Political Realignment, Pt 2: Are big tent politics obsolete?

In an earlier post, I looked at possible political realignment in the United Kingdom, something a few journalists have speculated about following the formation of the coalition government there.

In this post, I will look at political realignment at the federal level in Canada. The two biggest political parties in Canada, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, are big tent parties, the Liberals more so than the current incarnation of the Conservatives, and both more so, I think, than are the two main parties in the UK (Labour and the Conservatives). The big tent approach argues against any sort of single-issue litmus tests or ideological rigidity, and advocates multiple ideologies and views within a party.

Advocates of a big tent approach believe that people with a broad variety of political ideologies and viewpoints can unite within a single party to advance shared core issues they agree on, even if they disagree on other issues. This way the party can attract a large base of support at the polls. Big tent parties are far more common in First Past the Post systems with only a few large parties.

This is key – the combination of FPTP and the existence of big tent parties. The First Past the Post voting system really only works properly in a political system that has only two options, Party A and Party B, that have a serious shot at forming a (majority) government. The presence of smaller parties tends to break the system, especially if one (or more) of those smaller parties becomes a significant player. By break the system, I mean we end up with very few MPs being elected with a clear majority of votes (sometimes a seat may be won with less than 30% of the vote in one riding), the number of seats won by a party rarely reflects the percentage of the popular vote it receives, “majority” governments are formed with less than a majority of the popular vote, and in some cases, the second place party in terms of number of votes received wins a majority of seats. FPTP also discourages the emergence of other parties as serious contenders because it is very difficult for new parties to break through and win seats. Despite the odds against them, however, in both the UK and Canada, other parties have emerged and manage to win seats in each election.

The smaller parties usually have a much narrower focus – either in terms of ideology, or around a specific issue, or even on a geographical basis (or a combination thereof). For example, in Canada, the New Democratic Party (NDP) remains true to its social democratic ideological roots. Thus, the people who support that party do so because its policies reflect their beliefs and values, whereas someone who supports the Liberal Party might find that only part of that party’s programme reflects his or her values. The downside for the NDP, of course, is that this ideological “purity” also limits its appeal because it does not try to be all things to all people. Another example is the Bloc Québécois (BQ). The BQ fields candidates only in the province of Quebec, and its central raison d’être is to advance the interests of and work towards the possible independence of that province. Within Quebec, however, the Bloc, unlike the NDP, is itself a big tent party. It attracts people from all sides of the political spectrum who want Quebec to be independent. That may be the sole issue on which all of them agree. The UK also sees issue/region-specific parties elected to the House of Commons such as the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein; however, none of these parties impact UK politics the way the Bloc does in Canada since their combined seat total is very small (in the May 2010 general election, these parties account for 14 of 650 seats, while the BQ won 65% of the seats in Quebec in 2008, and accounts for 16% of the total seats in the House of Commons).

Over time, in Canada, the rise of multi-party politics at the federal level has revealed one of the key problems with FPTP, namely, that it exacerbates certain realities of the Canadian political system. Canada is a very large, regionally diverse country, but these regional differences are exaggerated by FPTP. The rise of the Bloc has made it very difficult for any of the national parties to win enough seats to form a majority government (which is what parties expect to do under FPTP). Increasingly, the Liberal party has found its support concentrated around the metropolitan centres of Toronto, and to a lesser extent, Montreal. It fails to win any seats in Alberta, and its seat total in the other western provinces does not reflect its share of the popular vote. The Conservatives dominate the Western provinces, but haven’t been able to win seats in the major metropolitan centres – hence reinforcing their image as being anti-urban, anti-central Canada. While they did manage to make modest inroads into Quebec (what Alberta is to the Liberals, Quebec is to the Conservatives), they inevitably erode that fledgling support because the bulk of their supporters’ views are fundamentally different than those of Quebecers.

Given the existing political realities in Canada, one might ask if the big tent approach still works for these parties. The bulk of their members and votes are limited to, and thus reflect the interests of, specific regions of the country. Trying to open up the tent to include the regions they aren’t strong in often forces the parties to take stands that alienate their core supporters, so they back down. For example, the Liberal party has tried to appeal to Albertans by speaking favourably of the oil sands project, which appalls many of its supporters in Central Canada (and environmentally-concerned Albertans), who see the oil sands as an environmental fiasco. The Conservatives shy away from strong support for environmental measures such as strong targets for reducing green house gases, or a carbon tax, policies that would serve them well in Quebec, because this would alienate their western base. It becomes a vicious circle. Because they lack representation from certain regions of the country within their caucuses, these parties find it increasingly difficult to develop a coherent national vision – a real big tent that would attract voters from coast to coast.

Of course, that’s not exactly true – all the federal parties (except the BQ) attract voters from coast to coast but because of FPTP, this pan-national support is not reflected in seats won. Each party remains virtually or completely shut out of certain areas of the country.

Because of this regional entrenchment, which while perhaps not caused by FPTP is certainly exacerbated by it, it is doubtful that Canada will see a return to a majority, one-party government any time soon, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

My understanding of UK politics is that the situation is similar – with the Conservatives and Labour strongly entrenched in certain parts of the country, and routinely shut out of others, while the smaller Liberal Democratic party manages to attract support from both moderate Labourites and Conservatives, gradually trying to built a stronger base for itself. However, as in Canada, FPTP only reinforces these regional strongholds. The Lib Dems seat count is never proportional to its percentage of the popular vote. The advantage the UK has over Canada is that its third party, the Lib Dems, could easily work with either Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament, as we have seen. Had Labour emerged with more seats (but still shy of a majority), I am certain a Lab-Lib Dem coalition could have been possible.

So if majority government for any party remains unlikely in Canada, what about coalitions here? One immediate problem is the presence of the Bloc Québécois. They are the 3rd party in the House in terms of number of seats, but because of their pro-Quebec independence stance, the federalist parties are wary (some might say hostile) to including them in a formal coalition deal. Certainly, many Canadians would question having representatives of a party that advocates the break-up of Canada in government. That leaves the NDP (which is actually the 4th party in the House after the Bloc) as the only potential coalition partner for either the Conservatives or the Liberals. The NDP would have great difficulty coming to any sort of coalition agreement with the Conservative Party. In fact, the Canadian Conservative Party has no natural ally with which it could attempt a coalition because of its strong right-wing ideological leanings. I hesitated at the outset to call the Conservative Party a big tent party because of its strong ideological rigidity; it is probably more accurate to say it is an ideological party masquerading as a big tent party in the hope of securing enough votes to form a majority government.

Since any coalition involving the Conservative Party is extremely unlikely, and a coalition with the Bloc unwelcomed, that leaves only two parties which might be able to form a functional coalition, the Liberals and the NDP. There has been increased interest in this possibility since the UK coalition government came into being, and some have even called for a merger of the two parties into a single, centre-left party. Neither option seems particularly realistic, given our current reality.

On the one hand, for a Liberal-NDP coalition to work, the two parties would have to win, at the very least, more seats combined than the Conservatives following the next federal election, and ideally, more seats combined than the Conservatives and BQ, primarily so that the coalition would not have to rely on the BQ for its survival. Current polls don’t show either scenario as being a likely outcome. A merger of the two parties is even more unlikely. There are significant differences between the two parties, and even within the Liberal Party itself. The Liberals are a bigger tent party than the NDP, and if the two parties merged, it would be naive to think all Liberal supporters would support this new party. Some would move to the Conservatives, or perhaps the Greens. Many would probably stay home. Even among NDP supporters, if the new party adopted a platform that was more centrist than social democratic, it is questionable if the more left-wing supporters of the NDP would support the new party.

A new party created out of a merger between the NDP and Liberals would require a very big big-tent approach to policy and programs in order to not only appeal to existing Liberal and NDP supporters, but to also try to make inroads in parts of the country where neither party is particularly strong. I honestly doubt this could be done. Over time, perhaps, but not soon or quickly. Certainly not in time for the next federal election.

As discussed above, the big-tent approach to politics isn’t working in Canada anymore, in large part because the regional entrenchment of each party limits its ability to effectively reach out beyond its existing base of support. Further limiting people’s political options by creating an even bigger big tent party isn’t the answer. I am not arguing that political realignment isn’t needed, quite the contrary. I believe it is desperately needed, but not at the cost of further limiting choice for voters.

Personally, I don’t think the current stasis in politics at the federal level will change unless the voting system is changed and/or significant political realignment occurs. First Past the Post condemns the parties to increased regional marginalisation. Increased regional marginalisation makes it more difficult for any party to see beyond its core base of support and develop a truly national platform. The absence of any truly national vision leads to a disinterested, uninspired electorate. While the formation of coalition governments should certainly be a part of  political debate and discussion in Canada, I believe minority government will remain the norm.

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