Saturday, February 18, 2012

A cooperative forecast

Nathan Cullen's plan for a pre-election accord between the NDP, Libs and Greens is certainly receiving loads of attention. Leadnow and Avaaz are encouraging members to join the NDP to support it (raising for me the question of how a large number of instant NDP members would allocate their down-ballot support if Cullen drops off the ballot). And Catch 22 is trying to make the case for pre-election cooperation as compared to other options in toppling the Harper Cons, while Malcolm calculates the remote odds of a such a strategy making a difference in actual electoral outcomes based on 2011 voting patterns.

But then, I'm not sure hindsight is the best way to evaluate what a cooperation plan would actually do. Instead, let's consider what would happen in the lead up to 2015 if Cullen were to win the NDP's leadership based on his plan.

To start with, as I've pointed out before, the goal of cooperation is mostly moot if the other main party needed to make the scheme work isn't committed to participating. And that means for a year after the NDP's leadership campaign, the most important question as to the primary plan of the leader of the Official Opposition would be based on the impending result of another party's leadership race - encouraging the media to keep focusing on the Libs for that year, while leaving the NDP's grassroots in limbo out of uncertainty as to how to allocate its resources.

So what would happen based on the results of the Libs' leadership race? Well, if they chose a candidate who supported Cullen's plan, then the next step would be for riding associations on both sides to plan their strategies for a co-operation scheme. Each would have a choice between not participating and planning for a campaign as usual, or participating and having to ramp up for a nomination contest. And both parties would have to work internally and coordinate with each other at all times to set up an agreeable nomination schedule and ground rules - diverting plenty of resources which might otherwise be used setting up a winning message against the Cons.

The co-operation plan would then apply only in the ridings where both parties' grassroots membership preferred cooperation - which would be far from assured based on some of the backlash against Cullen's plan from both sides of the party divide. And then a nomination meeting would only serve to divide the parties once more before the final effort to put their vote shares together.

In other words, if Cullen's proposal works as planned, the result will be a wasted year for the NDP in building itself up in contrast against both the Cons and Libs. And that would be followed by a huge diversion of energy and effort from traditional or innovative political engagement, toward instead setting up and then trying to gain the greatest possible advantage within a one-time ad hoc structure.

So what if a Lib leader were to reject Cullen's plan? On the one hand, any failure is bound to take some wind out of the sails of a party, particularly to the extent the Libs would be seen as dictating what happens within the opposition despite their third-party status.

But at the same time, Cullen and the NDP would be able to make another pitch to voters that their efforts to cooperate have been rebuffed by a party which puts its own self-interest ahead of the goal of replacing the Harper government. And if the same groups which are supporting cooperation now recognized the Libs' refusal to participate as a fundamental barrier to replace the Cons and threw their support behind the NDP, then there's at least some chance that the end result could be a best-case scenario in ensuring that progressive Canadians coalesce within the NDP.

Which is to say that Cullen's proposal isn't without some upside. But the best-case scenario may well be the one in which the Libs reject it and allow Cullen to claim the moral high ground for the NDP. And if the Libs see that possibility too, then it's not out of the question that both parties would end up getting trapped in the plan without any particular grassroots enthusiasm for it.

12 comments:

  1. I think the fundamental point you're sidelining is that the whole proposed cooperation plan would be opt in. Meaning that if your riding association knows they're not going to want to do it they aren't going to get bogged down in the problems you mention.
    I don't think any ridings with sitting MPs would want to adopt the proposal, and neither would any riding we came in 2nd. Thats 2/3 of the country.
    The only ridings I see taking advantage of this is places without an active riding association, without any interest in having a local candidate and areas where partisanship has less sway than issue based campaigns.

    All in all I don't see more than half a dozen ridings contemplating Cullens proposal. If we wait on Liberal riding assocications(which are dropping like flies) to make final calls in those 6 ridings that doesn't mean we aren't working hard in the other 300+ ridings to win.

    Cullens plan isn't the whole show of his campaign, as a matter of fact the times I have met him campaigning it took up very little of our discussion, not because we agreed, but because it's really small potatoes when it comes to the whole policy platform and caucus initiatives we should and will be taking. 

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  2. Anonymous1:14 PM

    Unfortunately while it may arguably be small potatoes in terms of policy, it is very large potatoes politically.  To me it sends a very basic message, whether for better or worse, about the NDP's attitude towards the Liberal party and also about the NDP's confidence level.  A signal like this of general approval of the Liberal party as a sort of partner says things I don't like about what the NDP itself can be taken to stand for--it's an NDP that apparently isn't in fundamental disagreement with the Liberals, an NDP that takes to itself the old saw that "New Democrats are Liberals in a hurry".  It doesn't matter how few ridings it ends up affecting (and it seems an odd argument:  You can support this policy because it will probably be a failure).
    I don't mind co-operating in the House on policy issues where there is agreement.  Under some circumstances I can even agree with a coalition--at that point the people have spoken and it's a matter of collaborating with those voters who as it turns out support the Liberals.  But co-operating in the election process is failing to oppose the Liberals as an ideology, and as it happens I do oppose the Liberals as an ideology.  The only basis I can imagine for pre-election co-operation would be a shared agenda in which the first order of business after election would be electoral reform to install a good system of proportional representation, which would be immediately followed by another election under the new system.

    I have actually been getting Avaaz's stuff and signing a lot of their petitions; when I got their "Throw the NDP leadership race to Cullen so as to promote co-operation with the Liberals" email I unsubscribed; I'm out.  I didn't like their approach to Libya or their current approach to Syria either.

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  3. Purple Library Guy1:18 PM

    Whoops.  That "Guest" was me.

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  4. jurist2:14 PM

    Except that the nature of having a party leader pushing the plan is that every riding association will at least need to spend some time discussing whether to participate - and that goes doubly if groups seen as an important part of a progressive base are joining and/or pressuring EDAs to push the issue.

    (Moreover, the plan becomes a virtual nullity in terms of electoral impact if only a few ridings are involved - again making for little upside for something that's bound to drown out discussion of more important issues.)

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  5. jurist2:15 PM

    (Note: the above is in response to James - I'll readily concur with PLG's post.)

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  6. Malcolm FRench11:32 PM

    I agree that it is a bit methodoligically dubious to apply the scenario to a past election, but it is at least as dubious to apply it to a future one.  At least with the past election, one is operating on numbers that have some basis in reality.

    And, oddly, it shows much the same results as the last time I did these kinds of extrapolations based on the 2008 election.  Cooperation plans require a net retention in the order of 70% or more to make any meaningful difference.  Realistically, any net retention over 50% is a pretty dubious proposition.

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  7. Malcolm FRench11:32 PM

    I agree that it is a bit methodoligically dubious to apply the scenario to a past election, but it is at least as dubious to apply it to a future one.  At least with the past election, one is operating on numbers that have some basis in reality.

    And, oddly, it shows much the same results as the last time I did these kinds of extrapolations based on the 2008 election.  Cooperation plans require a net retention in the order of 70% or more to make any meaningful difference.  Realistically, any net retention over 50% is a pretty dubious proposition.

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  8. Malcolm FRench11:33 PM

    I agree that it is a bit methodoligically dubious to apply the scenario to a past election, but it is at least as dubious to apply it to a future one.  At least with the past election, one is operating on numbers that have some basis in reality.

    And, oddly, it shows much the same results as the last time I did these kinds of extrapolations based on the 2008 election.  Cooperation plans require a net retention in the order of 70% or more to make any meaningful difference.  Realistically, any net retention over 50% is a pretty dubious proposition.

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  9. jurist10:02 AM

    Good point that the pattern looks to have been consistent over time (at least against the Cons' fairly consistent base support level). And even that's taking the case at its highest by cherry-picking the most favourable ridings after the fact: indeed even Catch 22's study points out that the effort to identify target ridings and parties in advance has been largely unsuccessful.

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  10. NDP guest from Cullen's riding, former YT MLA4:32 PM

    I considered throwing first ballot support to my MP - Cullen - when I heard he was running.  The next thing I heard was this cooperation proposal with other "progressive" forces...  and that dropped his candidacy from my list.  As a federal party the New Democrats must be able to present a credible message (or frame of mind as Mulcair puts it) to cast a wide enough net to draw Canadians to our progressive vision for the country.  Cullen made this cooperation of the progressives central to his campaign by placing this first and foremost in his campaign.

    This formal cooperation as presented by Cullen is strategically wrong.  It has a great potential to take the progressives back to the dark ages for another generation!

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