases may volunteer time and money, but are not engaged in the same way they are on the aforementioned issues. You can’t build a movement on irregular participation.

Until such time that a progressive agenda can be articulated, and attract a minimum winning coalition, progressives will find themselves in the position conservatives did for much of the 20th century, forming government only when one or both of the following happened – they found a charismatic, popular leader, and/or the dominant party lost support due to poor performance/scandal/voter fatigue, effectively forming government by default. History points to neither strategy being sustainable.

Key Questions
One of the key challenges is that some progressives are still framing issues around paradigms of their post-World War II heyday. Contemporary responses to the following issues, taking into account globalization, deindustrialization, demographic changes, and other phenomena, are long overdue:

– The role of a workforce, in particular unions, vis a vis both the private and public sector.
– The role of the state in funding social programs
– The importance of economic growth versus social and/or environmental costs that may be incurred.

Looking Up at the Calgary Tower
How can progressives win seats in places like downtown Calgary?

Towards a Progressive Agenda
What might a contemporary progressive agenda look like? Here are a few themes, and ideas off the top of my head:

1. Supporting a Triple-Bottom Line Economy
Advancing an economy and strategy for growth that accounts for environmental concerns and stewardship, as well as quality of life.

2. Equity and Opportunity for All
Ensuring equity – fairness and justice – especially in terms of opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background. In particular, it would focus on protection of workers with low job security, people experiencing poverty, New Canadians, and Aboriginal peoples. It would also pursue measures that protect workers, enhance skills of marginalized populations, and ensures fairness in terms of taxation and regulation between citizens and businesses.

3. Federally-Minded, But Community-Oriented
Supporting an agenda that doesn’t retreat from involvement, but does grant more authority and ability to effectively exercise power to local communities – especially municipal and Aboriginal governments. It would also advance greater local authority (but not autonomy) in terms of delivering social programs, recognizing that our federation is heterogeneous, and that needs and best practices may vary from place to place. The federal government’s role would be to lead, but also to set broad targets, strategies, and foster collaboration, rather than retreating to its “traditional” areas of responsibility under the British North America Act.

(For my provincially-oriented progressive views, read this).

Mildred Lake Mine
A balanced approach to the oil sands, and resource extraction, is needed, should progressive want success in the west.

With an agenda along these lines, what would a minimum winning coalition of progressives have to look like? It would lean heavily towards urban environments, winning support in and around Canada’s biggest cities – not just Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, but Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax, among others. It would win heavily on both the Pacific and Atlantic coast, and amongst federally and community-oriented central Canadians. Urban and Aboriginal voters would form its core in the west and north. (For a good primer on different ‘cultures’, read Colin Woodward’s ‘American Nations’. And yes, readers, I’m firmly a disciple of Yankeedom).

Progressives may (correctly in some cases) argue that they already advance causes along these lines, but I’ve yet to see it articulated as a clear, concise agenda. Until a progressive agenda for Canada in the 21st century can be articulated in 3-5 themes, or 30 seconds, supporters like myself can look forward to spending more time in opposition than government.

Stephen Marche said it best, in his assessment of Jack Layton’s legacy:

And yet despite the marked improvement in the numbers, the left has never been in a worse state by the simplest and most meaningful gauge there is: its effect on the lives of Canadians.

While I disagree with aspects of his critique of Jack Layton, on this point, he is absolutely right. Barring a reorientation, and stronger focus on a clear agenda and constituency, progressives can look forward to more of this in years to come.