It's too bad that liberals don't look to leftists for advice. Every once in a while in this blog I come up with brilliant ideas for what Canada's Liberal party should do. The following is another instalment in that long and futile tradition.
Two months and a few hundred million dollars later, Canadians have - a Conservative minority, same as they've had for the past two years. The Liberals lost a few seats to the Cons and a few to the NDP. The Greens, after running a good campaign, got almost 7% of the popular vote, getting out 250,000 more votes than in the previous election. Turnout was low, with every party except the Greens getting fewer actual votes than in the 2006 election.
It is often instructive to look at numbers of votes rather than just percentages and seats. The Cons, who ended up with 143 seats, had 5.20 million (38%), the Libs 3.62 million (26%) and 76 seats, the Bloc 1.38 million (10%) and 50 seats, the NDP 2.52 million (18%) and 37 seats, and the Greens 0.9 million (7%) and no seats. It has been said before, but the differences between the popular vote and seats won show a system crying out for proportional representation. The NDP, with 13 fewer seats and 1.1 million votes more than their nearest rival, and the Greens, with 0.9 million votes and no seat in Parliament to show for them, must feel this strongest. But the real question is how the Liberals will react.
Canada's electoral system is designed as a two-party system. "First past the post" is not unfair if the electorate is fully represented by two options. The pretense of a two-party system has been dispensed with. The electorate does not behave as if there is a two-party system. But the system itself has not been changed to reflect this.
The thing about a two-party system is that it needs *two parties* to hold it up. In Canada, these have been the Conservatives and the Liberals. They agreed to the system partly because of tradition but mainly because they benefited. If you have a good chance of being the winner, why not play in a winner-takes-all game? The Bloc Quebecois also benefits from the lack of proportional representation, but their progressive and sovereigntist platform is popular in Quebec and they would probably do fine in a representative system anyway, especially one that was properly designed.
Towards the end of the election campaign, the Liberals started to blame 'vote-splitting' for the possibility of a Conservative victory. The notion was that everyone to the left of the Conservatives ought to unite behind the Liberals. The NDP replied, correctly, that the Liberals had governed much as the Conservatives had, with privatization, social cuts, and militarism. Beyond governing that way, the Liberals had supported most of the Conservative legislation in Parliament, as they will in the coming years.
Besides vote-splitting, Liberals are blaming Stephane Dion, their leader, who will likely step down. They claim that if he had been more dynamic, like Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae, the Liberals might have won. I am not convinced of this counterfactual. I may be blinded by my disgust at the sight of these two men falling over each other to endorse Israel's massacres and war crimes in Lebanon in 2006, or apologize for their accidental and very brief flirtation with stating the obvious. But Dion got to the leadership not because he looks slick or polished but because is more progressive than either Ignatieff or Rae on environmental, economic, and probably foreign policy questions. If the Liberals had Ignatieff/Rae, they would have even less opportunity to claim 'vote-splitting', except perhaps in the 8 ridings the Liberals lost to the NDP because of 'vote-splitting' between the Liberals and Conservatives.
A better frame for Canadian electoral politics over the past decade would be to think of it, rather than as an unstable series of Liberal and then Conservative minority governments, as a stable Liberal-Conservative coalition with growing challenges from a much more progressive electorate trying to break into the system. The Liberal-Conservative coalition has an expansive basis of unity, based on economic, political, and foreign policy subordination to the US.
Because their electoral ambition is merely senior partnership in this coalition, the Liberals can't really label voter rejection of them for more progressive options as 'vote-splitting'. It is true that the Conservatives are more destructive and less democratic: they don't play by the same rules - they want to transform society in reactionary ways. But they will accept, as they have accepted, the Liberals as a junior partner as they work towards this.
The Liberals have two options. They could make a decision to quit the coalition with the Conservatives, abandon their two-party system ambitions, campaign for proportional representation and make Canadian politics much more interesting. They would be reduced to a party that gets 1/3 of the electorate, but so would the Conservatives, and occupying the centre of a complex political spectrum would give them extra influence.
Instead, at least partly for lack of imagination, they are likely to accept junior partnership, dump Dion, and watch for an opportunity to make a bid for senior partnership down the road.
Meanwhile, Canadians will have lost precious opportunities to stabilize the atmosphere, to quit occupying other people's countries, and take care of one another.