By John Geddes - Saturday, December 29, 2012 - 0 Comments
How many senators did Prime Minister Stephen Harper appoint in 2012? How many years does the government allow, in its latest plan, for “development and acquisition” of F-35 fighter jets? How many premiers, provincial and territorial, attended the November economic summit in Halifax? (Hint: Saskatchewan’s just phoned in.)
In all cases, the answer is an even dozen. But for our purposes here—in this third annual installment of a year-capping look back—we’re interested in 12 only as the number of months in the calendar. Select just a single story for each, and 2012 might almost begin to show some semblance of coherence.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 9:29 AM - 0 Comments
The aftereffects in Alberta of the Nov. 26 Calgary-Centre federal byelection, carried off by Conservative Joan Crockatt with just 37 per cent of the vote, have officially become super hilarious. The reader will recall that the two main challengers for a Conservative seat in a relatively liberal-friendly part of Calgary were the capital-L Liberal Harvey Locke, who has spent decades as a top wilderness preservation advocate and all-around Nature Boy, and the Green Party’s Chris Turner, an urbanist author and magazine writer who uses the word “sustainable” with a frequency best characterized as “intolerable”. In short, the two parties both nominated professional environmentalists, neither of whom have done a whole lot else with their lives. We could all probably have anticipated a problem here.
How does a Green candidate run against a Harvey Locke? Turner was shrewd and cynical enough to find an answer: berate the older guy as an out-of-touch Seventies green who, as Locke had admitted in an interview, didn’t even move to Calgary from Banff until it looked like there might be a Commons seat available amid Cowtown’s dark Sanatic mills. (Asked by your correspondent if she approved of this campaigning style, Elizabeth May observed that the GPC is not one of those old-fashioned “top-down parties” in which the leader orders candidates about.) Locke, for his part, spluttered that his young rival was a “twerp”. Continue…
By John Geddes - Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 8:47 AM - 0 Comments
This week’s Maclean’s features my profile of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. For the story in the issue on newsstands today, Mulcair answered questions about his life over lunch in a back booth at a diner not far from his home just west of Montréal. The interview lasted nearly two hours, enough time for Mulcair to wash down his salad with two double-espressos.
Even in a fairly long article, though, not every telling reply from a conversation that expansive makes it into print—there’s not enough room. So here are three outtakes that, taken together, might offer a sense where Mulcair’s coming from, and a glimpse of the challenge he faces in getting where he wants to go.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 12:09 PM - 0 Comments
Because Ed Broadbent has tremendous moral authority in the New Democratic Party, he must never be allowed to exercise it. That seems to be the prevailing response to the sudden hatchet assault Broadbent made last week on NDP leadership contest frontrunner Thomas Mulcair. It is a curious spectacle: a throng of columnists and observers is questioning almost everything but the factual truth of Broadbent’s comments. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 6:29 AM - 0 Comments
Ex-Colleague Coyne has an excellent column on the emerging political split between the resource-extracting parts of the country and the sentimental nationalists who think every drop of bitumen and chip of timber sent abroad makes baby Jesus cry. I noticed one snippet, though, which goes to show how even the most trend-aware and detail-oriented columnist (that’s what he is!) can be held prisoner by persistent images of the past: Continue…
By John Geddes - Monday, February 13, 2012 at 11:23 AM - 0 Comments
Nobody saw this one coming. Doris Layton, mother of the late NDP leader Jack Layton, this morning endorsed her son’s former national campaign director, Brian Topp, for the New Democratic Party leadership.
For me, it’s fascinating to have this octogenarian wade into the fray. She has not been an overtly forceful political presence. When I interviewed Jack Layton and other family members and friends for a profile of him last spring, every description of his mother fit the portrait of the quintessential postwar homemaker. Her talent for needlepoint came up repeatedly.
Yet nobody I talked to, including Jack Layton, spoke of Doris Layton in patronizing tones. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Monday, February 13, 2012 at 9:05 AM - 0 Comments
Sorry, do I have this right? Peggy Nash is running for the NDP leadership…to the right of the Chrétien government on health care? In Sunday’s NDP debate, Paul Dewar asked Nash what she would do if the Quebec government introduced hospital user fees, as indeed it promised/threatened to do in its 2009 budget before eventually relenting. Nash’s answer, translated by the Star: “We hope that we want our health care system to be public, but really it’s a provincial jurisdiction [c'est une compétence provinciale], so it’s the decision of Quebecers.”
Some accounts of the debate overlooked this gotcha move by Dewar, but Nash’s answer could not have been more surprising if she had opened her mouth and ten thousand butterflies had come fluttering out. Nash, widely perceived to be at a disadvantage in Quebec against opponents who call the place home, was certainly motivated by hyperconsciousness of Quebec’s constitutional sensitivities. Her answer, however, would seem to open the door to facility fees in provinces that were actually penalized between 1992 and 2004 for allowing private free-standing clinics to impose them (in some cases while billing the government for the physician services). Alberta had $3.6 million in transfers withheld; Manitoba, $2.4 million; B.C., $2.2 million; Nova Scotia, $372,000; and Newfoundland $284,000.
Among the items that have normally been deemed provincial territory is the definition of “medical necessity” under the Canada Health Act. The CHA provides no core list of medically necessary services, and coverage varies from province to province; but at about the time the provinces were playing chicken with Ottawa and losing, the Alberta government came under fairly significant pressure to defund abortions. It was informed pretty sharply by federal Health Minister Diane Marleau that abortion was definitely always “medically necessary” and that this was NOT a decision to be left to Albertans. One wonders whether Prime Minister Peggy Nash would say the same thing to a province that tried to defund abortion now. Alberta probably isn’t a candidate anymore, but Prince Edward Island seems to find them pretty distasteful. C’est une compétence provinciale?
By John Geddes - Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 10:42 AM - 2 Comments
Richard Johnston, Canada research chair in public opinion, elections and representation at University of British Columbia, is a leading expert on how democracy works in Canada and abroad. He is co-author of 2007’s award-winning The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South, and co-editor of 2005’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy, a collection of essays on democratic reform issues. Johnston spoke to Maclean’s this week about how the federal political landscape changed this year.
Q: It looks like 2011 might be remembered as a watershed year in Canadian politics. Do you see the May 2 election and its aftermath that way?
A: There’s a task of further consolidation of the coalitions for the Conservatives and the New Democrats, especially the NDP. But I would say the starting point is to realize that the fate of the Liberal party is no longer in the hands of the Liberal party. Superficially, at least, the system has now clicked into an orientation that would be pretty familiar to someone from Australia, New Zealand or the UK.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, September 7, 2011 at 4:49 AM - 151 Comments
[Olivia Chow] won’t reveal the nature of [Jack Layton’s] final illness: “Jack’s wish is that we don’t talk precisely about what kind because we want to give other cancer patients the kind of hope they deserve and should have. If we talk about this kind of cancer, or that, then if you have that particular kind, you would be really worried…” –The Star, Tuesday
Pardon me, fellow Canadians, but this is preposterous. Olivia Chow’s explanation doesn’t even make sense on its own terms: in the absence of information about what kind of cancer killed Jack Layton, patients with any kind of cancer at all might be frightened or upset by his sudden demise. She is denying us information that could ease the minds of the vast majority of these people. But then, this isn’t the first time we’ve been given a strained, unconvincing excuse for secrecy when it comes to Jack Layton’s health, though it is likely to be the last.
When Jack Layton was first diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, his secretary Brad Lavigne told Canadians that we would not be receiving details of Layton’s treatment because, basically, we are too stupid to handle it. Cancer sufferers, Lavigne argued, might perceive such a disclosure “as general medical advice” and conclude that the same therapies “might be suitable for them.” This was an amazingly brazen answer in an era in which “awareness” is worshipped like a tiki. Jack Layton might have been the first cancer victim in decades who believed that his disease did not provide him with a morally binding opportunity to educate others—that, in fact, his duty was to conceal. The question nobody asked: what if there were prostate cancer patients who might learn, by means of Layton’s example, of a treatment that was truly “suitable”?
Instead, Lavigne’s bizarre rationale was accepted, and questions about Layton’s later hip fracture were shrugged off, even though Canadians have abundant, well-founded reasons to suspect politicians, as a group, of habitually queue-jumping and seeking private care outside the country. The NDP cannot shut up about how Tommy Douglas gave us medicare like some cornball Prometheus bringing fire unto primeval man; its leaders therefore might be regarded as having a special responsibility to rise above such suspicions.
This would be the case even if Layton hadn’t availed himself controversially of private clinics in the past, and it would be the case even if it weren’t for the mysterious affair of April’s disappearing “hip replacement”, when we were all asked to believe that Layton’s sister, who was travelling with him and essentially acting his physical therapist, got an exceedingly rudimentary detail of his treatment wrong. Could happen! It would have been awfully simple for him to confirm it with medical evidence!—he said so himself, and offered to provide that evidence!
But by that time, no one in a position to ask was interested: the adversarial relationship between politician and media had already broken down. It has been pointed out incessantly in defence of Layton’s privacy that Canada, unlike the U.S., has not established a full-disclosure norm in health matters for important politicians. What nobody observes is that the U.S. adopted this norm for very good reasons—reasons with labels like Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy. Long experience of republican government has taught Americans that politicians will tell merciless, outrageous lies about their health status to secure electoral advantage unless a full-disclosure norm is aggressively enforced by the press.
Jack Layton, of course, was never the chief magistrate of a republic—just a man who claimed to be running for our prime ministership in earnest, and, later, a officer of state with responsibility for assembling and leading an alternative government. Still, eventually Canada will, like the U.S., begin to oblige men in his position to be excruciatingly forthright about their health. And eventually someone will spill the beans about what killed him. In the meantime, 4.5 million Canadians who voted for a party led by Jack Layton will just have to wait and see what they actually end up with.
By John Geddes - Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 1:38 PM - 4 Comments
The sight of Jack Layton, so thin, telling the country yesterday that he is again struggling with cancer, and, even more, the sound of his voice, so changed, will have many sympathetic Canadians feeling the urge to somehow express their best hopes for his recovery. But how?
I’m pretty sure Layton wouldn’t say no to some prayers. Early last month, when I interviewed the NDP leader for this profile, he talked about prayer in recounting what he experienced after he held a news conference on Feb. 5, 2010, with his wife, Olivia Chow, to announce that he had prostate cancer.
“When Olivia and I made the announcement,” Layton said, “I came home that night and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m feeling here. I shouldn’t be feeling like I’m feeling. I’m feeling almost like a joyful feeling.’”
By Colby Cosh - Monday, May 9, 2011 at 6:58 PM - 101 Comments
We are all having a good time chortling about the Ruth Ellen Brosseau Crisis (Day 7!), which has become the biggest “cute white girl goes missing” news story since Natalee Holloway. But I think political horserace-handicappers need to start considering, seriously, whether the New Democratic Party is starting to foul up their foul-up. Humour is the most powerful acid in politics when it comes to dissolving confidence and momentum; a politician can fight a lie, but he cannot fight a good joke.
The NDP has left us with the impression that it has all but kidnapped Brosseau and is putting her through some kind of sadistic round-the-clock training—perhaps in a basement lit by a single bare light bulb—in the hope of making her presentable to the cameras at some point. This really is getting kind of creepy, and the English-language phone interview with somebody who can only be described as “a person claiming to be Brosseau” didn’t help. Nor does the media’s collective failure to establish any meaningful proof of Brosseau’s prior existence. (There are no candid photographs extant of a campus pub manager? There’s nothing on Flickr?)
I suppose Brosseau’s captors/handlers can argue that she is a grown-up who signed nomination papers on the dotted line, and that it will not do for her to back out now. The problem they have is that the longer we have to wait for her to manifest her existence, the greater the NDP’s apparent investment in her success, and the higher the standard that will eventually be applied to her. The party brass did have the option, in the hours following the election, of distancing themselves politely from her, slapping her on the back, wishing her good luck, and letting her take her own chances. They could have said “We’re a party with a strong grassroots, and we don’t handpick elite candidates according to their polite capitalist credentials or the content of their tax returns.” Instead, at the very moment its professionalism should no longer have been in serious question, the party made the decision that the new Quebecois empire must be defended to the last ditch. Which seems to have left it playing out a bizarre fast-forward retelling of Shaw’s Pygmalion.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 2:38 AM - 114 Comments
Are you ready to stay up late May 2? Do you have good coffee and plenty of snacks laid in? This may be the election with the highest quantity of uncertainty in my adult experience. The NDP’s dazzling polling gains simply have no obvious recent precedent. I’m not sure a national party has ever made strides of this magnitude and nature in such a bewilderingly short time.
Think about the questions you have to ask to estimate the impact, in terms of Commons representation, of a shift like this; you have to form ideas about the sincerity of the polling subjects’ intentions, the efficiency of the resulting gains in various regions, and the pure logistical power of the party to get out its vote, all while taking into account the activity and the relative positions of three or four other parties.
And then, as if all that weren’t enough, some old flatfoot comes along and tells some TV guys about Jack Layton getting naked in a place he ought not to have been naking around in. Nobody knows what will happen on May 2—and I don’t mean that in the usual perfunctory way. This time, really, nobody has any idea. Having messed around with election models, I could tell you plausible stories that involve the NDP winning 120 seats; I could tell you stories of roughly equal plausibility that put them at 55.
Of course, there are limits. I am just about ready to rule out a Diefenbaker-like cross-country rampage by the Conservatives. I am just about ready to promise that Michael Ignatieff will not look happy on Monday evening. (Though even then: how stupefyingly low are expectations for him at this point?) What I can tell you is what how I would bet, if I had to bet. I believe, halfway through the weekend, that the Conservative push for a majority will come down to the wire. And I think they are a little more likely to get there than not.
I’ve discussed Quebec already. The Tories will probably lose about a half-dozen seats there, but they have a modest nucleus of three or four where their leads are just too huge to be overcome even by the thirty-point gain that the latest Ipsos poll gives the NDP, relative to the last election. The game will be won or lost in Ontario—and what is hard to appreciate until you do some modelling, some farting around with numbers, is just how good the NDP will be at electing Conservatives there.
It looks to me as though, throughout the 25%-35% range of vote share the pollsters more or less have the Ontario NDP in right now, uniformly-distributed gains in NDP support at the expense of the Liberals yield more Conservative seats than NDP seats. Stop and read that again if you need to. It is kind of troubling and counterintuitive and may even threaten the reader’s childlike faith in democracy, but within that 25-35 band, most of the benefit of each additional NDP vote will end up in the hands of the Tories. If you hold everything else equal at some reasonable level, and push the NDP from 25% to 35% at the Liberals’ expense, you see the Liberals lose something like 25 seats. And the Tories, without gaining or losing an actual vote for themselves, get 14 to 16 of those.
Moreover, for the Tories, the optimum level of NDP vote share in Ontario would appear to be above 35%, and more like 38%. The New Democrats don’t start taking seats away from the Conservatives until the point at which the Liberals are exterminated outright; reduced to zero. Which makes sense on a metaphorical level. The NDP and the Conservatives have to chew through the Liberal centre completely to get at each other.
Is the uniform-swing assumption, the assumption that votes will migrate in the same proportions from riding to riding, a safe one here? It’s never all that safe. But I would venture that it is safer than usual in 2011. The shift to the NDP isn’t a result of appeals to particular economic sectors or social groupings that might vary from riding to riding. It is a personality-driven shift; a true mass movement. It is, in part, surely driven by universal human reactions to Layton’s courage. He is fighting an election he might easily have avoided.
In fact… if you’ll pardon a digression, I am not sure this is fully appreciated, and maybe it should be said by somebody who wouldn’t willingly let Jack Layton handle the Grade Five milk money. Layton faced a choice: fight an election now, which is a squalid and exhausting task for a healthy person, or take time to recover from cancer and a broken hip in relative peace. This was as a free a choice as can be imagined. Nobody on the face of earth would have blamed him for taking a break. He decided not to, and whether he did it for the advantage of the party or for the interests of the country, the decision boils down to “He did a brutally difficult thing because he thought it needed doing”. If you ask me, it’s pretty damn admirable even if he just thought selfishly that this was his best chance at being Prime Minister.
Anyway, we are experiencing, as some have called it, a Layton-Mania. However large it ends up being, it should be fairly similar in magnitude from place to place. That’s not good news for the Liberals. I can’t find much good news for the Liberals anywhere I look.
I think it is natural to suppose that the NDP will disappoint in Quebec, but match or exceed its not-quite-so-absurd polling numbers in Ontario, where the party has a real organization and where most of its candidates are not missing or imaginary or celebrating their 14th birthdays on the Moon. I see no evidence of major surprises anywhere else. Even the minor surprises I can envision would work in favour of the Conservatives. Ralph Goodale slipping on a banana peel in Wascana? The Tories doing unexpectedly well in Newfoundland without “ABC”? Gary Lunn shooing Liz May into the Strait of Juan de Fuca? Linda Duncan losing Alberta’s “orange blob” in Strathcona because of Layton’s oilsands hostility?
I’m not predicting any of those things; the point is that they are conceivable, yet my guess doesn’t depend on any of them. I’ve gone on too long about this already, given the enormous likelihood that I am completely wrong, but I have the Tories at around 160 seats. The NDP? ‘Bout half that. The Liberals? ‘Bout half that half.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 11:03 AM - 93 Comments
Okey-doke. Let’s think this NDP polling surge through. Tell you what: go ahead and pick some riding where the New Democrat is said to have a chance of knocking off a high-profile incumbent. We’ll take Justin Trudeau’s Papineau, which is thought to be in some danger from Laytonmania as its MP flits about stumping for Liberals elsewhere in the country. Visit the La Presse 2008 election map with me, select “Papineau” on the pulldown menu, and let’s see what the Little Prince’s victory there actually looked like…
In the constituency as a whole, remember, Trudeau got 41% of the vote. But try clicking on the dots that represent single-institution polls, mostly long-term care facilities. Trudeau ran at much, much better than 41% inside those buildings. At the Hôpital Jean-Talon, he got 45 of the 69 valid votes cast. At the Centre d’hébergement de soins de longue durée-Les Havres, he also got 45 of 69. He swept the Résidence St-Michel and the Résidence d’Iberville like a meth-crazed janitor.
Do you figure this pattern emerges because old folks love Justin Trudeau? I mean, I’m sure they do; he has a name they recognize. But vote totals like this also reflect the local knowledge of political professionals and their ability to devote resources to particular vote clusters—in short, “ground game” or “GOTV”. Seniors’ residences just happen to be where the effect of having a partisan machine—a network of operators who can pack buses, speak a second language, arrange targeted messaging, or, let’s face it, get a case of whisky to the right guy—is most visible. At every election, the same thing happens in workplaces, ethnic neighbourhoods, various kinds of drop-in and hang-out centre, condominiums and shopping malls. Votes come in bunches; it’s hard to gather them that way from a distance.
You’ll see the same telltale, heavily-weighted dots anywhere you look; Laurie Hawn hoovered them up in my Edmonton Centre riding in ’08. It’s awfully easy, you see, to conflate two distinct kinds of micro-scale analysis of the political landscape. The one that has received some attention is the regional scale: the NDP vote surge measured by the polls will be relatively efficient, voter for voter, in a place like B.C.’s Lower Mainland where the party is already strong, and will be relatively inefficient—at electing NDP candidates, that is—in Quebec ridings where the NDP might normally run below 2%. But at the even smaller scale, the building-by-building, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood scale, the question is whether absentee, casual, or unfamiliar candidates will be able to deliver the level of vote share recorded by pollsters at all. This is Electoral Politics 101, but for a civilian observer outside a war room, looking at the La Presse maps impresses the truth upon one in a way that abstract knowledge doesn’t.
The NDP seems obviously poised to suffer a 2004-Democratic-Party-style letdown in which the bona fides of “youth” and “protest” and “internet” voters are questioned by those who overestimated their power, or pretended to, in the first place. Despite the last six days’ worth of polling, I am not, at this moment, convinced that the NDP is going to beat the Liberals either in seat total or national vote share. Wells’s First Rule still holds. And Lord knows the soul-searching I expect to see after the election qualifies as the “least exciting outcome”.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 8:37 AM - 21 Comments
I’ve been catching up with the various party platforms, and doing my best to use one of the pet heuristics I developed in my columnist days: looking for the most positive thing I could possibly say about those whose overall philosophies I strongly oppose. In this election, that is pretty well everybody. But I started with the Greens and the New Democrats, because that is where the task of being sympathetic is hardest for a gun-crazed oil-drunk Albertan.
The contrast between the parties’ platforms is interesting: the Green ideas induce slightly more sheer nausea of the “literally everything in here is eye-slashingly horrible” kind, but at the same time there is a consoling breath of radicalism pervading Vision Green, a redeeming Small Is Beautiful spirit. At least, one feels, their nonsense is addressed to the individual. A typical laissez-faire economist would probably like the Green platform the least of the four on offer from national parties, but the Greens may be the strongest of all in advocating the core precept that prices are signals. At one point, denouncing market distortions created by corporate welfare, Vision Green approvingly quotes the maxim “Governments are not adept at picking winners, but losers are adept at picking governments.” (The saying is attributed to a 2006 book by Mark Milke of the Fraser Institute, but a gentleman named Paul Martin Jr. had uttered a version of it as early as 2000.)
The New Democratic platform is more adult and serious than the Greens’ overall, which comes as no surprise. But it occurs to me, not for the first time this year, how much some folks love “trickle-down politics” when they are not busy denouncing “trickle-down economics”. How does Jack Layton hope to remedy the plight of the Canadian Indian? By “building a new relationship” with his politicians and band chiefs. How does he propose to improve the lot of artists? By flooding movie and TV producers, and funding agencies, with money and tax credits. He’ll help parents by giving money to day care entrepreneurs; he’ll sweeten the pot for “women’s groups” and “civil society groups”. One detects, perhaps mostly from prejudice, a suffocating sense of system-building, of unskeptical passion for bureaucracy, of disrespect for the sheer power of middlemen to make value disappear.
There is one specific difference between the platforms that leaps out when they are read together: Vision Green has a section on “Ending the war on drugs.”
In 2008, according to the Treasury Board, Canada spent $61.3 million targeting illicit drugs, with a majority of that money going to law enforcement. Most of that was for the “war” against cannabis (marijuana). Marijuana prohibition is also prohibitively costly in other ways, including criminalizing youth and fostering organized crime. Cannabis prohibition, which has gone on for decades, has utterly failed and has not led to reduced drug use in Canada.
Green MPs, we are promised, would remove marijuana from the schedule of illegal drugs outright. It’s the “legalize and tax” approach, presented mostly without the usual cowardly conditions—though, being Greens, they can’t resist stipulating that regulations should confine production to “small, independent growers”. (There is no earthly reason giant industrial concerns shouldn’t be allowed to get in the game if they want to.)
The NDP platform is silent on the drug war and on marijuana. Jack Layton used to be the favourite son of the single-issue stoners, and decriminalization appeared in past platforms. Now we see the mustachioed one repeating “potent pot” fairy stories on the campaign trail and calling for an “adult conversation”, instead of for policies that treat adults as adults. Note that when the Star‘s reporter asked a follow-up question, Layton immediately started cracking wise; someone should explain to him that “adult conversation” about drug policy does not involve dropping smirking hints about the personal predilections of participants.
It would not be quite so extraordinary for Layton to play the smug ass, of course, were he not a cancer survivor currently reaping a hard-earned harvest of sympathy. As he knows—as some kindly professional has perhaps told him—many people in his plight find marijuana a useful part of their therapeutic regimen, particularly in overcoming the effects of chemical and radiation treatments. I don’t suppose he will have any trouble obtaining marijuana if he decides he should want it; maybe he already has. But what about the less privileged? Have they been altogether forgotten by their social-democratic tribune?
By Colby Cosh - Friday, April 23, 2010 at 1:56 PM - 34 Comments
You’ve probably heard about the startling eleventh-hour rise in the polls that Britain’s Liberal Democrats have enjoyed since their leader Nick Clegg, a reformed skirt-chaser and unreformed atheist, leapt out of the tall grass to win an Apr. 15 televised election debate. It’s time Canadians started contemplating the domestic impact of a strong Lib-Dem performance in the May 6 vote.
Lately you can find individual UK polls that have the three major parties in almost every order except for those that have the ruling Labour Party at the top. Conservative leader David Cameron, until recently a heavy favourite to win the election and capture a majority, suddenly finds himself confronted with the possibility of a historic, 1964-Phillies-esque collapse down the stretch. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been reduced to near-irrelevance on the hustings—but because of his Labour Party’s regional strength, his party is likely to control more seats than the Liberal Democrats even if Labour finishes third in the vote.
Punters at UK gambling site Betfair are currently forecasting better-than-even odds (57%) of a hung Parliament and a reasonable chance (fractional odds: 7-to-1) of someone other than Brown or Cameron becoming Prime Minister. Under such chaotic circumstances it is entirely possible that “someone other than Brown or Cameron” could end up being a coalition leader other than Clegg himself. And the price of the exotic “two elections in 2010″ prop bet has soared, implying a 27% chance of a quickie second vote. Also, dogs and cats have been spotted living together in Scunthorpe.
The Clegg boomlet may not end up changing anything in the long run. But even though the UK parties map awkwardly onto ours, it would appear to have relevance to Canada on at least a couple of fronts. The Lib-Dem moment is the very same one of which the New Democrats have been dreaming since the Winnipeg Declaration, and of which they caught a brief glimpse in ’88; to wit, voters finally get tired of the choice between Coke and Pepsi and start getting curious about Dr. Pepper.
I went to rabble.ca expecting to find a lot of excitement about this. More fool me. The online left is far too busy tilting at Zionist windmills and trying to win the All-Canada Summarize Chomsky Competition to pay any heed to the model for our democracy. But a strong electoral performance by Clegg would provide data for a future debate about the fate and usefulness of a social-democratic party that no longer believes in socialism—and one that, given the excess weight given to labour unions in its leadership balloting, arguably isn’t all that strong on democracy either. Recall that the “Democrat” half the Liberal-Democrat DNA derives from light-pink Labourites who got tired of trade-union bullying and wanted to build a non-militant home for the Left. Thatcher crushed the unions, Labour became neoliberal, and thirty years zipped by, but somehow the Lib Dems have recovered a raison d’être.
It seems highly speculative to imagine that such a thing could ever happen to the NDP. (I’m not aware that there exists some brand of “awareness of one’s own irrelevance” fairy-dust that can be sprinkled on NDP supporters.) Of more immediate concern to Canada is the possibility that a strong Lib-Dem result could a) create pressure for the adoption of proportional representation in the UK and b) bring about the conditions for its immediate adoption as the price of Liberal-Democrat participation in a governing coalition. If the three UK parties were each to get the exact same numbers of votes on May 6, with the regionally distorted riding-by-riding distribution remaining about the same, the seat distribution in the Commons would end up being roughly LAB 300-CON 200-LIB 100.
I don’t think there is necessarily a major ethical problem with this, particularly since what it practically amounts to is giving Scotland and Wales something more like an equal say in British government and protecting them from being demographically overrun. Only a crazed extremist for “democracy” in the strictest technical meaning of the term would argue that Scotland and Wales should have influence on Parliament not one iota greater than their nose count. The effect of “first past the post” in current British politics is much the same as that of the U.S.A. giving equal representation to the states in the Senate, and, by extension, giving smaller states a disproportionate say in the Electoral College.
Still, this election may provide a tough, maybe destructive test of tolerance for that arrangement—particularly in the light of ever-louder murmurs of English nationalism and English awareness of the West Lothian Question. (The existence of Welsh and Scottish assemblies considerably weakens the argument that Parliament can never revise constitutional arrangements in a manner contrary to the interests of Wales and Scotland, and the argument isn’t totally decisive anyway.) A fiasco for first-past-the-post would be bad news for its future here; its abandonment in the UK as part of a power-sharing deal would make us stick out like a sore thumb. Even pro-FPTPers can’t deny that.
By Scott Feschuk - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 2:40 PM - 13 Comments
Feschuk: What Iggy, the New Old Whatever Democrats and a guy named Steve have been up to lately
Admit it—you haven’t paid close attention to federal politics over the summer. You’re so clued out that I could make some ridiculous claim, like saying the Liberal party’s boldest initiative of the season was sending its national director from Kingston to Ottawa in a canoe for some reason, and you might even believe me—which is absurd, because he was actually in a kayak. Sorry, Conservative Party of Canada: you had a good run but there’s no competing with that.
Autumn approaches. Let’s get you up to date. First things first: Stephen Harper is still our Prime Minister. You can tell because the country’s colour-coded Partisan Tirade Threat Alert remains set to Red. Continue…