Sunday, July 18, 2010

On natural choices

In response to Alf Apps's statement that the Libs' goal should be simply to win power as the default alternative to the Harper Cons, Paul Wells makes some great points about the Libs' longstanding pattern of losing support during election campaigns. But it's worth putting that trend in the context of the much-debated question of who, if anybody, constitutes Canada's "natural governing party".

As noted by Wells, during their last stay in power the Libs enjoyed a consistent lead between elections, with their baseline share of popular support standing somewhere around 50% until at least the 2004 election. And it's not hard to see how the Libs' strategy at that point could plausibly be based on the assumption that they could relatively easily assemble a majority government out of the voters who looked to them by default.

While an election campaign tends to polarize the choices available to the electorate, there's plenty of room for a majority governing party to choose which opponent to portray as the main threat during the course of a campaign. And the Libs used that ability to great effect in playing up the Reform and Alliance parties even when they had little prospect of emerging as serious contenders to form government - which has unfortunately led to the strengthened right that eventually came to power.

More importantly, with 50% of the electorate as theoretical supporters where 40% would suffice for a majority, the Libs didn't have any particular need to maximize their potential turnout in order to hang onto power. (Indeed, there would be some room for discussion that the ideal outcome would be to gravitate toward the barest majority possible, though that seems more applicable as a matter of pure theory than a strategy for any given party.) Which goes a long way toward explaining why the Libs' election-day operations might have atrophied even while they were able to win majority governments based on broader trends - while their competitors had to maximize every vote in order to survive.

Since then, the Libs have started from lower and lower baseline support levels: around 35-40% during their last term in government, to 30-35% through most of the Cons' stay in power, then only recently tumbling below the 30% level consistently outside a campaign period. Which means that alongside Wells' observation about their support dipping during election campaigns, there's another extremely important trend for the Libs over the past few election cycles: namely, the constant erosion of their ability to rely on being perceived as the default governing party. And if the pattern of weak turnout among Lib supporters repeats itself from the current baseline, then a finish behind the NDP is within sight based on the Libs' failings alone.

But then, for all the talk about the Cons trying to establish themselves as the replacement national governing party, there isn't any indication that they've had any success on that front either, as the Cons' normal support level in the range of 35% doesn't leave any room for error in a campaign. Instead, any musings about Harper forcing a vote look to rely on the assumption that he can once again post an election-day showing that far exceeds the public's normal support for his party, with the hope that this time they can luck their way to a majority.

Of course, one could argue that the Cons might be able to establish a better long-term foothold if they do get a majority mandate. But it's far from clear that a party whose siege mentality as a minority government has resulted in plenty of bad governing habits can change that pattern even if the next election goes its way. And it would be a stretch to treat anything as an imminent "natural" state of affairs when it requires drastic changes in both results and strategy.

In sum, for all the spin to the contrary from Cons and Libs alike, there isn't a single group on the Canadian political scene that can credibly claim the title of "natural governing party", nor any apparent prospect of that changing anytime soon. Which should make for reason to spend far less time bloviating about who should be considered the default government, and far more discussing who we actually want to see making decisions in the public interest.

No comments:

Post a Comment