The Green Threat (Part 1): 2017 Polling Numbers suggest the Greens are Unlikely to Prevent an NDP Victory

Polling in the BC election is showing a remarkable increase in support for the provincial Green party.   The party that won less than 9% of the vote in 2013 and 2009 is now polling at around 20% across the province and over 30% on Vancouver Island. The potential for the Greens to significantly increase their vote raises important questions about what effect a Green surge would have on the NDP. If the Greens draw large numbers of left wing voters to them, vote splitting between them and the NDP could allow the Liberal party to pick up significant numbers of seats. It is thus important to examine where the Green party is having success, and test the its potential impact on NDP electoral prospects. In this post, I look at what would have happened in 2013 had polling numbers been where they were April 18, 2017.  If the NDP can establish a solid lead over the Liberals, they should be protected from a Green surge. In a close election, however, a strong Green party is likely to be a problem for the NDP.

To examine the impact of the Green surge I compared aggregate polling data from CBC’s Poll Tracker to the results for the 2013 election. I looked at the numbers the tracker has estimated for three regions (Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and the North/Interior) and compared them to the results the party received in 2013. I then adjusted the riding scores to account for the difference between 2013 and current polling numbers. For example, if a party is polling 5 percentage points above where they were in 2013 in Vancouver, I would add 5 percentage points to the parties’ vote percentage from 2013 in Vancouver ridings. This is a very crude measure of party support in different ridings. Unfortunately, however, without riding level polling, it is impossible to account for how popular opinion is spread across ridings in a particular part of the province. I classified ridings as safe if the gap between the first and second place party was more than 5% and competitive if the gap was less than 5%. For the 2017 numbers (though not for 2013) I also count any riding that looks would switch parties as unsafe, even if it looks like the margin between first and second place is higher than 5 percentage points. I do this because of the uncertainty surrounding polling, I am more confident in the 2013 analysis that uses actual election results. It is finally important to note that there has been redistricting between the 2013 and 2017 elections. This means that predictions for individual ridings for 2013 will not necessarily be accurate for 2017. This analysis can provide a general sense of where the election is competitive, but the exact numbers presented should be taken with a grain of salt.

A look at the 2013 results shows that the Liberals had a large number of safe seats. Of the 49 seats the Liberals won in 2013, 40 were by more than 5 percentage points. In contrast, the NDP won by more than 5 percentage points in only 26 seats, and the two parties were within 5 points of each other in 16 seats. The Greens were largely a non-factor. They won one seat in Victoria by a fairly margin and were competitive with both the Liberals and NDP in another.

2013 Safe Seats by Party

Adjusting to match 2017 polling numbers shows some remarkable changes. The Green party is somewhat more significant. It still has only one safe seat, but the 2017 numbers would have been made the Green party competitive with the NDP in 6 seats and competitive with both the Liberals and NDP in an additional one. The big change, however, is the number of seats in which the Liberals and NDP would have ended up competing against each other. There are 31 seats in which 2017 polling numbers would have put the Liberals and NDP within 5 percentage points of each other or in which the 2017 number would have changed the party that won. The NDP would have only needed to win 14 of these seats (in addition to holding on to their 29 safe seats) in order to win a majority government. In these 31 competitive seats, the NDP would lead the Liberals by an average of 42% to 38% and would have had the highest predicted vote share in 17. These number suggested that if the 2013 election had finished with the numbers the parties are polling at today, the surge in Green support would not have prevented the NDP from winning a majority.

Seats that Would Have Been Competitive with 2017 Numbers

An examination of how this would have broken down regionally demonstrates that the Green threat is generally limited to Vancouver Island. In the Capital Region (Victoria and the surrounding area), the NDP would have had no safe seats, and would have had to compete with the Green party to win each of the 4/5 seats it won in 2013. Off the Island though, the NDP has significant numbers of safe seats in the regions were the Greens are most likely to be competitive in Vancouver and Burnaby. The bigger gains to be made by the NDP are in areas where the Green party is weakest, Northern and Interior British Columbia, and the suburbs around Vancouver.

Seats that Would Have Changed Hands by Region

New Democrats should be concerned by the regional distribution of seats they would need to take from the Liberals in order to compensate for losses to the Greens. They would have to pick up competitive seats in regions such as the North Shore, Richmond/Delta, Langley/Abbotsford, and the Okanagan, where they have been historically weak. The party would also have to do well in Central British Columbia, a region where the Liberals have had an average lead of 8 percentage points over them in elections between 1991 and 2013. Even though aggregated numbers suggest that the NDP would have been able to survive a Green surge, doing so requires the party to have success in areas of the province where they have struggled in the past. As such, the rise of the Greens presents the party with a significant threat.

A Green surge would have a decisive impact on an election in two scenarios, both opf which are ver plausible. The first is a situation in which the NDP and Liberal seat shares end up being quite close. In this case, losses on Vancouver Island may keep the NDP from forming the government. The second, is a scenario in which the Liberals and NDP numbers end up converging, and even the small numbers of voters that the Greens might pull from the NDP in the Interior and suburbs of Vancouver could allow the Liberals to win those seats. In this vein, it is important to note polls have the NDP and Liberals within the margin or error of each other, and that a significant number of the competitive seats are in areas of the province that have been traditionally Liberal. In a close election, a Green surge may prevent an NDP victory, and this very well may be a close election. At the same time, if the NDP can win with a 4 or 5 percentage point lead over the Liberals, they should be able to protect themselves from losing as a result of vote splitting with the Greens.

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Who Speaks For British Columbians? First Past the Post Leads to Poor Representation for Interior BC

I my last post I argued British Columbia’s regions are less different politically than they sometimes appear to be. The way that first past the post over-represents parties with a plurality of the vote in a particular region can overstate the extent to which the region backs a particular party. The Liberals, for example, appear stronger than they are in Interior BC, while the NDP appears to be stronger than it is on Vancouver Island. This creates problems with respect to representation in the legislature. The extent to which first past the post increases the regional seat share of a party with a plurality of the vote in a region leaves significant numbers of voters poorly represented. In this post, I look at which voters have been under-represented in BC elections. To do so I group ridings into the same regions as I did in my last post, and look at elections between 1991 and 2013.

A look at the 2013 election shows that parts of Interior BC, some of the suburbs around Vancouver, and Vancouver Island are poorly represented in the legislature. The graph below shows the difference between a party’s seat percentage and vote percentage across the different regions. A positive score means a party has a greater share of seats than its share of the vote and a negative score means the opposite is the case. The Liberal party is significantly over-represented in the Okanagan, Central BC, Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and the North Shore. In all of these regions, except for Richmond/Delta, the Liberals’ seat share is over 45 percentage points higher than their vote share. The NDP is over-represented in the Capital Region (in and around Victoria) and on the rest of Vancouver Island. In and around Victoria the NDP’s seat share was 40 percentage points higher than its vote share and on the rest of the Island it was 31 points higher.

2013 Disproportionality By Region

A look at average disproportionality across all elections between 1991-2013 shows a similar pattern. While the disproportionality is not as great as it was in 2013, the Liberals have significantly more seats than their vote share in the Okanagan, Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and the North Shore. The NDP, as in 2013, is over-represented in the Capital Region and on the rest of Vancouver Island. This suggests that the lack of representation that occurred in 2013 is persistent over time. It is not the case that in some years some voters lack legislative representation while in others different voters do. Rather, New Democrats in the Okanagan and some of the Vancouver suburbs are consistently under-represented. This is also the case for Liberals on Vancouver Island.

Average Disproportionality by Region

A look at 2013 NDP and Liberal vote and seat shares underscores how this regional over-representation can be problematic. In 2013, the NDP did not win a single seat in the Okanagan, Central BC, Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, or the North Shore. This happened despite the fact that they won a quarter to a third of the vote in each of those regions. This meant that a quarter to a third of voters in each of those regions went un-represented in the last legislative session. The same is true for the same is true for the just over a quarter of voters in Capital Region that voted Liberal yet failed elect a single Liberal MLA.

2013 NDP Seat and Vote Percentage

2013 Liberal Seat and Vote Percentages

This has important implications for the way British Columbians are represented. A New Democrat in Vancouver or Victoria is not going to have the same political interests as a New Democrat in Interior British Columbia. Vancouverites and Victorians, for example, are likely to be more concerned about urban issues, such as transit policy, while Interior British Columbians are likely to more concerned with other issues, such as those surrounding resource extraction and logging. The same is true for Liberals. Liberals in Victoria are not going to be well represented by MLAs from the interior. At the same time, the fact that individuals are voting for a different party suggests that they will not be well represented by the MLAs elected in their constituencies. The result is a situation where significant numbers of British Columbians have no one to speak on their behalf in the legislature.

This is a fundamental problem with first past the post electoral systems. Because only one party can win a seat, there will always be groups of voters whose votes do not contribute to electing an MLA. In regions where a party is particular strong, there is always the danger that a party will be shut out and that voters backing that party will have no one in the legislature to represent their interests.

*Election data comes from BC Pundits Guide.

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Just How Divided is BC: Differences Between Regions are not as Large as they Sometimes Appear

With an election in British Columbia provincial election taking place this May, it is worth looking at some of the historic voting patterns in the province. There is a tendency in BC politics to assume that Vancouver Island is largely New Democrat, the interior of the province is Liberal, and the Vancouver region is split between the two parties. The geographic distribution of the parties’ seats generally supports this. BC’s first past the post electoral system, however, tends to produce seat shares that exaggerate regional divides in the province. An examination of the vote shares parties win across the province suggests that different regions are more similar than it sometimes appears. It also demonstrates that the Liberals are strongest not in the Interior, but rather in the municipalities surrounding Vancouver such as Langley, Richmond, and North Vancouver.

To get at the vote support for the Liberals and NDP in different parts of the province, I divided it into 12 regions. In the Interior there is North BC, South East BC, the Okanagan, and Central BC. The Greater Vancouver area is split into Langley/Abbotsford, Surrey, Richmond/Delta, Burnaby/Coquitlam, Vancouver proper, and the North Shore. Finally, Vancouver Island is divided into the Capital Region, including Victoria and the surrounding municipalities, and the Mid/North Island. A list of which ridings are placed in which region is provided in the document below. In my analysis, I look at the results from elections between 1991-2013.

Ridings in Each Region

A look at the vote distribution of the 2013 election shows that, while there are regional discrepancies in parties’ vote shares, there are substantial numbers of Liberals and New Democrats in every part of the province. In no region did the Liberals take much more than half of the vote. The parties’ largest vote share was in the North Shore (including North Vancouver and West Vancouver), where it won just under 54%. The Liberals won over a quarter of the vote in every region of the province, and over a third in every region except for the capital region. Similarly, the NDP vote is reasonably evenly distributed across the province. The party won at least a quarter of the vote in every region and did not win more than half of the vote in any region.

2013 Vote by Region

If one looks at parties’ average vote shares in all elections between 1991 and 2013, a similar trend comes through. In only Langley Abbotsford, Richmond Delta, and the North Shore do the Liberals average more than half of the vote. In their weakest regions in the Capital Region and on the rest of Vancouver Island the party still averages just under 40% of the vote. The NDP has more weak regions than the Liberals, in part because its average vote share is lower across the province. Still, in its weakest regions, Langley Abbotsford and the North Shore, it still averages a quarter of the vote. In its strongest regions, (Burnaby, Vancouver, and the two Vancouver Island regions) the party averages around just 44%.

Average Vote Share by Region

A comparison of the Liberal’s and NDP’s vote share in regions to their overall provincial vote share can demonstrate where parties are particularly strong and weak. The two graphs below show these differences for the 2013 election. Positive scores show regions where a party is disproportionately strong while negative scores show regions where it is weak. The 2013 scores for the Liberals show a party that is strong in parts of the Interior, Langley/Abbotsford, and the North Shore. The Liberals’ success in the Interior, however, was less universal than is sometimes assumed. While the party was disproportionately successful in Northern BC and the Okanagan, it only outperformed its provincial vote share by slightly over one percentage point in South Eastern BC, and by only three percentage points in Central BC.

2013 Difference Between Liberal Regional and Popular Vote

In 2013, the NDP did not underperform in the Interior as much as one might think. Outside of the Okanagan, its Interior vote share was within 4 percentage points of its overall vote share. Where the party struggled was in some of the suburbs outside of Vancouver. The NDP significantly underperformed in Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and on the North Shore. As expected, the party exceeded their vote share in Vancouver (the fact that both the Liberals and NDP over-performed in Vancouver suggests that the Conservatives and possibly the Greens underperformed) and on Vancouver Island.

2013 Difference Between NDP Regional and Popular Vote

The two graphs below show the Liberals’ and NDP’s average performance relative to their total provincial vote share for the 1991-2013 period. The graphs show similar results to the ones that look just at the 2013 election. The exception to this is the Liberal’s scores for interior BC. Outside of the Okanagan, the Liberals have typically equalled or underperformed in the Interior relative to the rest of the province. Some of this underperformance is the result of the presence of Social Credit and Reform candidates in the Interior during the early and mid 1990s. These candidates would have taken support from the Liberals. Like in 2013, the Liberals’ strongest regions are just outside of Vancouver in Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and the North Shore. As in 2013, the NDP does particularly well in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island and particularly poorly in several of the suburban regions surrounding Vancouver.

Average Relative Liberal Success in Regions

Average Relative NDP Success in Regions

A look at the vote share of the Liberals and NDP demonstrates two important things. First, that there are substantial groups of Liberal and NDP supporters in almost every region in the province. Neither party is so dominant that it makes up more than slightly over half the voters in a particular region, and nor is either party so weak that it makes up less than a quarter of voters in any particular region. To a large degree, the way that the first past the post system turns votes into seats overstates the political differences across different regions. Second, it shows that the Liberals’ strongest region is not the Interior, but rather he municipalities just outside of Vancouver. It is in Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and on the North Shore that Liberal most outperforms its provincial vote share.

*Election data comes from BC Pundits Guide.

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The Declining Left: Mainstream Left Parties across the Industrialized World Are Seeing Declining Vote Shares

The results of Dutch elections this year have brought liberals and progressives a great deal of relief. Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom was defeated by the centre-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy) led by Mark Rutte. Lost in the discussion of this election has been the poor performance of the Dutch Labour party. Once a significant competitor for government, the party won less than 10 of the 150 seats available in the Dutch parliament and just over 5% of the vote. The Labour party is not likely to be the only mainstream left party that will see its vote decline this year. In France, the Socialist Party looks unlikely to make it through the second round of Presidential elections, despite the fact that current President Francois Hollande is a member of the party. Mainstream left party vote share has been declining across industrialized countries from 1980 through to today.

To understand trends in mainstream party vote share I looked at left and right party support in elections across a number of industrialized countries. Included were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I chose these countries because they have had reasonably stable party systems, at least compared to countries such as Belgium and Italy. In addition, unlike France, Japan, and New Zealand, they did not experience major electoral reform (a change from majoritarian to a proportional system or vice versa). I compared the share of mainstream parties’ vote, the vote for all left parties (social democratic or communist), and the vote for all left parties and green parties. I did this for elections from 1945 to 2016.

A look at the vote share of mainstream left parties shows a steady decline in vote share that runs from 1980 to 2016. The graph below shows the average vote share of the largest left party. Mainstream left parties start with an average vote share around 35% in 1980. By 2016, they were averaging just over 25% of the vote. Mainstream right parties have seen a similar decline, going from an average of just over 33% of the vote in 1980 to around 24% in 2016. Their support is, however, is much less stable over the full 1945-2016 period. Mainstream right support was well below 30% through a good portion of the 1950s and again around 1970. There is no evidence that mainstream centrist parties are taking advantage of this decline in mainstream left and right support. Support for the largest centrist or liberal party has been relatively stable, at 12% to 14%, over time.

Left, Right, and Centre Party Vote Share

There is also little evidence that the decline in the mainstream left support has benefited other left parties. The graph below shows that average vote share of all left parties put together declines at a similar rate to mainstream left parties. In 1980, the average country saw left parties combine to take 40% of the popular vote. By 2016 left parties as a whole were only averaging 30%. There is evidence that some of the decline in left support has gone the green parties. Combining left support with green party support makes the decline less steep. At the same time, the fact that there still is a decline shows that the weaker showings by left parties are simply a product of the rise of green parties.

Left and Green Parties

The decline of the left has been consistent across different countries. The graphs below show the trends in mainstream left support in Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom), Nordic countries, and in the rest of Europe. Of the three Anglo countries I looked at, two have seen significant left party declines. In Australia, Labour party support has fallen from the 40%-50% range in the 1970s to around 35% in the 2010s. In the UK, Labour support fell below 30% in 1980, rebounded over the 1990s, and then collapsed again in the 2000s. Of the Anglo countries, only Canada has seen growth in mainstream left support. Depending on what happens to the NDP in the next decade, that growth could be short lived.

Mainstream Left Parties in Anglo Countries

Nordic countries, which tend to see higher support for left parties, have not been immune from the decline. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have all seen their largest left parties lose support over the past three decades. The two countries that entered the 1980s with the strongest left parties, Norway and Sweden, have also seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Having a strong left in past, and in the case of Sweden, one that has consistently formed governments, has not protected the mainstream left from the drop in support that taken place over recent decades.

Mainstream Left Parties in Nordic Countries

Finally, the four continental European countries that I looked at mirror the trends in Nordic countries. Austria and Germany, which had the strongest mainstream left parties of the four, have seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Both parties have seen their largest left parties go from over 40% of the vote in 1980 to under 30% by 2016. The decline in the Netherlands and Switzerland is less pronounced, but mainstream left was weaker in those two countries to begin with. This graph also does not include the most recent Dutch election, in which Labour party vote share fell to just over 5%.

Mainstream Left Parties in Europe

The decline of the mainstream left has important implications for progressive politics in Canada and across the industrialized world. The NDP used to be able to look at other mainstream left parties as a potential model of how they might be successful well. The weaker the mainstream left becomes, the less viable an option this seems to be. The NDP can no longer look to the British Labour party, the German SDP, or the Swedish Social Democrats as examples that they can follow.

Across the industrialized word, the mainstream left parties need to start re-evaluating their positions and their approaches to electoral politics. That the decline in mainstream left support is affecting a variety of parties across different countries suggests that this is not a problem that can be solved by a party trying to renew itself or try to reconnect with voters. Rather, it suggests that are broader changes occurring across countries that are weakening the appeal of mainstream left parties. Progressives need to try to determine what these changes are and how they might respond to them. In doing so, they should look for trends that cross national borders. The weak performances of mainstream left parties are not isolated events. They are challenges that progressives must try to grapple with if they hope to be successful in future elections.

*Election data comes from ParlGov.

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Emphasis Matters: Islamophobia should be Included in Parliament’s Anti-Racism Motion

February 15th saw debate on a motion put forward by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid to condemn Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination and to request the Standing Committee on Canadian heritage study the matter (the full wording is here). This motion, supported by Liberals and New Democrats, has attracted criticism from some Conservative MPs. Several Conservatives, including leadership candidates Kellie Leitch and Andrew Scheer, have argued that the motion is a threat to freedom of speech and singles out one religion. Highlighting their objection to the use of the term “Islamophobia,” Conservative MP David Anderson has introduced his own motion that is essentially the same as the original one, but removes the word Islamophobia. In the wake of the attack in Quebec, and the increasing Islamophobic rhetoric associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it makes sense to include a reference to Islamophobia. Doing so does not threaten Canadians’ freedom of speech nor does it preference one religion over others. Rather, it ensures the motion responds to troubling events that have occurred in Canada and around the world.

It is first worth grappling with the argument that this limits freedom of speech. Several Conservatives have argued that the term Islamophobia could be extended to include not just hatred and discrimination against Islam, but legitimate criticism that occurs as part of religious debate. This argument relies on a tenuous understanding of the definition of Islamophobia. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (scroll down the link for their definition), the Berkley Centre for Race and Gender, and Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative all draw clear distinctions between Islamophobia as prejudice and the criticism or questioning of particular tenets of Islam that occurs as part of debate around religion. Reading the term Islamophobia to include all criticism of Islam involves going beyond the definition of the term used by anti-discrimination organizations.

It is further worth noting that Canadian lawmakers and the courts have generally been good at ensuring that anti-racism measures limit freedom of speech as little as possible. Canadian anti-hate speech legislation has been carefully crafted to include only the “wilful” promotion of hatred and carves out an exception “if the statements were relevant to any subject of public interest, the discussion of which was for the public benefit, and if on reasonable grounds he believed them to be true.” The narrow construction of anti-hate speech laws played a central role in ensuring the Supreme Court did not strike them down as violations of freedom of expression in R. v. Keegstra. If Canadian law-makers and courts had a history of interpreting anti-discrimination provisions in an over-broad manner, there would be reason to be concerned that a motion opposing Islamophobia could develop into restrictions on religious debate. The opposite is true, however. Canadian law-makers and courts have generally interpreted anti-discrimination measures in a way that infringes upon freedom of expression as little as possible. There is no evidence in Canada to suggest that condemnation of hate speech and discrimination leads to slippery slope in which freedom of expression becomes unduly restricted.

On this point, it is finally worth noting that this is a motion and not a bill. A motion expresses an opinion of parliament and does not change law. As a result, this motion does nothing to change any of the existing rules regarding hate speech, discrimination, and freedom of expression in Canada. It does call for study of this issue by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which could produce further legislation on the issue. Given the history of Canadian anti-discrimination law discussed above, it seems unlikely that such a committee would develop legislation with over-broad definitions of Islamophobia or discriminatory speech. If such legislation was developed, there would be additional opportunities to vote against it, and it is highly likely the Courts would strike it down as violating the Charter of Rights’ freedom of expression provisions. Concerns that the use of Islamophobia will lead to a condemnation of any criticism of Islam should be allayed by the way that Islamophobia is narrowly defined by anti-discrimination organizations and by the protections of freedom of expression that already exist in Canadian law.

It is also worth tackling many Conservatives’ second claim, that it is inappropriate to single out Islamophobia, in addition to religious discrimination in general, for criticism. The point that critics make here is that highlighting Islamophobia for particular condemnation and study diminishes efforts to condemn discrimination against other religious groups. This argument misses the importance of context to condemnation of discrimination. Condemnation of discrimination is important as a reaction to discrimination that has happened. While broad statements of principle certainly have value, it is important that anti-discrimination measures demonstrate an understanding and a response to particular discriminations that Canadians face. When a group is facing discrimination it is important that the government respond specifically to the discrimination they are facing. This does not preference one group over another, but rather demonstrates an understanding that at different points in time different groups of people will face different levels of discrimination.

In the wake of the shooting at a Mosque in Quebec and the rise in Islamophobia that has coincided with the Donald Trump’s election as President it is important to condem Islamophobia specifically. Muslims are becoming an increasing target of discrimination and so it makes sense that the government would take measures to try to protect them. Far from detracting from the protection of other groups, this kind of action strengthens it. It demonstrates to all minority groups that the government will take action to protect them when they become targets of hate groups. It shows every minority group that governments will respond to increases in discrimination against them, not with a general condemnation of discrimination, but with measures that acknowledge the particularly vulnerability of the group. Condemning Islamophobia today is not only important as a broad statement of principle, it is important as a reaction to events that are currently taking place in Canada and around the world. Motions that ignore the particular discriminations that individuals are facing not only provide little assurance to the group being discriminated against, but should also leave other groups concerned that governments will fail to adequately respond to attacks against them should they happen in the future.

In the aftermath of the Quebec attack it is essential that the Canadian government take a strong stand against Islamophobia particularly. Removing Islamophobia from the motion does harm because it suggests that the government is ignorant of the increasing discrimination that Muslims face. With little reason to fear that the motion will serve as a slippery slope to excessive limitations of freedom of expression, Conservative MPs are wrong to argue for the elimination of Islamophobia from the motion.

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Keep Government Responsible: Citizens of Parliamentary Democracies Should be Working to Inoculate Their Institutions Against Trumpism

The election of Donald Trump and his flouting of the liberal and democratic norms that underpin society has much of the world worried. These fears are made worse by the increasing strength of far-right parties in much of Europe, and the presence of Trump-like candidates Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary in the Canadian Conservative leadership races. The rise of the far-right should raise concerns about the concentration of power with positions such as the Prime Minister or President. When a far-right candidate, such as Trump, wins control of executive office they have a great deal of power to affect policy. In parliamentary systems, parliament is supposed act as a check, holding the Prime Minister and cabinet accountable for their decisions, and removing them from office when they put forward or implement policy ideas that are at odds with elected MPs.  In practice, however, the ability for parliament to do this is constrained by the power the Prime Minister has over MPs. Two measures, the adoption of proportional electoral systems and increased MP control over leadership selection, offer important counter-balances to a potential far-right Prime Minister.

Parliamentary systems, in contrast to Presidential ones, rely on a fusion of power between the legislature and the executive. The Prime Minister only remains in power so long as she has the approval of parliament. If the PM and cabinet put forward legislation or enact policy that parliament dislikes, parliament can remove the PM from power through a confidence motion. In theory this practice ensures that PMs and their cabinets act in a way that reflect a country’s broader interests. In practice this can hand the PM a great deal of power to implement their policy. The PM can reward those MPs that support her with promotions to cabinet positions and punish those that do not by limiting their opportunities to rise beyond the backbenches. The power that the PM wields over MPs, especially when she leads a majority government, can prevent parliament from acting as an adequate check.

The adoption of a proportional electoral system, though it would make it easier for a far-right party to enter parliament and even to become a junior coalition member, would limit the ability for a far-right party to lead a government. Because proportional systems rarely produce majority governments, parties that win office in such systems have to share power, either through coalition governments or through minority governments that make significant concessions to opposition parties. The need to obtain the cooperation of other parties can make it difficult for a far-right party to gain control of government.  Because a PM’s power over MPs is usually limited to those in her own party, forcing the PM to work with other parties weakens the power of the PM and strengthens parliament.

The current Dutch election illustrates how PR can constrain the far-right.  In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Party For Freedom looks poised to win the more votes than any other party in March elections but is unlikely to win a majority. Wilders, however, is unlikely to become the Dutch Prime Minister because, to this point, no other party has expressed a willingness to join him in coalition. It is more likely that other parties will form an alternative coalition that keeps him out of power. Even if Wilders does manage to become PM, he will need to temper his extremism in order to maintain power. The threat that parliament can remove a far-right leader from power immediately through a confidence vote should prevent a far-right PM from acting in the same way that Trump has since becoming President.

Allowing MPs more say over their leaders would also empowers them to act as a check on the take over of mainstream parties by far-right candidates. One of the reasons that Trump was able to win the 2016 election was that he was able to win the support of loyal Republicans- individuals who might not have supported Trump had he run as an independent. In Canada, Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary serve as similar examples of populist candidates seeking to take over a mainstream party. Allowing MPs a greater say over leadership selection or the power to remove leaders could serve as a check against this. MPs come from a diverse group of ridings and need reasonably broad support to win office. Leadership candidates often need only a subset of party members in order to win leadership election. Because many MPs need broad support to hold on to their seats they have an incentive to push back against leadership candidates that may be well-liked by a subset of the party’s base but have little appeal to the broader national electorate.

The extent to which MPs were able to push back against more extreme candidates was illustrated in the recent British Conservative leadership race. To become leader of the British Conservatives one must finish first or second on a vote of the parliamentary party (Conservative MPs) and then win a majority vote of the broader party membership. A third place finish on the parliamentary party ballot took candidate Michael Gove (who had campaigned to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum) out of the race. Indeed the other leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsome who had finished second, ended up dropping out because she did not feel she had sufficient support amongst Conservative MPs. MP’s ability to exert control over the leadership selection process helped the moderate Theresa May defeat more extreme rivals. Either increasing MPs’ ability to affect leadership races or giving them the ability to remove leaders they do not support would give MPs much greater power to check a far-right leaning leader of a mainstream party.

The way democratic institutions are set up affects the ability of individuals to win power and the ability of elected bodies to check those that wield it. Robust democracies do not grant a single individual the ability to rule by fiat, they force those that exercise executive power to be accountable to elected bodies such as parliaments. In the wake of Trump’s election victory and the threat that similar candidates could rise to power in parliamentary systems, there is a need to consider ways in which parliaments can be empowered to check such candidates. Proportional electoral systems and increasing MPs’ ability to choose or recall their leaders offer two ways through which this can be done.

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Will the Conservatives Learn From History? Conservatives Need To Reach Out To A Diverse Electorate to Win

The Conservative leadership race has seen the emergence of Kellie Leitch as a candidate who appears to be trying to capitalize on the growing anti-immigrant sentiment across the industrialized world. Leitch’s support of a Canadian-values test for immigrants has raised concerns that the far-right populism that has emerged in European and in the recent American Presidential campaign will influence the Canadian Conservative party. The Conservatives should be careful of Leitch’s candidacy. Throughout Canada’s history, courting immigrants and ethnic minorities has been an important part of the Conservatives’ success. Conservative Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney, and Stephen Harper all made significant efforts to win the support of ethnic minority voters. This is something that Conservatives should keep in mind when they choose their next leader.

Conservative efforts to broaden their appeal to a diverse group of voters date back to the Diefenbaker era. When Diefenbaker took over as leader of the then named Progressive Conservatives, the party’s base of support largely came from Anglophone Protestant voters. Diefenbaker made efforts to extend the party’s appeal to include ethnic minorities such as German-Canadians and Ukrainian-Canadians. He appointed Ukrainian-Canadian Paul Yuzyk to Senate, who would use his first speech in the Senate to advocate for the adoption of multiculturalism. He also appointed the first Ukrainian-Canadian cabinet minister, Michael Starr. Diefenbaker’s own German-Canadian heritage (his father was of German heritage and his mother Scottish) coupled with his efforts to include minorities in his government helped Diefenbaker to increase Progressive Conservative support amongst Eastern European immigrant communities.

The work that Diefenbaker did to appeal to Eastern European minorities paid off for the PCs electorally. Prior to Diefenbaker’s leadership the PCs were weak in Western Canada (which had a large Eastern European population). Between 1908 and 1957 the party only won more than 50% of the seats on the prairies in 1917, the year that Borden was able to campaign as part of a Unionist government in support of conscription. While Diefenbaker won just under 30% of prairie seats in 1957, he would dominate the prairies in subsequent elections. Between 1958 and 1965 the Diefenbaker led PCs never won fewer than 85% of prairie seats. This was not only due to Diefenbaker’s support for minority’s interests, as a Westerner from Saskatchewan Diefenbaker was able to appeal to prairie voters of many ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, the ability to win ethnic minority votes certainly played a role in Diefenbaker’s success.

Brian Mulroney also made a significant effort to appeal to ethnic minorities. In 1988, prior to the election that year, Mulroney increased funding to multiculturalism and passed the Multiculturalism Act. He brought Jewish-Canadian Gerry Weiner into cabinet as Secretary of State of Canada (the multiculturalism portfolio was subsumed within the Secretary of State’s Department). In 1991 Weiner would become the Minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship as Mulroney created an independent department to oversee the federal government’s multiculturalism program. There was a clear electoral motivation behind Mulroney’s efforts to advance multiculturalism. The party sought to increase the PC’s appeal in the increasingly diverse ridings in urban areas such as Toronto that the party felt would become essential to its electoral success. Weiner said as much at the 1989 PC convention when he made note of the success that the Liberals had in in diverse Toronto ridings and the need of the party to emphasize the party’s commitment to multiculturalism in order to compete in such ridings.*

The 1990s saw the Progressive Conservatives retreat from their support from multiculturalism, in part in response to the rise of the Reform/Canadian Alliance party. After the creation of the Conservatives through the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance, the Conservatives returned to their considerable efforts to reach out to a diverse electorate. In his role as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney made immense efforts to build relationships between the Conservative party and minority cultural communities. His efforts involved a schedule on some weekends that had Kenney attending 20-25 different events in different communities. As part of the effort to increase their support within ethnic minority communities the Conservatives issued an apology for the 1880-1920 head tax on Chinese immigration and pledged to reduce immigrant’s landing fees and increase foreign degree and credential recognition.

The Conservative efforts to win the support of ethnic minorities paid off in 2011. The party won a majority government in part because it was able to win diverse ridings in the Toronto and Vancouver regions such as Bramlea-Gore-Malton, Brampton Springdale, and Vancouver South. Without these ridings the Conservatives would have had difficulty winning a majority. It is notable that the Conservatives ran into trouble in ethnically diverse ridings in 2015 when they campaigned on policies such as a niqab ban in citizenship ceremonies and a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. The party ended up losing many of the ridings that they had needed to win their majority in 2011.

There is a lesson in this for Conservatives aspiring to return to government. Since WWII the Conservative Party’s success has depended on its ability to reach out to ethnic minorities that have previously not been part of its electoral coalition. Doing so means taking the issues that are important to different minority and immigrant communities, such as multiculturalism and immigration policy, seriously and developing policies that reflect minorities’ interests. For Diefenbaker this meant including representatives from Eastern European cultural minorities in his government. For Mulroney and Harper this has meant supporting multiculturalism and easing the immigration processes. When the Conservatives have retreated from these positions, as the Harper government did after 2011, they have hurt their ability to win the ethnically diverse ridings they need in order to win government. As the Conservatives consider the proposals of leadership candidates such as Kellie Leitch they would do well to remember that they need the votes of immigrants and ethnic minorities if they are going to have any chance at winning an election.

* Hunter, Iain. (August 26, 1989). “Tories Urged to Cash in on Multicultural Policies.” The Ottawa Citizen. A3.

 

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