This post was reprinted courtesy of the National Post on October 16, 2015 and can be found here.
A number of polls over the previous week of the election showed the Conservatives with a reasonably clear lead in the election and almost moving back into majority territory. Though the Liberals have managed to catch the Conservatives once more, the surge in Conservative support has led many progressive Canadian to consider voting strategically. In the short-term this has merit, especially given the problematic rhetoric that’s used by the Conservatives to describe refugees and other immigrants. Over the long-term, however, this may have important and problematic consequences. This election is not just an election to determine who forms government, but it will also play a role in determining which of the two centre-left parties becomes the main competitor to the Conservatives in future elections. With the Liberals and NDP in a fight to become the major party of the centre-left, the outcome of the competition between the non-Conservative parties will have important implications for several future elections.
Over the course of the last few elections the Liberals have been moving left while the NDP have been moving to the centre. The result has been a convergence of the two parties that has many treating them as interchangeable. While The Liberals and NDP are a lot closer ideologically than they have been historically, there are still important differences between the two parties. In the past I have written about how the NDP’s commitment to a balance budget and the Liberals willingness to run budget deficits suggests not that the NDP are to the right of the Liberals, but rather that the NDP are concerned more about long-term inequality while the Liberals are more concerned about short-term economic stimulus. The NDP has demonstrated a greater commitment to government programs promising a $15 a day childcare program and significant increases in healthcare spending while the Liberals have sought to cut taxes for low and middle-income Canadians and rise them on high income Canadians. Both platforms are left-wing, but the NDP’s is still more social democratic than the Liberals’. To add this, the NDP voter base is more left-wing than the Liberals and over the long-term that will pull the NDP to the left. In comparison, long-time Liberals in the centre of the political spectrum may prevent the Liberals from adopting policies that move too far to the left. Despite the convergence of the two parties over the past couple of elections, they remain different parties with different underlying ideologies.
This election is also not just about progressives trying to replace the Conservatives, but also about which of the Liberals or the NDP will emerge as the major centre-left force in Canadian politics. The Liberals have been the historically dominant party in Canadian politics, but they were also a strongly centrist party. At times they were closer to the parties on the right of the political spectrum than those on the left, the Liberals’ 1995 budget cuts reflected policy commitments far closer to the Reform party than to the NDP. The Liberals move to the left of Canadian politics over the last couple elections and the growth of the NDP has created competition of the centre-left of the Canadian political spectrum. As noted above, the differences between the two parties are still meaningful, but they are also close enough to each other that the party that emerges stronger could make large gains at the expense of other simply because of strategic voting.
The outcome of the next two or three elections will thus have important implications for future elections. If one of the Liberals or NDP manages to emerge as the clearly stronger party, they are likely to be able to cast themselves as non-Conservative voters’ best chance at keeping the Conservatives out of power in future elections. This would do a great deal of damage to the weaker centre-left party. That party will have difficulty convincing voters that it has a reasonable shot at forming government, and thus that its policies should be taken seriously. It will have to convince its voters not only that its policies are strong, but that voting for it is worth risking a split of the left vote that puts the Conservatives in power. This is likely to mean the end of the weaker party’s ability to compete government and less influence over the policies that are adopted in Canada. If the Liberals can consistently outperform the NDP, elections are likely to become Liberal-Conservative races, and the NDP will have less long-term influence over policy than the Liberals. Conversely, if the NDP emerge as the stronger party, elections are likely to become NDP-Conservative competitions and Liberal influence over policy will be reduced.
The 2015 election is thus not just a competition between the three major parties to form government, but it is also a competition between the Liberals and the NDP to determine the nature of Canada’s centre-left alternative to the Conservatives. If the NDP win this competition, Canada will see for the first time in its federal political history a social democratic party competing for government. Like all parties, the NDP will have to move to the centre to win government, but it is likely to retain its social democratic ideological principles. Any NDP government will be a government with moderate policies, but it will also be a government that sees value in government programs and in using balanced budgets to address long-term social and economic inequality. If the Liberals become Canada’s major centre-left party, it is likely that the need to win left votes to beat the Conservatives will keep them from reverting back to the Chretien/Martin era Liberal policies that saw the Liberals make sizable cuts to federal spending on social programs such as healthcare. At the same time a Liberal government is more likely to pursue short-term economic stimulus projects as opposed to long-term projects such as $15 a day care, that are designed to tackle inequality over the long-term. Over the long-term winning the competition on the centre-left of the spectrum is important, even if the Conservatives win this election. A centre-left party that finishes second to the Conservatives will be in a better position to win future governments than one that finishes third.
It should finally be noted here, that there is long-term value to finishing second or third in individual ridings. Part of the idea behind strategic voting is to have centre-left voters rally around the centre-left candidate most likely to win the riding in order to keep vote splitting from handing the Conservatives the riding. In ridings where the Liberals and NDP are in a close race to be the strongest non-Conservative party, finishing ahead of the other centre-left party can be important even if it does not lead to winning a seat. If a party finishes second to the Conservatives in enough consecutive elections it will start to benefit from strategic voting on the centre-left and eventually take on the Conservatives. Voters in ridings where the Liberals or NDP are in third place but close enough to the other centre-left party to have a conceivable chance of finishing ahead of it in this or the next election should be careful about strategic voting. Demonstrating that the weaker of the two centre-left parties still has strong support can help that party grow and become competitive in the riding in future elections. Flocking to the largest of the centre-left parties will make the weaker of the two parties look completely uncompetitive, preventing it from building support in the riding, and from ever competing to win it.
None of this is to suggest that finishing third in this election will mean end of the Liberals or the NDP, nor is it to suggest that doing so will mean the party has no influence over policy. Parties can survive as small third parties and influence policy in minority government situations or by threatening to take votes on the left or in the centre of the political spectrum (depending on the party). This influence though will be far less than what the Liberals or NDP can gain from becoming the major party on the centre-left of the political spectrum and the main challenger to the Conservatives. Both Liberal and NDP voters have something to lose by strategic voting. New Democrats strategically voting Liberal are risking losing the opportunity to see a social democratic party win government in Canada while Liberals strategically voting NDP risk conceding control of the centre-left to a party more informed by social democratic principles than by the liberal ones that they prefer. This does not mean that centre-left voters should not strategically vote. There certainly is short-term value for progressives to keeping the Conservatives out of power and that should not be discounted. At the same time, the long-term costs of finishing third in this and the election should force Liberals and New Democrats to think very carefully about the trade-offs that they make when strategic voting.