Monday, January 17, 2011

Canada and the UK: Lessons From Britain

What we know, heading into 2011, regarding the Canadian political scene is this: there might be an election, but there might not. And if there is an election, it might change a lot, but it might not. Not much to go on, really.

The interesting thing, though, is that those among us who sense that the stasis that has set in regarding our political landscape might be shaken up (might need to be shaken up) have by-and-large ignored the Westminster System just across the Atlantic that has a half-year leg up on the changes we might well be seeing in Canada in 2011.

If we really do enter an era of coalitions, we shouldn't be looking at countries like Germany or Italy that know them well: we should be looking at the UK as it stumbles through its first proper coalition. The other way the UK presents a model for us is in the existence of Caroline Lucas, the UK's first-ever elected Green MP. This matters because (for now, anyway) the UK has the same problematic FPTP system that we do. So if Nick Clegg's reform referendum fails, sticking the UK with its current dysfunctional system, Caroline Lucas's successes and failures will tell us a lot about the feasability of having a Green Party in a Westminster FPTP system.

The comparison is not entirely valid. For instance, the three-party system that the UK has right now might seem to match ours quite closely (with the same colours, even), but since the mid-nineties, the non-right of the political spectrum in the UK has been really confused. The Liberal Democrats, whose participation in the current coalition has been disastrous for their popular support, appeared to be an option more progressive than the Labour party - an appearance not borne out of the histories of the two parties but on recent trends in parliament, current platforms, and to a large degree on the personages of Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg was the story of the 2010 election, and his party seemed like a vital alternative to the two stagnant main parties.

Things are different here. Setting aside the Greens and the BQ (who, of course, correspond to the SNP and the PC), we're quite clear on who our left, our centre and our right are - to the extent that the actual beliefs and policies of the NDP, the Liberals and the Conservatives respectively would do little to change that popular perception. A Conservative/NDP coalition seems even less plausible than a Conservative/LibDem one, which means that Nick Clegg's noble aspiration, as the third party, to negotiate with the first party before talking ot the second party might be dead on arrival domestically. It's a pity, because it's a mature and intelligent working system in a 'coalition era' of politics. But the concept of coalition has coalesced so firmly around the Liberals and the NDP that nothing else is even considered. Realistic in the short-term, I realise, but dangerous in the long.

Dangerous, perhaps, for the NDP. Whatever the rank-and-file might think, I think the NDP as a party has grown comfortable with its role as kingmaker: in Ontario it has been kingmaker a few times before and in 2011 there is a decent chance it will be again. Federally it was kingmaker in the 1970s, and was more comfortable in the role under Martin than it has been under Harper. If the scales tipped just enough this year to give the Liberals more seats than the Conservatives, I think the NDP would be happy to 'prop up' a minority - if they could introduce some key legislation during that time (say, regarding Afghanistan), then it might even help them. If the Conservatives still lead in total seat count (which seems likely), then the NDP are stuck where they were before - either discussing the so-called 'coalition of losers' that so inflamed popular opinion in 2008 or carrying on as they have been for five years now.

A genuine Liberal-NDP coalition presents an interesting challenge for the NDP: as we saw in the 1970s, failures would taint the NDP brand while successes would not necessarily vindicate them. It's tough for a junior partner to take much credit in a coalition, and it's here also that we need to look at the LibDems.

The numbers in the UK are horrifying: scant months ago at the polls, the LibDems took 23.0% of the vote to Labour's 29.0 and the Conservatives' 36.1. This happened after a heady post-televised-debate bubble that had all three parties polling equal numbers; there were even four polls that put the LibDems out front - on 24 April, YouGov posted the LibDems at an unbelievable 34%.

It was unbelievable. Unrealistic and unsustainable. YouGov today posts the following numbers: Labour 43%, Conservatives 37% and the LibDems 9%. The cost of coalition has been astonishing for the LibDems, though you could argue (quite rightly) that the LibDems' numbers were artificially inflated by wavering Labour supporters who have since returned home. Why they have returned home is important, and I don't think it's merely a distaste for the government side of Commons (though there's that). Yet think this way: of any five people who voted LibDem just a few months ago, only two remain faithful. More than half have wandered away. Obviously the tuition fiasco is of great importance. But it reflects the strange situation the LibDems, historically a centrist party, find themselves in: are they responsible to their party loyalists or to their most recent electors? If their intentions have been misunderstood by a large number of the people who cast votes for them (though the tuition fiasco is a bit different - it does seem to be a genuine turnaround), is that really their fault? And how grateful should they be for the votes they managed to secure last time around, if many of those votes were cast against the other two parties as opposed to genuinely for them?

For the moment at least, the LibDems and Labour are tied to each other: one party's success is the other party's failure. One wonders how well a Labour/LibDem government would have performed - and one wonders how well the LibDems would be polling were Nick Clegg Ed Miliband's junior partner. One also wonders where the UK Greens - a more soundly left-wing party than the Green Party of Canada - fit into all of this (quite well in the short-term, at least - were an election to be held tomorrow, Caroline Lucas's seat would seemingly be secure and perhaps joined by a few others). All this matters over here because whatever fluidity can be squeezed from the stone of Canadian politics falls clearly on the left side of the Conservatives-vs.-everyone-else axis. Coalition, merger, collapse, whatever: it's only a shakeup in the relative positions of the four non-Tory parties that can really change the composition of parliament. The signals from the UK are mixed at best. But we need to be reading them much more carefully than we currently are.

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