Resp to CBC The House: Lack of MPs does not mean lack of support

March 28, 2009

(This was an email I sent in response to a discussion on CBC Radio’s The House on Sat, March 28 2009)

Dear Ms. Petty,
One of your guests this morning, while discussing Michael Ignatieff’s new focus on the west, mentioned the failure of the Green party to win a seat in recent elections. While acknowledging that the Green party was the only one to gain new votes he simultaneously dismissed all green (small “g”) voters by saying that Elizabeth May had not done enough to “excite the population” about the green agenda. This is hogwash and you should have called him on it.

The real reason, the only reason, the Green party doesn’t win seats is that our electoral system is stacked insurmountably against parties with broad geographic support. If your issue isn’t local, if you don’t promise to compromise and shift your policies depending on the constituency, but rather stick to broad principles that at least 10% of the electorate fervently believe in, you get nothing. Meanwhile, if you focus on local issues alone and pander to regional fears and stereotypes you 50 seats with the same level of national support as with the Bloc in Quebec.  Look at the results. The Green party had 10% support in polls during the election but strategic voting reduced this at the ballot box.  But even if there support were 7% vs. 10% surely there is something wrong with the seats being zero and 50 respectively. Surely, we should not be able to dismiss Ms. May anymore than we can dismiss Mr. Duceppe if we believe that all votes count equally.

No, we cannot use the seats won in elections as an indicator of public opinion, we can only use the total percentage vote as having any meaning on national issues such as the economy and the environment. Journalist such as yourself need to call people out when they make what is a patently false inference from electoral results to public ‘excitement’ about an issue. There can be no correlation between MPs elected and national sentiment until we have a more proportional system of voting such as the one which British Columbians will soon be voting on in a provincial referendum on May 12.

If you need more information about this and wish to discuss why this is the case I’m sure we can find someone from the campaign at stv.ca or fairvote.ca that would be happy to come on your show and discuss it.

Thank You.

Mark Crowley

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3 Responses to “Resp to CBC The House: Lack of MPs does not mean lack of support”

  1. Murray Reeves Says:

    Mark –

    I have to disagree with you regarding your comment that the “only reason the Green Party doesn’t win seats..” is due to the electoral system.
    It is certainly true that our system does not represent voter support well in terms of seats in parliament, and with a change here of course the Green Party would have seats in parliament. Other parties, like Reform for example, have overcome this by being much better organized and focused on fundamental political organizing activities to achieve success.
    I am a Green Party member, and have been involved in three election campaigns (two federal, one provincial). I have seen many ridings progress in election competence, but the national party has flatlined organizationally. While a party leader does not hold all the responsibility for organizational success, they do have significant influence on priorities and resource allocation, and Elizabeth May needs to take responsibility for her part. She is a brilliant, passionate person, but her influence on the Green Party organizationally has been to make it more like an NGO that it was: focus on the message exclusively. The controversy about strategic voting at the end of the 2008 campaign was the best example of this.
    Greens are very weak in the fundamentals: signing up members, fund raising, and political strategy. These activities are often looked down upon in the Green community, and frankly the pointing to the flaws in the electoral system has been a convenient distraction.
    Greens now have millions of dollars/year to work with. Elizabeth is again focusing her energy on a long-shot riding (Central Nova) in an area of the country with very weak Green support. This is another example of the NGO-type strategy, which draws the fight to a location of philosophical or emotional significance instead of tactical.
    The Green Party is arguably the national party that supports electoral reform the most vigorously. The way it will be achieved is from within parliament, resulting from competent campaigns and political strategy; not by using it as an excuse for electoral failure. If the leader does not set the tone to achieve electoral success, then the leader must take responsibility for the outcome. This is politics.

  2. Mark Crowley Says:

    Murray, I appreciate your reply, you’re right that is politics and how it works under the current system. Now I don’t know alot about the internal campaign strategies of the Green party so I’ll take your word for it that things can be improved there. But comparison to the Reform party is not completely accurate as I see it. The Reform party was a regional party party addressing all issues of conservative western canadians. It was even seen in some ways as just a western regional party in general. FPTP rewards regional focus, thats all I’m saying. For the Greens to make a breakthrough they need to come up with a regional strategy and convince some part of BC or downtown Toronto that they speak for them on all issues, with the environment as a top one. This is very difficult to do. The other approach is to attack a particular ‘winnable’ seat with your leader and get one seat in parliament. This would be an important milestone but it wouldn’t change the fact that a party with a very broadly distributed base of support cannot win a lot of seat in FPTP.

    The Green party and other grassroots movements like them need to consider what’s most important to them when making these choices in their campaign. You’re right, our flawed electoral system is not an excuse for not winning, you need to play by the rules of the game currently in effect. But voters need to know that the most effective way to have their voice really heard, and maybe the efficient too, is to get the rules of the game changed so that its more fair to non-regional, grassroots movements.

  3. Murray Reeves Says:

    You’re right on Mark. The predicament for the Green Party is that the 2004 strategy to campaign nationally and get past the 2% threshold to achieve federal funding was a blessing and a curse: enough money to create an organization with paid staff, but too broad and thin a support base to get elected.
    I agree with your point about Reform being a regional party, but I don’t think that this invalidates the reference to their success in FPTP. They filled a need to represent more conservative voters, and they naturally concentrated resources to win. There are lots of communities that are becoming very “green”, and with focus on organization building and more relevant/less abstract policies I’m convinced Greens can win seats and still maintain national presence for tactical reasons (after all 1/3 of ridings in Canada have no GPC associations, so they are essentially running names on ballots; one could argue that another 1/3 of the ridings with associations are so small as to be very close to that as well).
    This is a “Fair Vote” site, so I’ll try to respect that and bring this back on topic: I believe that at some point electoral reform will break through in a province, and that might start a cascade that will eventually result in federal political reform. Before the provincial break through happens I think discussing federal electoral reform is pretty much as waste of time – it will never happen there first. If I am right, then the Green Party of Canada, being a strong advocate of Fair Vote, can best help this by concentrating its organizational and electoral efforts in only a couple of provinces, like Ontario and BC. Good federal effort and success by the GPC helps the provincial Greens, and vice versa. There is already a presence of green municipal politicians, and this is growing. Get Elizabeth May back from Brussels (a complete waste of party resources, but very popular with the former NGO people), and promoting the Green Party in areas where some strength is building.
    It’s a long process that requires a strategy, focus, and discipline. Playing “national party” when you are at 7% support and no seats might keep the GPC in this position forever, or make it disappear, and a strategy of continuing the refrain “We’d have x seats of not for FPTP…” will only begin to damage the credibility of the Fair Vote movement.


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