Canadian Elections: How Strategic is Strategic Voting?

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Jamie Biggar of Leadnow.ca and David Bush of RankandFile.ca debate whether such a strategy is useful or effective

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Canadians will be going to the polls on Monday for their federal election, and strategic voting appears to be one of the many issues they’re grappling with, which is the topic of our next discussion. To debate this I’m joined by two guests. Joining us from Vancouver is Jamie Biggar. He’s a campaign director for Leadnow. And joining us from Toronto is David Bush. David is the editor at RankAndFile.ca, a Canadian labor news website. Thank you both for joining me.

DAVID BUSH: Thanks for having us.

JAMIE BIGGAR: Pleasure, thank you.

PERIES: So Jamie, let me begin with you. Leadnow has taken up a big campaign to vote strategically. Why are you advising people to vote strategically?

BIGGAR: Well, in many ways our organization was founded because of the problem of Canada’s broken first past the post electoral system distorting our democracy. A lot of the inspiration for the organization came from the 2008 federal election, when a clear majority of Canadians, over 62 percent, voted for parties who were all at that time promising very strong climate action. But because the vote split, the Conservatives were able to become government with just 38 percent of the vote and take the country in very much the other direction.

So we recognized that in order to be able to bring people together across party lines, for progress that’s necessary in our country, we needed to try to coordinate with one another to deal with this vote splitting problem. Over the last couple of years as we’ve been campaigning to challenge the Harper Conservatives on a wide range of issues within our mandate of acting for a strong democracy, fair economy, and clean environment it became clear that we needed to defeat them in this election if we were going to have a chance of getting progress on those issues. And our community voted to support a riding-by-riding campaign to bring voters who want change together to pick a candidate, the best local candidate who can win, to defeat the Conservative, and then vote together for that candidate.

So it comes from a long history for us responding to the problem of vote splitting and a first past the post electoral system, and wanting to see progress on those issues, and seeing that progress frustrated by that voting system, and the united right that we face here in Canada.

PERIES: And Jamie, give us an example of how it exactly works.

BIGGAR: Sure, happy to. So there are a variety of ridings where in the last election, in the 2011 election, the Conservatives were able to win with substantially less than 50 percent of the vote. So a majority of people in those ridings voted for change, voted for a change in government. But because their vote split between the NDP, the Liberals, and the Greens primarily, and then the Bloc Quebecois as well, potentially, the Conservative was able to kind of sneak up the middle and still win a seat in that riding.

And when you add up all of those ridings, all of those places where Conservatives won because of vote splitting, they’re able to get a strong minority government or a majority government in the house of parliament with only, barely over a third of the voters actually backing them in the polls. So 39 percent of the power turns into 100 percent of the vote when that riding-by-riding vote splitting adds up all across the country.

PERIES: And David, you’re opposed to this strategy of strategic voting. Why?

BUSH: A couple things. I think first of all I would totally agree that our Canadian democracy is broken. It’s a broken system. And that someone like Harper and everything that he represents needs to be defeated. But I think that it is a broken strategy that only will lead to sort of furthering the status quo, in terms of our political discourse. I’m opposed to it because it doesn’t work. The history of strategic voting, which has deep roots in the labor movement has been a failed strategy that we have as a movement been engaged in. and it’s a real problem.

And the second is–and I think, you know, there’s no way to discernably measure whether it’s succeeding or not. But the second, more important problem is that it speaks to a wider political problem where we’re talking about whole [inaud.] and horse races rather than actual politics and issues. And that we should be focused our efforts into defeating Harper, as in defeating the right wing agenda. Because it’s not good enough to simply say we need to get rid of Harper or get rid of the Conservatives to then see those very same policies and ideas being implemented by another party.

PERIES: And so of course, David, some would argue at this point that let’s get rid of the Conservatives, get that factor out of the way, and then we can really discuss the politics, and that would bring about some sort of a more reasonable position on some of the issues that I think you at Rank and File as well as Jamie at Leadnow would agree on when I look at your particular websites. How do you respond to that?

BUSH: Well, yeah. I mean, we have to get rid of the Conservatives. But it’s not merely a matter of looking at static polls and then hoping we cast our ballot in the correct direction, right. It’s more than ballot box politics. It’s about taking those ideas and building those, that power in workplaces and our community and on the streets. And for this election I’m just not sure it’s going to work. It hasn’t worked, it didn’t work in Ontario in 2000, the provincial election, where our unions formed the Ontario Electoral Network, and the teachers’ union, the nurses, and the Canadian Auto Workers got together to strategically defeat the Conservatives in that election. And it resulted in a greater share of the popular support for the Conservatives. The same thing with the 2006 election, with strategic voting being done by the unions implementing that strategy.

And the problem is we banked so much as a movement on defeating the Conservatives at the ballot box and strategic voting, we didn’t put the necessary resources and effort into actually building the movement to sway the political discourse to the left. And to where it needs to go.

PERIES: Jamie, what do you say to what David is saying?

BIGGAR: A few points. I think David’s raising a lot of legitimate points, and I agree with him on a variety of them. So for example, I think he’s absolutely right that much of the work that we need to do is in building stronger movements and in shifting the conversation around, around the issues and around the kind of a vision that we would have for a country and a society. And that is a lot of the work that our organization is engaged in in between elections. There is very little, however, of that work that can be accomplished by civil society or third party groups within elections themselves.

In elections themselves the conversation is very dominated by the political parties and by people who are trying to help voters who want to see the kind of government that they want in that country to try to get that government. And that’s my second point, then, which is that meeting people where they’re at is an essential part of building strong and effective movements, and it is a minimum basis of unity for a huge number of Canadians across the country. They want to defeat the Harper Conservatives. That’s a place where we’re meeting people, many of whom have never been involved in politics before, let alone gone out and canvassed as they’re doing with us. We’re meeting those people around their desire to end ten years of Harper rule, and then bridging them into movement building and organizing, coming out of this election with a positive agenda for a strong democracy, fair economy, and clean environment.

So on the first point, I agree that we need to change the conversation and build movements. That’s much of the work that we do between elections. Within elections, the opportunity to defeat the Conservatives is an enormous opportunity for us as movement builders to meet people where they’re at and bring them into effective political action. On the third point about whether or not strategic voting works or not, I agree that strategic voting isn’t a silver bullet. I never claimed that it would be. I agree that there are many cases in which it hasn’t worked. There are other cases in which it has. I think strategic voting contributed very significantly to defeating Tim Hudak, right-to-work legislation in Ontario. I think strategic voting worked very effectively to stop the Wild Rose in Alberta.

The question is around, can kind of tactical, riding-by-riding level strategic voting work. And in our case we’ve been very focused on putting in, not just throwing up a website with some recommendations on it, but doing deep contact with people in the ridings, providing them with local and riding-level polling, which is something that’s barely ever been available before, so they can make an informed decision about what’s going on in their riding with a community of people who can actually make a difference in that riding. And we think that that will prove a real difference in this election.

PERIES: Jamie, let me ask you, one of the founding issues that the Leadnow as a group came around is the green platform, and of course here what I mean is greening our economy and being concerned about the environment. Yet this particular advice now in terms of strategic voting might be counterproductive, because there isn’t a great deal of difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals when it comes to environmental issues. And so then ground zero in terms of where you start on this particular issue is more or less the same. What do you say to those people who are saying that the Liberals and the Conservatives are–there’s not much difference between the two when it comes to environmental protection?

BIGGAR: Well, I think there are differences between them. With that said, the Liberals aren’t anywhere near as strong on environmental issues, climate change and pipelines, as I would like to see them, or as our community would like to see them.

One of the fundamental differences, though, to understand between the Conservatives and the Liberals is that the Conservative political strategy is organized around identifying a very specific and narrow subsector, subsections, of the population and only speaking to those people. And ignoring the entire rest of the country. They use archetypes to describe different kinds of voters that they’re interested in, and different kinds of voters that they’re not interested in. so for example, the Conservatives would refer to young women who are more educated in urban areas, their name for them is Zoes. And they believe that Zoes aren’t their people, and so they completely ignore anything, any communication, any kind of pressure or lobbying or the views of somebody who they would identify as being a Zoe. And given the Conservatives’, the sophistication of the Conservatives’ database and communication work, they’re very good actually at ignoring people that they’re not interested in for their narrow electoral base.

The Liberals don’t have the same approach to politics. I think the Liberals are going to be much more open to the voices of a larger array of Canadians. And it’s our work after this election to keep building a stronger and stronger movement, to be able to move the Liberals, the NDP, both of the parties on the issue of climate change and more broadly building a green economy.

PERIES: David, this question to you. One of the things that has occurred in this whole political climate leading up to the elections is that a party like the Green party has relatively disappeared from the national conversation, national electoral agenda. In fact, when I look at CBC they’re not even giving the totals in terms of the polling at the moment for Green. What do you make of that?

BUSH: Yeah, I mean, the Green party has been for most of its life in Canada a fairly marginal party, and only really breaking through in the last election. I think that they had a little bit of boost in the first leaders’ debate, where Elizabeth May was a part of that, and that was good.

But you know, the media has created consensus around this election. So I look at issues–and this is a way of defining it, that the NDP and the Green party oppose the TPP, but the Liberals and the Conservatives and the media party, basically, support the TPP, and it’s a broad Canadian consensus on it in terms of our media, the elites, business, and our two main parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. And that’s a real problem for us.

PERIES: And how does, how does this kind of climate, where the two parties that are trailing, like the NDP and the Green party, how does this conversation about strategic voting impact on them in the local ridings, as Jamie says?

BUSH: Yeah. I mean, it’s–one of the problems with strategic voting is that in, so, urban ridings for instance, where you see it’s really competitive between mostly the NDP and the Liberals, and possibly the Greens depending on where you are, is that this idea that we need to elect the Liberals, for instance, dominates. Because strategic voting is not confined to just these one-off ridings, out between Liberals and Conservatives, or Conservatives and NDP out in BC. That whole narrative is captured, now, across the country. And so people are now casting their votes not for what they believe in but for what they think might possibly beat Harper. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also something that is, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen on election day. And it’s hard to gauge if you’re a voter.

PERIES: And do you agree with that, Jamie? Is it hard to gauge what’s going to happen on election day?

BIGGAR: Well, in particular I expect that the Conservatives will significantly overperform the current polls. They almost always do. They did in 2011. And there are a couple of reasons for it. One is that people who are conservative, many of them won’t want to admit that in online surveys, and so will record themselves as undecided when they’re not actually undecided, and then vote Conservative in the ballot box. And also because the Conservatives have such an effective and powerful electoral machine they’ll be able to turn out more of their vote than the other parties, and likely overperform the polls.

With that said, I think that one of the things that we definitely have seen is that if you’re looking at a national level it’s hard to predict exactly where people, where folks are going to land in the polls. But at a riding level many, many, many of the ridings resolve into fairly clear two-way races, where it’s fairly clear whether it would be a Liberal candidate who would have the best chance to defeat the local Conservative or it would be an NDP candidate who would have the best chance to defeat the local Conservative. And in many of those places we don’t expect there to be many surprises on election day. The question will simply be, especially in those swing ridings where a Conservative could win with less than [50] percent of the vote, the question will simply be, does the leading non-Conservative candidate beat the Conservative or not?

In terms of the other point that was raised, which I think is a very good one as [inaud.] urban ridings, NDP-Liberal ridings, in some cases NDP-Green riding like [inaud.]. In those ridings we are explicitly telling people that they don’t need to vote together to defeat a Conservative, that they should vote according to their values and their priorities, and offering them the Leadnow community platform–sorry, offering the party platforms on the Leadnow community’s priority issues to help them make an informed choice, including on the issue of the TPP.

PERIES: And Jamie, if you take a riding like London-West in Ontario, where we have a Green party candidate doing fairly well who’s going to be wiped out with strategic voting, where that agenda never actually gets on the platform. I know you’ve been having a debate with Dimitri Lascaris, who’s running in that riding. What do you say to a candidate like this, who’s really, has a very progressive agenda and has a great deal of affinity with the agenda of Leadnow?

BIGGAR: Yeah, absolutely. The Greens are going to have a very hard time breaking through in Canadian federal politics until we change the electoral system. The core of our efforts after this election are going to be focused on changing a broken first past the post electoral system in order to create a proportional representation system where a party would get an equivalent–a party’s representation in parliament would be proportional to the number of people who vote for that party. Until that happens the Greens are going to have a very hard time, as both the NDP and the Liberals squeeze them out.

One of the things that we find is that there are very, very large numbers of Green supporters who are part of our community and have been part of the decision making process to create the Vote Together campaign because of their shared frustration with the Harper Conservatives and the first past the post electoral system, and the hope that we can work together to defeat the Conservatives and pass electoral reform, and then never have to strategically vote again.

PERIES: And David, what do you say? You get the last word.

BUSH: So I mean, a couple things. One is in terms of electoral reform, the Liberal party doesn’t actually support any progressive electoral reform. They support rank balance, which is actually worse than what we have right now. Absolutely worse. On two levels. One, it is a play for them to cravenly take electoral reform and turn it into something that only benefits that party. Second, it actually narrows the debate and moves the debate, a political debate, into the center. Because everyone is going to want to be everyone else’s second choice, right. So it’s moving the debate, not polarizing it, but moving it into the center. And this is a real problem when we want to tackle real issues like the TPP, or climate change, or workers’ rights. We can’t actually do that.

Second of all, we have candidates running for the Liberal party that are terrible. In Scarborough Southwest we have Bill Blair running in a relative three-way race, and he’s leading. And it’s, in terms of the Vote Together–.

PERIES: That is the former chief of police in Toronto.

BUSH: Yeah, he’s responsible for the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. Now, are we supposed to vote for him because he’s the leading Liberal candidate?

I mean, the Liberals are a real problem. And yes, they represent basically Harper policies in their new brand. They actually, in some ways, their government in the 1990s was worse. Implementing deeper austerity than Harper’s government. Implementing war crimes in Haiti. And supporting security certificates. And this current incarnation of the Liberals supports Bill C-51, which Leadnow actually campaigns against. My point is that it actually, strategic voting, I don’t think actually technically works. I don’t think it delivers the goods. And more importantly I think it disorients and disarms the electorate. So instead of us using that effort to build these movements up we’re confusing people over these issues.

PERIES: Jamie Biggar and David Bush, thank you so much for joining us today.

BUSH: Thank you.

BIGGAR: Thank you for having us. Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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