Progressives shall remain a third wheel if they fall hostage to strategic voting

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If federal politicians vying for votes every four years is inevitable, then so too is the seductive siren song of strategic voting.

For left-leaning Canadians whose least-preferred election outcome is a Conservative majority government, voting for anyone other than the Liberals is purported to be an act of tremendous danger.   Thanks to Canada’s archaic election system, voting NDP or Green is said to counter-intuitively benefit the Conservatives instead by “splitting” the centre-left vote.  Our plurality election system pressures Canadians to vote for the least-worst of the two largest political parties, rather than their actual favourite.

The mantra of having to vote Liberal to defeat the Conservatives is such a persuasive trope in Canadian politics that many New Democrat MPs lost their seats in 2015 when a flood of young and first-time voters were determined to defeat Stephen Harper’s government.  Re-electing incumbent NDP MPs and sending the New Democrat Official Opposition into government would have been the most logical option that year for the centre-left, yet many low-information voters naively believed the oft-repeated Liberal talking point that somehow only the (then third-place) Grits wielded the ability to remove Harper from power.

Four years later, the same arguments are being peddled to the centre-left: if you want to keep Andrew Scheer from becoming prime minister, you must vote Liberal.  Progressives are instructed that voting NDP or Green is not “worth the risk” of inadvertently handing power to the Conservatives.  Left-wing Canadians are pressured to vote Liberal “just this once” to prevent their worst scenario from coming true.

Such vote-pressuring tactics threaten progressives into becoming wilful hostages of a political party they don’t genuinely support.  But upon greater reflection, arguments that centre-left Canadians must vote Liberal are logically suspect for several reasons.

First, Liberals construct a narrative of needing progressive votes to vanquish an immediate danger, when in reality the monster is present every election.  The threat of a Conservative majority government is not unique to 2019 – it exists every time Canadians head to the ballot box.  As already mentioned, centre-left voters are advised to vote Liberal “just this once” to keep out the current Tory threat.  But unless the Conservatives miraculously decide to sit out the next federal election, they will be back again to contest 2023 and all subsequent elections.  Asking progressives to vote Liberal “just this once” is a disingenuous charade in which the party pretends it didn’t previously ask people to vote for them “once”.  The plea is based upon the hope that voters suffer from either ignorance or collective amnesia, as well as a myopic view of politics.  In actuality, the request is for progressives to keep the Liberals in power indefinitely, as the spurious claim of “just this once” is predictably trotted out every election.

Second, why should progressive Canadians reward the Liberals indefinitely because of a flawed election system, especially knowing that the party promised to adopt a better voting system but cynically chose not to?  The threat of a Conservative “false-majority” government – in which the Tories are awarded most of the seats in Parliament despite only earning a plurality of the vote – will never cease until Canada emulates countries such as New Zealand by dumping first-past-the-post elections.

Voting strategically every four years is akin to ingesting pain killers to dull the ache of a dental cavity: it does not resolve the underlying problem.  Strategic voting is merely a temporary means of working around a defective election system; only by incorporating the popular vote into how we assign House of Commons seats can Canadians ever become liberated from the cynical burden of voting for someone they don’t actually support.  Without electoral reform, voters will be condemned to a future of perpetual pressure to vote for the least-worst of two dominant forces, with Canada’s party system remaining uncomfortably similar to our southern neighbours.

Given that the Liberals reneged on their 2015 promise to deliver electoral reform, the only way Canada will acquire a superior voting system is either by electing a hung parliament in which more than one political party wields power, or by electing an NDP or Green majority government.  In reality, this would most likely be accomplished in 2019 by the Liberals winning a plurality (less than a majority) of seats, with the NDP and/or Greens subsequently extracting concessions from the Liberals.  Progressive voters would be wise to appreciate that delivering the Liberals a majority government would instead guarantee another four years of delays to electoral reform.  Conversely, the more NDP and Green MPs that are elected, the greater the leverage they will have in policy negotiations on matters such as fixing Canada’s voting system.

Even Tory voters would benefit from a proportional voting system, and may wish to entertain voting for a party that supports electoral reform if they’re not enamoured with the options this election and crave more choice in the future.  Under proportional elections there would be greater competition as vote-splitting would largely disappear, preventing a party taken over by populists (Ford) or ideologues (Scheer) from having a monopoly of the political right.  Red Tories could create their own sensible collective rather than be forced to choose between voting for a right-wing party gone astray, the Liberals or not voting at all.  Likewise, if right-leaning voters detest the “corruption” and arrogance of the Liberals, why would they wish to maintain a voting system that artificially inflates Liberal support through strategic voting?

Third, progressive Canadians will never get the government they want until they vote for it.  Arguably the greatest “vote-splitting” threat for the left is when centre-left voters split off to prop up the Liberals out of fear.  How many more MPs would the NDP and Greens elect if left-wing voters all opted for their favourite option?  Progressives were previously told that the NDP would never be able to finish better than third place in a federal election, yet the party became Official Opposition in 2011.  Heck, if the NDP can form a majority government in Alberta, the party – and its supporters – should strive for nothing less federally.

And really, how many more years can progressives afford to re-elect centrists to incrementally dither on such vital issues as climate change, social equity, housing affordability and public transit?

Canada will only elect a progressive government if left-wing Canadians have the courage to vote according to their convictions.  There is admittedly an inherent risk in this action, given our flawed voting system.  But if progressive voters remain a hostage to fear indefinitely, the best government they can ever hope for is a centrist one.  Left-wing voters should ask themselves which is the greater risk: electing an occasional Conservative government, or never electing a truly progressive government.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Devon Rowcliffe.    @DevonRowcliffe

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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