Could Election Reform Make a Difference? (Canada)
****The B u l l e t****
E-Bulletin No. 521 June 27, 2011
In the May Federal election, Stephen Harper won a
majority government without winning a majority of the
vote. Only 39.6 per cent of the population voted
Conservative while 60 per cent voted against. Much
discussion has focused on the election results and what
to do about the Harper majority. But relatively little
of this has focused on the electoral system.
The current first-past-the-post electoral system
rewards the winning candidate in each riding, while
votes cast for losing candidates are not taken into
account. When the parliamentary results are added up,
the winning party is often rewarded with a
disproportionately high number of total seats. Losing
parties, especially third and smaller parties without a
strong geographic centred constituency, are generally
highly underrepresented in relation to their overall
share of the vote.
In random and often highly unpredictable ways
(depending on vote splits), this system often quite
inaccurately reflects the popular vote. A far more
accurate proportional system would have turned the
Harper majority into a weak and tenuous minority
government, or opened the door to other government
Number of Seats Won
Party First-Past-The-Post Proportional
Conservative 166 123
NDP 103 95
Liberal 34 59
Bloc Quebecois 4 19
Green 1 12
The federal NDP as a third party has consistently been
underrepresented in parliament. In the recent election
this continued to be the case in some provinces but not
overall. The NDP won 0 seats in Saskatchewan with 33
per cent of the vote.
At the same time, the NDP won a highly disproportionate
number of seats in Quebec, while the BQ shifted to
being sharply underrepresented. Elizabeth May might
have made an individual breakthrough, but small parties
like the Greens remain major losers under the
Trapped by the Rules of the Game
Some on the left tried to outsmart the existing system
by advocating strategic or tactical voting for the
candidate best positioned to defeat Harper. This
approach failed to achieve its goals of stopping a
Harper majority. The Conservatives skilfully played the
game to win a majority government by both appealing to
their right wing base and targeting specific ridings
and groups (for example, suburbs containing large
number of immigrants and other people of colour).
Sixty per cent may oppose Harper, but these voters
don't necessarily support the Liberal agenda. The
Liberal vote fell sharply, including in seats they had
previously held, with some shifting to the
Conservatives, and more to the NDP.
Notwithstanding the NDP surge, the prospect of more
Conservative majority governments means the discussion
of how to avoid vote splitting will continue. But the
terms of the discussion are shifting, with more chatter
about either a Liberal NDP merger or a future electoral
coalition. Not everyone thinks this is desirable. The
search for an anybody-but-Harper alternative could drag
us down into a mire of lesser evilism. However this
seems unlikely to happen any time soon. The NDP will
seek to consolidate its position as the alternative
government in waiting, while the Liberals will seek to
rebound and recapture their past status.
While the ruling class may prefer a Conservative
majority, the same cannot be said for those of us who
will be sharply attacked and suffer the consequences of
a Harper majority which is not a social majority. The
most straightforward way to get rid of such
artificially created majority governments would be to
scrap the first-past-the-post system and replace it
with a fairer system.
Not All Alternatives are Equal
One widely promoted alternative model is the
mixed-member proportional system. Some members are
elected in constituencies, while other seats are
allocated to reflect the party's share of the total
vote. This cleanly deals with representational balance,
and would tend to encourage rather than discourage the
formation of new parties (providing there is low
threshold of one to two per cent for parties to be
represented in parliament).
However not everyone favours this model, in which
non-constituency representatives would be selected from
party lists. Some, including those influenced by
radical democratic green or anarchist ideas, feel this
gives too much power to political parties and not
enough to citizens.
In British Columbia, this led to a recommendation for
and vote on a variant of the single transferable vote
system. This idea inspired some people but not others.
Not everyone liked or supported some of the practical
consequences, such as the creation of large
multi-member constituencies (the city of Vancouver
would have divided into two seven-member ridings). This
proposal was defeated in a 2009 referendum, receiving
less than 40 per cent of the vote
Many alternative voting systems focus on ranking
preferences and transferring votes to second or third
preferences until a majority is achieved. This has some
merit. The first-past-the-post system encourages or
prompt people to vote for candidates that have a
legitimate shot at winning. By contrast, a transferable
vote could modestly enlarge the space for smaller and
In many ridings the NDP is the most left wing option on
the ballot, given that the Green Party refuses to
self-identify as a left wing party. In a limited number
of ridings there may be a Communist or Marxist-Leninist
candidate. However, such candidates, whatever
legitimate issues they raise, tend to reap very low
scores in part because of too much negative baggage,
but more fundamentally because of the incentive to vote
for a candidate who might win.
However the overall effect of second preference model
would be to continue to disproportionately allocate
seats to major or mainstream parties, and perpetuate
patterns of lesser-evilism in voting.
There is no perfect system of voting that will resolve
all problems. However, as long as disaffection with the
existing system remains high, this will continue to be
a topic of ongoing discussion.
Electoral reform will only happen if significant forces
push for it, and it corresponds to a strong wave of
discontent with the existing system. Neither the
Conservatives nor the Liberals have an interest in
changing the system.
Will the federal NDP, which has relatively consistently
supported change, continue to push the issue? Who else
will step forward?
At this point it seems unlikely that the issue will be
put on the front burner. Possibilities of any federal
referendum seem remote. In some provinces there have
been votes. But the campaigns have been conducted on a
single issue democratic basis and have failed to pass.
A Priority for the Left?
Is election reform a priority for today's left?
To answer this question we need to look at both the
real limits of electoral reform and what it could
potentially accomplish. A more representative voting
system is not a substitute for other needed democratic
reforms to make the government and state institutions
accountable to the people.
We need to have measures such as feasible recall
provisions to control politicians and governments who
lie about their agenda during campaigns, and break
their promises as soon as they take office. The
arbitrary powers of the Prime Minister (and his
unelected advisers) need to be curbed. Compulsive
government secrecy needs to be scrapped in favour of
free access to information. State institutions,
including intelligence agencies, the police, the
military and the bureaucracy need to be brought under
public control. There is no level playing field unless
we limit the power of money (campaign funding,
influence peddling) and the bias of the corporate
Democracy is about far more than voting every few
years. We need to envision transferring power back to
the people, democratizing many aspects of work and
life, and creating forms of workers' and community
Meanwhile we need to push for badly needed reforms and
stop existing social programs from being slashed under
the Harper austerity agenda. This requires us to
organize and to engage in struggles with the aim of
creating mass movements. Such struggles are our primary
means of self-defense, and have sometimes derailed
right wing measures. When combined with consistent
efforts to challenge dominant ideas and change
consciousness, they can lay the groundwork to get rid
of right wing governments.
That said, right wing governments need not only to be
opposed in the streets, but defeated at the polls. But
the current electoral system does little to inspire or
motivate people to vote.
Increasing numbers of people (non-status migrants,
temporary workers, non-citizens and especially youth)
who can't, won't or don't vote. Some on the left have
well-grounded reasons for not voting. Arguments
include: the Canadian state is illegitimate; elections
can't change the world; I dislike all of the parties
and candidates; or politicians of all stripes routinely
break promises and/or are corrupt.
Many of these critics are actively working to change
the world through a wide variety of other means. But
most often not voting merely reflects a widespread mood
of apolitical cynicism which extends to disengagement
from any collective effort to change the world.
I am not an electoralist, but I do vote. Governments
continue to have some power over our lives, and I
dislike being governed by purely capitalist parties who
act against my interests and beliefs. When reformist
parties make and deliver upon promises that improve
lives, this can encourage us to expect and demand more.
It can be argued that the increased NDP vote represents
some level of class polarization and a shift to the
left in popular thinking. However analysis of the NDP
campaign and platform leads to other conclusions.
Although the NDP advocated a few limited reforms which
resonated well, it failed to challenge the fundamentals
of the market driven neoliberal model.
In its origins and character, the NDP is at least
partially different than the Democratic Party in the
United States. This will likely remain the case barring
a merger with the Liberals. However as a potential
government-in-waiting, the NDP leadership and its
advisers are likely to try and move the party even more
to the centre. Will individual NDP caucus members
submit to this pressure or try and play a more
Those of us who disagree with the centerist trajectory
of the NDP leadership and are looking for more left
wing alternatives are likely to be disappointed and
left out in the cold. It is discouraging and unhealthy
for democracy to be subject to a system in which voices
to the left of the NDP have no presence inside
parliament and are largely confined to small pockets of
resistance from the margins.
One way to deal with the problem is to seek to create
new parties of the left which are far more oppositional
to the neoliberal capitalist model, integrating
feminist, anti-racist and ecological concerns. Such
parties would be rooted and linked to social struggle,
but would contest elections as one way to gain
influence in society. This has worked to some degree in
helping to create alternatives in Europe; especially in
countries which don't have a first past the post
However, prospects for creating such alternatives are
much dimmer under the first-past-the-post system. And
as long as this framework remains intact, we are likely
to be stuck with very limited choices at the level of
electoral politics. Moreover, here in the Canadian
state the times are not particularly propitious. There
is not a rise in mass based struggles or mass based
radicalization with roots in the working-class that can
be the basis for such party-building.
Meanwhile the federal NDP, once perceived as stagnant
and largely irrelevant at the federal level, has become
more of a force. This may be an improvement in some
respects. However, the NDP surge also carries risks.
Some movements could become subordinated to the NDP
agenda. And there could be pressure, especially in the
labour movement, to limit or tone down efforts to
mobilize against the Harper cuts in favour of a focus
on electing the NDP in 2015.
Nonetheless, the radical left needs to figure out to
navigate the new situation and try to place our own
demands on the NDP. We should try and reach out to
those who support the NDP. But ultimately we have no
control over its direction. Some may attempt to change
the NDP from the inside. But many others feel this is a
lost cause, especially given the overall evolution of
social democratic parties on an international scale.
In the absence of prospects for building an alternative
new left party, many activists will focus their energy
on the priorities of resisting attacks and rooting
themselves in social movements and communities.
The need to build political alternatives to the left of
the NDP remains. But there appears to be very little
short term prospect of accomplishing this (especially
at the level of parties contesting elections). There
are embryonic attempts at new models of organization
such as the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly. However
in most places, including Vancouver, such models don't
exist and alternative forms remain to be built down the
road. In the interim, many activists will focus their
priorities on resisting attacks and rooting themselves
in communities and social movements. *
Harold Lavender is a long time Vancouver activist and
writer. He is also an editor of the New Socialist
webzine where this article first appeared.
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