Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Stephen Harper: Role Model

With the UK election set for tomorrow, in true Canadian style, we've seen a last gasp "stop the Conservatives" strategic voting pitch being tossed out by Labour. Not a bad play on their part since I suspect voters would tend to overestimate their local Labour candidate's chances and underestimate their local LibDems'.

But even if this move works, the most likely outcome remains a Conservative minority government. Yes, a Labour-LibDem coalition is possible, but I think the Canadian experience with this suggests that voters might accept a coalition under some circumstances, but not if the electorate shows a decisive preference for Cameron over Brown (which they most certainly will).

And with all these parallels between Canada and the UK floating around, the last four years of Canadian politics may suddenly become the case study everyone in England looks to, in an effort to understand how a Conservative minority government can work. Believe me, I'm as horrified by this prospect as you are. We can only hope they don't look at our record too closely...

In all seriousness, there probably is a lot that they can learn from us. After all, the Stephen Harper Conservatives have survived for over four years with no real working partner in Parliament - that's nothing to sneeze at when you consider the fate of Joe Clark. While I don't know a lot about the UK political scene, I'll still offer up a few pieces of advice to the mother country that may prove useful:

1. Don't believe the hype - see the movie yourself, eh. After reading this article at 538, I tend to think perceptions of Canadian politics don't always match reality. Cameron's people should definitely open up the lines of communication with Harper's team to really understand what's gone on here. Hell, it's been a revolving door at the PMO of late, so I'm sure they can find someone willing to jet over to England for a cup of tea.

2. Govern from the centre. Yes, yes, I know that hard core Liberals don't even recognize this country any more. And hell, a lot of the things Harper has done piss me off. But the man has governed as a moderate - he's generally steered away from social conservative issues, and his budgets have looked quite Liberal. By doing this, he has buried much of the "hidden agenda" talk and made it exceedingly difficult for the Liberals to find a real wedge issue they can run on.

3. Know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. I suspect Labour will be into a leadership race shortly, so they probably won't be in tip top fighting shape. This will give Cameron the opportunity to implement most of his campaign promises without any real opposition, but be careful. As Joe Clark learned in December 1979, and Stephen Harper learned 29 years later, even a battered opposition will fight back if you push too hard. Settle for some good old Stephen Harper incrementalism until you get your majority.

4. To Labour - you need more than a quick fix. Again, I'm not coming at this with a deep understanding of British politics, but after (all together now, using your best John Baird impression!) "13 long years in government", and a decade of internal fighting, I suspect there's some soul searching to do. The temptation will be to blame Brown and to look for a quick fix. Trust me, that's not going to work.

5. To the LibDems - be careful. The NDP made huge gains in '88 to see it wiped out. The ADQ rose and fell. Life as a third party sucks. Above all else, show that you belong in the big leagues and show that you're more than a one man party.

6. Be prepared for an unbearable barrage of election speculation. From what we've seen, the best way for the opposition to deal with this is to sing from the Jack Layton song book - "we're here to make parliament work", "the British people don't want an election" - rather, than constantly banging and silencing the election drums at every opportunity. Don't infect people with election fever if you have no intention of actually forcing an election.


Beyond the above, to all the UK leaders I'd say avoid tight leather vests and carbon taxes, and behave yourself while going through airport security. It probably wouldn't hurt to brush up on your piano skills either.

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25 Comments:

  • Your assumption that the British people will as easily swallow a tyrranical Tory minority as Canadians and our tepid opposition parties have seems pretty weak to me.

    I don't think anything in that regard should be assumed in any way until the votes are counted. It's historically traditional in British politics for the PM in a hung parliament to stay on. Clegg could very well sign on to bolster Labour in that situation. The way it will unfold isn't anywhere near as set in stone as you seem to think it is.

    Let's just watch, shall we?

    By Anonymous Mike G, at 7:56 PM  

  • Tyranical tory minority? Do you not think you might be going a bit overboard?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:53 PM  

  • Tyranical tory minority?
    How can a minority government be tyranical?
    The Opposition has the majority and can vote down EVERYTHING, amend every bill, dominate every committee, push thru every piece of legislation they want
    and vote loss of confidence in the govt when ever their little hearts desire.
    and that is why the Brits call it a 'hung parliament'.

    By Blogger wilson, at 10:41 PM  

  • "5. To the LibDems - be careful. The NDP made huge gains in '88 to see it wiped out. The ADQ rose and fell. Life as a third party sucks. Above all else, show that you belong in the big leagues and show that you're more than a one man party."

    You forgot an even better example - Sharon Carstairs and the Manitoba Liberals. Then again, the Nova Scotia NDP is an example of a third party successfuly vaulting to first place.

    The risk for the Lib Dems (compared to Canada's NDP) is that they have no ideology to fall back on - they are a centre party and their appeal is mostly based on a possibly short-term "pox on both your houses" sentiment, plus people thinking Nick Clegg is cute. But i think their support is very shallow and could melt away quickly once Labour licks its wounds and gets a new leader. The NDP occupies an ideological niche. The Lib Dems really don't.

    By Blogger DL, at 11:03 PM  

  • DL,

    Actually the Lib Dems have a very clear ideology. They are a party of the "new" left (ie. the
    "latte-sipping" left). There are a number of positions where the Lib Dems are distinct from the other two parties. On foreign policy, relations with Europe, and social issues generally, the Lib Dems are clearly to the left of Labour.

    This is distinct from Labour, which is an uncomfortable alliance between the old left (ie. socialists that care about the working class) and the third way (essentially left wingers that think markets work, or at least that embracing them is necessary to take office in Britain).

    It is Labour, not the Lib Dems that have a looming identity crisis. Brown has recently begun to sound out themes that one could never imagine Blair saying. Moreover, both of Labour's core ideologies are likely to see falling support in the coming years. Trade unions are dying, and the old notions of what it means to be working class are changing. On the other end, the financial crisis discredited those pushing for ever freer markets.

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 1:19 AM  

  • "It's historically traditional in British politics for the PM in a hung parliament to stay on."

    That didn't happen in 1929 or 1974, the two most recent cases of minority governments. The only thing that is traditional about hung parliaments in Britain is that they are shortlived and rare.

    However, a three party scenario may give Cameron more leverage. Public support is a zero-sum game because the number of seats are fixed. In a mostly two-party scenario minority governments never last long because if the incumbent is down, the opposition is up and likely to try a VONC (while if the incumbent is up, they will try to defeat themselves).

    Cameron needs to ensure that at least one other party has election jitters if his government is to survive. If nobody else is down, Cameron can run attack ads to give his government a potential partner. The nature of the economic recovery will be of great importance to Cameron's survival.

    If Cameron gets close to a majority he may be able to survive indefinitely with the support of small regional parties.

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 1:55 AM  

  • DL, the NDP in Nova Scotia did not vault into first place. They worked over the years to go from being a third party to forming the opposition to forming the government. They never had the major rise of the ADQ but instead they grew their support over a number of elections.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:01 AM  

  • I know one difference is that i the Uk party leaders are chosen by MPs.

    So like in Australia where this happened recently, they can replace the leader relatively quickly and easily without the actual campaigns that we have here (or at least the big long campaigns, I'm sure underground campaigning has been going on..)

    So it's a big difference in terms of the ability of the Labour party to provide effective opposition.

    Won't take them long to pick a new leader.

    Anyways should be interesting.

    By Blogger Justin, at 8:56 AM  

  • Justin - good point on replacing the leader. I'd forgoten about that.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 10:16 AM  

  • There are some polls out today showing overwhelming agreement with the idea that the PM should come from the party with the most seats and the party with the most votes.

    If Cameron has a clear majority in both departments, a Labour-LibDem coalition would be a difficult sell.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 10:17 AM  

  • Wrong about all UK parties chosing their leader via caucus. Labour changed their leadership selection processes some time ago to a weighted form of One Member One Vote (though with ex-officios, unions and so on being accorded weight along with members). The catch is that you must be nominated by at least 12.5% of caucus members to run.

    See the link below for a description of Labour's leadership rules, but here's the important snippet:

    "The decision lies with an electoral college split equally three ways between the 354 Labour MPs and the Labour MEPs, all party members and members of affiliated trade unions who have not opted out of paying a political levy - about 700,000 people in the last Labour contest in 1994"

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/5177180.stm

    So yes Labour's race could still distract them and take some time unless they all settle around one candidate and caucus refuses to nominate another.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:33 AM  

  • Dan, in Canada or the UK (or just Parliamentary first past the post systems in general), in your view are there are ANY conditions under which you think it would be politically palatable/legitimate for the 2nd place party (in BOTH vote share and seat share) to form a coalition government with the 3rd place and/or 4th or 5th place parties? Or do you believe that if a party wins the most votes and seats they should have the right to govern on their own regardless?
    (this is all assuming a minority government scenario of course)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:12 PM  

  • Anonymous,

    I'll not presume to speak for Dan, but will posit that the best example of a legitimate 2-3 coalition was Ontario in 1985. You had a long-serving (dying) Tory legacy with an new but out-of-touch leader (certainly sounds like UK today, 'cept it's Labour) winning only 2 more seats than the Liberals (who may have won the popular vote, I can't remember, but it was close). The Liberals had run a far better campaign and captured the imagination of a lot of people.

    I'm not sure I would endorse the 2-year pact the Libs and Dippers entered into, but as a young non-partisan at the time, I considered the coalition a fair reflection of the electorate's desires.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:25 PM  

  • "The party with the most votes" is a ridiculous measure in a riding system: voters in "Safe" seats have no incentive to vote *except* for some arbitrary and artificial reason invented by the media.

    What I find troubling is that voters in the UK are told that they have no means of holding their MPs to account: that votes cast for candidates other than the winner are "wasted" ballots.

    By Blogger Paul, at 5:18 PM  

  • "What I find troubling is that voters in the UK are told that they have no means of holding their MPs to account: that votes cast for candidates other than the winner are "wasted" ballots."

    The alternatives have other problems preventing voters from holding their representatives to account. PR diffuses responsibility in the form of coalition governments (in Canada we also have this problem during minority governments - do we blame the Tories for the budget, or the Liberals for caving on the budget vote - but it is not a structural feature of the way we run things). Moreover, a disgraced party that has been "taken to account" can still retain a place in government simply by changing its negotiating position.

    PR eliminates the wasted vote phenomena, but replaces it with the pointless vote problem. Platforms are meaningless because the policies implemented by governments are negotiated after the election.

    As Arrow's impossibility theorem would suggest there is no perfect electoral system. They all suck in different ways.

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 7:51 PM  

  • No PR system I've ever seen eliminates the "wasted vote phenomenon". The problem, as I see it, is with the media claiming that a vote for the losing candidate is wasted, when it is not.

    Would the media say that votes for the winning candidate are wasted? Yet they are just as wasted as the votes for the other candidates. But the effect of the message is to denigrate the democratic process, rather than to create a deeper understanding of it.

    By Blogger Paul, at 8:05 PM  

  • Let's put it another way: suggesting the Party with the most votes wins in a riding-based system is a lot like saying that the team with the most goals wins in a best-of-seven playoff series.

    By Blogger Paul, at 8:55 PM  

  • PR eliminates the wasted vote phenomena, but replaces it with the pointless vote problem. Platforms are meaningless because the policies implemented by governments are negotiated after the election.

    Nonsense. Do you think that Germany's Free Democrats do not bring specific items to the table as part of coalition agreements? Was this also the case during the Liberal-NDP accords in 1972-74 federally and 1985-87 in Ontario? True that neither party gets to do everything they might want to, but that's the nature of compromise and, well, politics.

    As Arrow's impossibility theorem would suggest there is no perfect electoral system. They all suck in different ways.

    We don't need a perfect system, just a better one. FPTP may have served us well when the party system was simpler, but a system that consistently rewards regional-based over broader-based parties (e.g. the Bloc vs. Greens) is hardly a positive for a country with important regional divisions. Should all non-CPC voting Albertans inevitably be left with only one seat representing them? The overrepresentation of the Bloc, meanwhile, exaggerates Quebec's different voting patterns and makes stable cooperation between parties (i.e. formal coalitions) much more complicated and/or impossible.

    By Blogger Josh, at 10:27 PM  

  • "Nonsense. Do you think that Germany's Free Democrats do not bring specific items to the table as part of coalition agreements?"

    Parties bring specific conditions, but if they have too many, they will be unable to negotiate their way into government. It is certainly impossible to expect something as complex as an election platform to survive multiparty negotiations.

    Secondly, those voters whose preferred party is not in government have wasted their votes. They have elected representatives but those representatives have no influence on policy.

    So 40% of votes are wasted outright. The other 60% are quasi-wasted because votes do not translate into policies.

    Thirdly, the conventional wasted vote critique takes a rather short time frame (and most advocates are fairweather friends of electoral reform who are primarily interested in their party winning more seats). Over the long run in a competitive electoral system one group's over-representation is balanced by that of the other group.

    There is a perfectly objective way to measure this, by the way. You can compare the degree to which governments reflects the preferences of the median voter.
    Powell does an analysis of this sort for the 1980s. His findings suggest that there is really no difference between PR and FPTP (he does refute those that claim majoritarian governments are necessarily closer to median voters too) in terms of whether governments reflect the will of the average citizen. Proportionality doesn't matter.

    *******************************
    What about regionalism?

    Firstly, electoral systems do not create regionalism. Different interests, linguistic groups, etc. create regional differences. Nor would PR eliminate the Bloc. It would merely reduce them to 11% of the seats instead of their present 15.9%. So yes, lets change our electoral system so that the Bloc will win 15 fewer seats.

    Moreover, PR will give voice to new kinds of divisive forces. If any set of interests can muster 5% of the vote, they can win representation in parliament (assuming a 5% seat threshold). A racist party could presumably pull those kinds of numbers.

    This brings us to the issue of stability. Yes, secessionist parties make poor partners in government. So too can ideologically extreme parties.

    For instance, in Germany, the emergence of the left party made coalition formation exceedingly difficult after the 2005 election. The result was that a grand coalition was necessary. This is problematic because democratic governments need strong oppositional voices - something you don't have when 75% of the representatives are in the government.

    The alternative - where governments bring extreme parties into the tent - is just as problematic. Israeli governments are often beholden to pro-settler parties, which have provided serious obstacles to peace in Palestine.

    Alternately, if a country has too many narrow interests, it will have too many parties for a stable government to emerge. Prodi's government in Italy was harried considerably by the need to keep various far left parties happy. It quickly fell.

    Indeed, it is for this reason that PR is especially bad for countries with regionalism. If Canadians are divided by region AND ideology then you could conceivably have at least multiple ideological parties within each region. That is not a recipe for stability.

    *************************
    Yes, Canada has problems. However, there are many ways to fix that problem that are less radical and more effective than PR.

    We could adopt the Australian electoral system, which reduces the wasted vote problem, allows for a more nuanced expression of preferences, and does a better job of producing majority governments.

    Alternately we can reform campaign finance laws that enable the Bloc - which has limited grassroots fundraising abilities - to live off the public purse.

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 3:26 AM  

  • "DL, the NDP in Nova Scotia did not vault into first place. They worked over the years to go from being a third party to forming the opposition to forming the government. They never had the major rise of the ADQ but instead they grew their support over a number of elections."

    Well actually, as you may recall in the 1998 NS election the NDP surged from 16% and 3 seats to 33% and 19 seats and a dead heat with the Libs - unlike Sharon carstairs and Mario Dumont - they managed to consolidate their gains. Some might also recall that the NDP had been the perenial third party in Manitoba and then came out of no where to win under Schreyer in 1969.

    By Blogger DL, at 12:18 PM  

  • Re: coalitions. Your scenario about "wasted" and "quasi-wasted" votes would be more credible if parties followed platforms to the letter (they certainly would never renege on promises!) and if voters actually cared about every little nuance of policy. They (we) do care about guiding principles and some specific policies, where there is disagreement, efforts should be made to obtain consensus on key points.

    On the subject of regionalism, it should be fairly plain that the 1990s grossly overrepresented regional parties (Reform, Bloc) over those with more diffuse support (e.g. PCs in 93). While that occurred within the context of majority governments, I'm at a loss to understand how having the Bloc as Official Opposition from 93-97 was remotely helpful. At the moment, their overrepresented presence makes inter-party cooperation more difficult; the numbers do not work as well as they would with a more proportional share of seats.

    I don't know what point you're trying to make about Germany - predecessors of the Left Party have existed since reunification, and its (along with the Greens) more recent success is more reflective of the gradual erosion of support from the two major parties. It's not as if grand coalitions had never occurred before, and it's worth pointing out that the German system is structurally designed to foster stability and consensus, not "strong voices", opposition or otherwise.

    Finally, your comment about party systems in Israel and Italy is the usual canard used by opponents of electoral reform. One can point to the equally and increasingly fragmented party system in India to point out the "instability" of FPTP. We're not going to resemble Belgium by changing the way seats are allocated.

    By Blogger Josh, at 12:46 PM  

  • Dl, gradually gaining support to form government is not vaulting into first place.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:47 PM  

  • CG,

    If the LPC had any sense at all they would make you the party president, the leader, or at least an MP. Hell, I am a Harpermaniac and I'd vote for you. It is really refreshing to hear a partisan who isn't just spin, spin, spin, and who can admit their opponents do some things right.

    By Anonymous mecheng, at 10:07 AM  

  • It probably wouldn't hurt to brush up on your piano skills either.

    Looks like he took your advice.

    By Blogger saphorr, at 1:43 PM  

  • Hey, there's a great deal of effective info here!

    By Anonymous www.palencia-3d.com, at 11:36 AM  

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