Saturday, January 05, 2013

On ranges of options

There are surely worse offenders to point out in the bevy of recaps and previews we inevitably see at year's end. But I'll pick on Paul Wells' latest as an example of a well-regarded observer making obvious missteps in trying to limit the scope of possibilities we should consider:
The opposition parties should all worry, all the time, that their support is simply a system of communicating vases: that rising Green support hurts mostly New Democrat and Liberal incumbents, that Trudeau or Marc Garneau or Martha Hall Findlay can hope at best only to replace Mulcair as Stephen Harper’s sixth opposition leader. A party normally loses power only when its supporters stop supporting it. In 2008 and 2011 no opposition party could dissuade large numbers of Conservative voters from voting Conservative again, because the kind of people who were amenable to voting Conservative could not be dissuaded from their belief that Harper would be a better economic manager than the alternatives.

There are only three paths to power for any opposition leader: peel away a large amount of what has been, for four elections in a row, solid Conservative support; completely collapse voter support for the other opposition parties; or implement a workable plan for opposition-party merger or cooperation. None of these can be done in the five weeks before an election. The work on any of these plans would need to start soon. If 2013 is a year in which little changes in the distribution of political power and partisan support, it will be a very good year for Stephen Harper.
Now, I certainly don't disagree with the broader point that 2013 will likely be a crucial year in laying the groundwork for the next federal election (whenever it occurs). But let's take a step back and look at Wells' assumptions as to how a change in government might come about.

To start with, I'm at a loss as to how peeling off "what has been, for four elections in a row, solid Conservative support" could be considered a less daunting task than making efforts to make connections within the similarly-sized pool of previous non-voters.

Of course, it might seem like a reasonable default setting to assume that previous demographic information will remain applicable for future elections as well. But I'd invite Wells to ask President Romney whether the assumption of constant participation and turnout levels is necessarily a safe one.

Indeed, it may well be that the most important work for any political party is to see and organize potential groups of supporters which others lack the foresight to consider as realistic targets. And the two most obvious shifts in the last few Canadian federal election cycles have been based on exactly those types of efforts: the Cons' pursuit of immigrant communities, and the NDP's emergence in Quebec.

At best, one can try to take the cynical view that non-voters are singularly unworthy of any effort based on their failure to participate in the past. But that still reflects a matter of argument rather than bright-line definition of options - and I for one would consider it a severe disappointment if the NDP ends its well-established (and thus-far effective) work in reaching out to new voters.

Beyond that, there's also the possibility that splits among the current opposition parties might prove more favourable if they take different shapes over the next few years than in previous election cycles - resulting in a change in Parliament's power dynamics without a single party following Wells' proposed paths to power.

In particular, the much-discussed shift to the rhetorical right among the Libs' leadership candidates could well set up a split in Wells' proposed paths. It may be that the group of past Con supporters most likely to change allegiances would consist of centre-to-right voters who might be most easily shaken off by a Lib focus on some combination of market values and ethical concerns. But the most likely result of that shift could be an NDP government at the party's current level of support, as the strategy which maximizes the Libs' growth potential among Con voters might help consolidate the NDP's hold on the left.

Similarly, there are any number of possible groups of Con voters who might be peeled off in ways that don't necessarily reflect the model of a single opposition party carrying out a single action as the basis for taking power - but which might give rise to different voting dynamics which would result in a change in government.
Now, I won't presume to say that any one strategy is bound to succeed or fail. And there would surely be some problems in trying to rely on any of the above suggestions as the sole hope for taking down the Harper Cons.

But none of Wells' three proposed paths is particularly safe or easy either - meaning that there's little valid basis for drawing a line between those worth considering and those to be discarded. And as a matter of general principle, the most dangerous choice the opposition parties can make at this stage is to arbitrarily rule out options which might produce better results.


  1. Anonymous5:18 p.m.

    There are a significant number of green voters who consider themselves to be former Progressive Conservatives, and indeed voted Conservative for some time after the merger, but as we've seen in the recent by-election might be switching from Conservative to Green. If this is indeed the case, it may shatter the commonly held belief that the Greens are competing with the NDP and the Liberals for voters on the "left", when they may turn out to be splitting the vote once again on the "right". An entirely different paradigm, and if the Green Party were to take advantage of it and adjust their message accordingly, boost the Greens significantly and reduce the Conservatives to 3rd or even 4th party status. It sounds crazy now, but its about as crazy as suggesting in 1990 that the majority PC government would be reduced to 2 seats. Anything can happen; especially if we start thinking differently about the dynamics that might be at play in the next election.

  2. Anonymous5:32 p.m.

    With the crazy economic libertarian green policies why wouldn't pissed off cons move over? Good luck to them trying to make sense of it.

  3. @anon: The Green Party will not be very significant outside of BC, and a few select ridings in the rest of Canada. The reason is simple, the local EDA's were all funded by the per voter subsidy. Now that the subsidy is ending, the remaining riding associations will disappear (118 de-certified so far, 160 to go). Without any local organisations, and now that the GPC does not have any organisers on the payroll outside BC, they will not be fielding many candidates in the next election. No candidate means no votes. It does not matter anymore who they used to vote for, their supporters will be returning to another party, or staying at home in 2015