Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Splintering the Conservative Majority (the irrational way)

A little while back Laura had an interesting post about how politics is not rational and how those who expect it to be are naive.

I don't think anyone is going is going to dispute that basic point, but I thought it was worth noting that the gap between rationality and the political system is greatly aggravated by our electoral system.

For example, it won't come as news to anyone that I disagree with the current Conservative government on many policy questions, from the environment, to child poverty, to tax policy, to inequality, to military strategy, etc. etc. Even on questions of style - the petulant behavior, the whining about media bias, the overreaction to made-up news stories, the politicization of things like having no notice for a vote on the deployment of our soldiers but 4 months notice for a vote on same-sex marriage - I'm not a fan of the Conservatives.

Of course all parties have their own non-policy related issues: the Liberals have their Joe Volpe types still kicking around, and the NDP doesn't always rub me the right way either. But when you get down to it, mainly because of the policy questions, I'd really rather not see a Conservative majority government in this country. And if we do end up with one, I'd like to see it soundly defeated at the first opportunity.

In a world where politics was rational, the most effective way for me to do this might be to work to convince people that the policies they are proposing are sub-optimal or even regressive, while the policies proposed by parties I like better will do more to make the country a better place. And certainly I do make that effort with lots of my posts here but, to be honest, I am doubtful that these kinds of efforts - even if I had a huge audience and was much more eloquent and persusaive - will really change many minds.

To see what might be a more effective, less naive, strategy, let's rewind the clock a little, to see what happened the last time there was a (Progressive) Conservative majority in this country. The date was 1988 and the main election issue was free trade. The Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, won 169 of 295 seats with 43% of the popular vote (down 7% from their landslide (50%) victory in 1984). The Liberals got 83 seats with 32% of the vote and the NDP got 43 seats with 20% of the vote.

So what happened to end this majority (Progressive) Conservative government and bring in over a decade of uninterrupted Liberal rule? Let's look at the results of the subsequent 1993 election.

Whereas in 1988 the Liberals and NDP had combined for 52% of the popular vote, in 1993 they combined for 48%. However, there was a dramatic shift in support among the two parties with Liberal support up 9% and the NDP down 13%. Given that their two opponents lost ground, you might think that the Conservatives would have done better in 1993. But in fact, what happened was the Conservative vote splintered into 3 pieces. The (Progressive) Conservative party retained 16% of the vote, while the Reform part in the West got 19% and the Bloc Quebecois got 14%. Together the 3 parties accounted for 49% of the vote, but with their votes divided and with the NDP failing to split the Liberal vote very much, the Liberals formed a majority government.

So, we see what happened. Between 1988 and 1993 the vote for the components of the Mulroney coalition of Western populists, Quebec sovereigntists and small (p)c conservatives actually increased while support for the more federalist/centralist NDP and Liberals fell. But because of the realignment of votes within the two blocs, we were set on the path towards over a decade of (pretty effective) Liberal rule.

OK, back to the present. Stephen Harper (with some backstabbing assistance from Peter Mackay), has managed to reunite two parts of the old alliance, only this time the Western populists are running the show, with the old (progressive) conservatives losing both clout and the progressive label along with it. Furthermore, the last election and subsequent polling has shown the Conservatives making ground on recapturing the sovereigntist vote in Quebec. With the Conservative budget passing with support of the Bloc, one could argue that the reformation (pun intended) of the old Mulroney alliance is nearly complete. The gradual rebuilding of the NDP and the emergence of the Green Party as a significant force have also helped to split the centralist/federalist bloc.

All of which gets me back to my original point, which is that a) politics is not rational and b) that our electoral system makes it even more irrational. Which leads to c): if (recent) history is any guide, the best way to break up this Conservative government is not to try and convert people from one bloc to another (the two blocs seem pretty stable over time), but rather to start a new political party to split up the Conservative bloc internally.

So we know what to do, the next question is how. Geography, history, regional culture and timing all point to the West as being the best spot for this new party to base itself, which is handy since I am already in the West. Geography because the West is where the Conservative base is strongest which means it is also where there is most likely to be a portion of the base unhappy with efforts made to expand the base by moderating Conservative principles. It also means it is the area where a new party could do the most damage in terms of seats lost.

History because history suggests that new Canadian parties only start or gain traction in one of two places: Quebec or the West (mostly the Prairies).

Regional culture because, in my opinion, the West is the part of the country most open to new ideas. As an aside, I find it odd how people often deride 'Liberal' Ontario when Ontario is really one of the most conservative places in the country, in my experience - witness the horror of the Toronto dailies at the thought of electoral reform, for one example (but I digress).

And finally timing, because the Quebec part of the base is still being wooed while the Western part of the base has been ascendant for a while now and is likely to be resentful at the measures which will be necessary to get the sovereigntists on board (aside from hating Ottawa, these two groups have little in common).

Now, I could be wrong, maybe it is the old progressive Conservative wing of the party which is going to get upset with the Westerners environmental and social policies and split off from the party but, unfortunately, I suspect the split is more likely to come from the other side.

So what can this new party be built around? Hard for me to say, I am not a Western populist (yet!). The last one was built about the principle of (you guessed it) reform. Maybe this time, the motive can be that reform isn't enough. That even a movement led by one of their own (Harper) ended up making corrupt deals with former Liberals (Emerson), ended up making corrupt deals to please Quebecers (Fortier), ended up only making token changes to the Senate, ended up having to make compromises over environmental issues to please the Toronto media elites and the Latte-Drinkers in the Annex, ended up having it's legislative agenda blocked by activist judges appointed by Liberals, ended up getting scared off by scoldings from UN do-gooders, ended up doing nothing to shut down the CBC or end gay marriage or stop the popular culture from being corrupted by liberal Hollywood moguls - in short, ended up being co-opted and beaten by the eastern liberal media and the eastern liberal elites.

And if an old-school firewaller like Harper can't really make things right and ends up selling out, then the situation is hopeless. The system can't be reformed because the system is broken. The only way the West can be governed properly is to govern itself. So maybe, if you don't want to see a Conservative majority government (last), the best bet is to start fundraising for someone like Ezra Levant. This article1 from his 'Western Standard' pretty much says it all.

Alternatively, we could reform our electoral system, but then that might be just a little too rational.

1And yes, I know, the poll referenced in that article is bogus, but that's not really the point.


  • That was one hell of a meandering post, Declan... I expect a few twists and turns when I read your stuff, but this one was postively stream-of-conscience. :P

    (Interesting all the same, of course)

    Now how the heck do I file THIS in the blog exchange? CPC Critisism? Political History? Liberal Strategy? Political Theory? Democratic Reform? Sheeeesh....

    I'll leave it for you to decide:

    By Blogger Andrew, at 7:50 PM  

  • Well when it comes to my posts, I take 'meandering' as a compliment, so thanks. I filed it under 'Conserative Party - Strategy' which seemed suitably ambiguous.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:11 PM  

  • If I understood the paper "Our Benign Dictatorship" by Harper and Tom Flanagan, the Conservatives might move to replace first past the post elections once they have a majority as they believe that a more representative government consisting of a number of regional parties would be best long term for the conservative movement in Canada.
    Some exerpts
    "Imposing a first-past-the-post voting system upon a society with deep ethnolinguistic and regional cleavages inevitably fragments Canadian conservatism. Different political cultures -- between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and between the West and the East -- have repeatedly shattered the regimented coalitions necessary for political combat in the House of Commons."
    "But it is seldom in the short-term interest of the party in power to carry out electoral reform; by definition, the system worked admirably for those now in power and changing the system might benefit the opponents next time. However, the incentive would change if an explicit coalition of conservative sister parties advocated electoral reform as part of a common platform. The partners would then have to carry through as part of their commitment to each other, and at least some of the partners would also want to, knowing their own futures would become more secure in the process. The NDP should also support electoral reform, allowing even a minority conservative government to pass the necessary legislation. The Liberals might also support it if weakness in francophone Quebec prevented them from winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons."
    Read the paper at

    By Anonymous Doug, at 12:28 PM  

  • Thanks for the quote and link, Doug. I do remember seeing those quotes before. What was written is as true now as it was then, but I haven't heard too much about electoral reform lately from the Conservative side of the fence. Together with the NDP it seems like they have the votes to do something if it was a priority.

    But I'm guessing that there are visions of uncontested majority sugar plums dancing in the eyes of Harper and the rest of the Cons. I guess we'll see.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:37 PM  

  • Why don't we hurry up the process and start our own right wing party?

    By Blogger Mark Francis, at 4:09 PM  

  • So the electoral system is broken because it forces parties to reach out to and make compromises with diverse groups? Do you really prefer ideologically consistent parties?

    I'd argue that the system works great because the only path to majority government is through some very different parts of the country. Canada is too diverse for ideological parties.

    I'll always prefer intra-party, pre-election compromises to inter-party, post-election compromises. The former are made people on the same team (party) and will have to popular enough to actually get votes; the latter will be antagonistic and positioning for finger-pointing in the next election.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:53 PM  

  • Mark - It's a good plan, but I'm afraid I might lack credibility as a firewaller due to my blogging record.

    Don - I never said the electoral system was broken (not in this post, anyway). True, I called it irrational, but the whole point of the post was that sometimes the best approach politically is not the rational one. I merely pointed out that the best way to ensure the government switches from Conservative to Liberal is to start a party that is even more Conservative than the current government, as was done last time.

    If you think that that implies the system is broken, well that's your reading, I was just talking strategy.

    If we are going to talk about which electoral systems work and which ones are broken, my preference is simply for an electoral system which accurately reflects what people want to vote for. I don't like an 'activist' system that 'forces' (your word) parties to change their policies from what they believe is best and I'm not scared of what might happen if people could take positions on issues without worrying that by voting (for example) for a party that might actually take action on global warming, they would help to elect the party that doesn't even believe it is an issue (as opposed to the one which says it is important and then does next to nothing).

    Even Macdonald's offers more than 2 combos.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:01 PM  

  • What an interesting idea. And charmingly subversive too!

    By Anonymous Archer, at 9:19 PM  

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