Alternatives for the Divided Left: A Short-List of Strategies

By Jared Wesley on Sep 24, 2008

These days, we hear a lot about the divided left in Canada.  The Harper Conservatives are poised to win a number of close seats by virtue of vote-splitting among Greens, New Democrats and Liberals.  In Alberta, the Provincial Liberal Party is debating the same issue: how to unite a fractured, left-leaning opposition to defeat the 36-year Conservative dynasty.  If the history of Prairie provincial politics is any guide, below is a short-list of the options available to these opposition parties:

1.  Fight the Good Fight - Option 1 is for the parties to continue to "fight the good fight", hoping that one of them emerges the most viable alternative to the Tory government.  All current party leaders appear to favour this course, although possible replacements to Kevin Taft (including David Swann) have mused about reaching across party lines.

2.  Unite the Left - A second option is to formally fuse various organizations into a United Left party.  Proponents of this approach hold the Harper Conservatives and Saskatchewan Party as models.  Unfortunately for the Alberta opposition, such parallels are less than helpful.  Formed in 1997 by a right-wing, anti-NDP coalition of former Liberals, Conservatives and Reformers, the Sask Party built on a long history of (albeit modest) success by the right-wing parties in the province.  Left-leaning parties have no such foundation in Alberta.  What is more, across Canada and throughout history, Liberals and New Democrats have run heated campaigns against one another.  The New Democrats consistently portray the Liberals as "Tory Twins," while the latter paint the former as "socialists."   It would take decades (more) of Tory rule to make many party stalwarts rethink this tack, as any formal merger would look hypocritical, at best.

3.  A "Unity" Ticket - A third option involves not formal fusion, but an "electoral arrangement," between the various left-wing parties.  This could involve an agreement by each party not to contest districts in which the other has the best chance to defeat Tory candidates.  Federally, this might involve New Democrats agreeing to "stand down" in some ridings in Central Canada, in exchange for Liberal concessions in BC.  Employed by the Alberta Liberals, Farmers and Tories versus Social Credit during World War II, this "Unity" strategy proved quite effective.  In 1940, "Unity" candidates won over 42 percent of the popular vote.  With just over 1000 votes separating the Socreds from the Unity forces, this remains the narrowest popular vote victory for any government in Alberta history.  The agreement dissolved in the post-war period, and the Social Credit dynasty continued for over two more decades.  Whether as a permanent coalition, or as a first step toward formal merger, this Unity strategy appears the most viable alternative for today's opposition party insiders.  (I.e., it remains viable, provided leaders can agree on which seats to "saw-off," and can convince constituency associations of the merits of the strategy.  That is a big "if", considering the posturing of present and previous party leaders.)

4.  Vote Swapping - In the absence of an elite-level "riding swap", electors could opt for a grass-roots "vote swap" strategy.  This has been discussed at-length elsewhere on this site.  Its effectiveness in solving the collective action problem, or serving as an alternative to electoral reformremains to be seen.

5.  A Citizen's Committee - In the absence of an elite-level agreement or grassroots movement, there is a fifth option - one that remains open to party members, union leaders, interest groups, and disgruntled voters, in general.  The lesson comes from Manitoba, where a group of Liberals and Tories revolted against their parties' leadership in the early 1970s.  Dissatisfied with the lack of a united right-wing alternative to the governing New Democrats, these individuals - acting under the Independent Citizens' Committee banner - decided to take matters into their own hands.  They took out full-page advertisements in provincial newspapers, "informing" voters as to which candidate had the best chance of defeating the incumbent in each NDP district.  These ads angered party leaders - not to mention those contestants left off the list of favored candidates.  Yet, the leaders responded by negotiating several late, saw-off deals.  While not immediately successful in unseating the government, the strategy did help set the stage for a right-wing resurgence in 1977, when Sterling Lyon returned the Tories to power.

Whether orchestrated by party leaders, or by party mavericks, the saw-off solution appears to be the best option available to the Alberta Left, given the parties' historic resistance toward formal merger.  As for the Canadian Left, I'm not convinced any of the parties have spent enough time in Harper's wilderness to negotiate any form of pre-election merger or coalition.  (The May/Dion deal, and Layton's musings about a post-election coalition, aside.)

These are but five of several alternatives open to those seeking to "Stop Harper," or bring new faces to the Alberta Legislature.  If history is any guide, the task is fraught with both challenges and opportunities.

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