Clegg: is he good for the Canucks?

A fiasco for first-past-the-post would be bad news for its future in Canada

by Colby Cosh

You’ve probably heard about the startling eleventh-hour rise in the polls that Britain’s Liberal Democrats have enjoyed since their leader Nick Clegg, a reformed skirt-chaser and unreformed atheist, leapt out of the tall grass to win an Apr. 15 televised election debate. It’s time Canadians started contemplating the domestic impact of a strong Lib-Dem performance in the May 6 vote.

Lately you can find individual UK polls that have the three major parties in almost every order except for those that have the ruling Labour Party at the top. Conservative leader David Cameron, until recently a heavy favourite to win the election and capture a majority, suddenly finds himself confronted with the possibility of a historic, 1964-Phillies-esque collapse down the stretch. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been reduced to near-irrelevance on the hustings—but because of his Labour Party’s regional strength, his party is likely to control more seats than the Liberal Democrats even if Labour finishes third in the vote.

Punters at UK gambling site Betfair are currently forecasting better-than-even odds (57%) of a hung Parliament and a reasonable chance (fractional odds: 7-to-1) of someone other than Brown or Cameron becoming Prime Minister. Under such chaotic circumstances it is entirely possible that “someone other than Brown or Cameron” could end up being a coalition leader other than Clegg himself. And the price of the exotic “two elections in 2010″ prop bet has soared, implying a 27% chance of a quickie second vote. Also, dogs and cats have been spotted living together in Scunthorpe.

The Clegg boomlet may not end up changing anything in the long run. But even though the UK parties map awkwardly onto ours, it would appear to have relevance to Canada on at least a couple of fronts. The Lib-Dem moment is the very same one of which the New Democrats have been dreaming since the Winnipeg Declaration, and of which they caught a brief glimpse in ’88; to wit, voters finally get tired of the choice between Coke and Pepsi and start getting curious about Dr. Pepper.

I went to rabble.ca expecting to find a lot of excitement about this. More fool me. The online left is far too busy tilting at Zionist windmills and trying to win the All-Canada Summarize Chomsky Competition to pay any heed to the model for our democracy. But a strong electoral performance by Clegg would provide data for a future debate about the fate and usefulness of a social-democratic party that no longer believes in socialism—and one that, given the excess weight given to labour unions in its leadership balloting, arguably isn’t all that strong on democracy either. Recall that the “Democrat” half the Liberal-Democrat DNA derives from light-pink Labourites who got tired of trade-union bullying and wanted to build a non-militant home for the Left. Thatcher crushed the unions, Labour became neoliberal, and thirty years zipped by, but somehow the Lib Dems have recovered a raison d’être.

It seems highly speculative to imagine that such a thing could ever happen to the NDP. (I’m not aware that there exists some brand of “awareness of one’s own irrelevance” fairy-dust that can be sprinkled on NDP supporters.) Of more immediate concern to Canada is the possibility that a strong Lib-Dem result could a) create pressure for the adoption of proportional representation in the UK and b) bring about the conditions for its immediate adoption as the price of Liberal-Democrat participation in a governing coalition. If the three UK parties were each to get the exact same numbers of votes on May 6, with the regionally distorted riding-by-riding distribution remaining about the same, the seat distribution in the Commons would end up being roughly LAB 300-CON 200-LIB 100.

I don’t think there is necessarily a major ethical problem with this, particularly since what it practically amounts to is giving Scotland and Wales something more like an equal say in British government and protecting them from being demographically overrun. Only a crazed extremist for “democracy” in the strictest technical meaning of the term would argue that Scotland and Wales should have influence on Parliament not one iota greater than their nose count. The effect of “first past the post” in current British politics is much the same as that of the U.S.A. giving equal representation to the states in the Senate, and, by extension, giving smaller states a disproportionate say in the Electoral College.

Still, this election may provide a tough, maybe destructive test of tolerance for that arrangement—particularly in the light of ever-louder murmurs of English nationalism and English awareness of the West Lothian Question. (The existence of Welsh and Scottish assemblies considerably weakens the argument that Parliament can never revise constitutional arrangements in a manner contrary to the interests of Wales and Scotland, and the argument isn’t totally decisive anyway.) A fiasco for first-past-the-post would be bad news for its future here; its abandonment in the UK as part of a power-sharing deal would make us stick out like a sore thumb. Even pro-FPTPers can’t deny that.

Clegg: is he good for the Canucks?

  1. It looks like the LibDem boomlet is starting to fade already. Cameron is back up to 34%, and the LibDems have slipped to 28%, a point behind Labour. With these splits, the Tories don't need a 10% lead to win a majority – 6-7% will do just fine. Combine this with the fact that Labour will struggle to turn out their vote, and I still think Cameron will win a weak majority.

    • "Thin Tory majority" is still the outcome I would bet on personally. (No one who voted for Thatcher ever seems to appear in the British press in any capacity except "curmudgeonly pundit", but she kept winning elections somehow.) I have to admit my Betfair numbers were about 18 hours old when I finished the entry, which is roughly one squillion years in Internet time.

    • You're basing that on one You-gov poll (a day old – their poll today show the LD's regaining a point).. and your fallacy in your argument is that other pollsters in Britain exist.. and they have different #'s that still show virtual ties or the LD's leading or narrowly behind.

    • Sea Otter;

      Do you or have you ever worked for Helena Guergis or any British equivalent?

  2. "I'm not aware that there exists some brand of “awareness of one's own irrelevance” fairy-dust that can be sprinkled on NDP supporters".

    This made me laugh, as I end up voting NDP mainly because I keep wishing that we'll end up in a situation like the one that is currently unfolding in the UK. The first thing I thought of when I heard Nick Clegg did well in the first debate. "Please, let the Liberal Democrats do well and first-past-the-post be finished in the UK, so maybe we have a better shot of reform here." But, as a frequent NDP voter living in Alberta (and not in Strathcona) believe me, I've great awareness of my own irrelevance.

  3. "I went to rabble.ca expecting to find a lot of excitement about this. More fool me. The online left is far too busy tilting at Zionist windmills and trying to win the All-Canada Summarize Chomsky Competition to pay any heed to the model for our democracy."

    Rabble is almost as sad a place as the small dead animals forum. But since this is the first time a Maclean's writer has addressed these issues, it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that someone on Rabble should have been busily triangulating the consequences of the UK election for the NDP.

    • I definitely wouldn't want to get cornered into defending the general record of the Canadian press in reporting on comparative federalism and political developments around the Commonwealth. Last time I looked, there was literally more on the NDP and Clegg in the British papers than there was in the Canadian ones.

      • Here's a notion that I haven't thought too hard about and have no evidence for:

        Canadians have over the years clearly grown distant from the UK, including it's culture and politics, and nothing summed up that distance better than the treatment of the Vasncouver Winter Olympic Games by the British Press.

        I would go so far as to suggest that the Fleet Street treatment of the Olympics caused people to wake up to the fact that the UK barely cares about Canada, and has little in the way of residual fondness for us. It was something of a watershed event. As a result, I don't think Canadians are currently in the mood to take any lessons from the UK, which they now regard as much more foreign a place.

        • I'm not sure that in the future we'll look back at Vancouver 2010 as the moment when Canadians finally let go of the apron strings once and for all, but I certainly agree that we're in no mood to take any object lessons from the UK about anything, and that the UK (even for the most ardent Anglophiles/Scotophiles like myself) is now a very *foreign* country – with not much more in common with Canada as Spain or Denmark, and certainly no more an object lesson.

          The move, in my view, has been an entirely gradual one – born of demographic change and the 1982 watershed (there's now an entire generation of Canadians who were born postcolonial). Maybe I just notice it more because southern Ontario is now (oddly) a very non-English/non-Scottish place… the old Grit Presbyterianism is dead, buried and won't be coming back. No one (here) pays much attention to Britain anymore because fewer and fewer of us (here) have any ties there that we recognize. And back home in Nova Scotia, despite the significant lack of demographic change, it seems much the same.

          • Nova Scotia is now a "very" non-Scottish place? That sure happened fast. Tempted to ask "So what are they speaking out there now, Khoisan?"

          • Having family and friends throughout the Commonwealth, I would argue that some of the perceived animosity from British newspapers could be the result of a perception that Canada has been 'ignoring' the Commonwealth. My friends from Australia and Britain frequently bemoan the obsession Canadians seem to have with the United States, and I tend to agree with their sentiments.

            Although I acknowledge that geography precludes Canada ignoring the US, I do think it is time for our nation to recognise and foster the relationships we have with other countries besides the US, both in the Commonwealth and outside of it.

          • I guess it depends who you talk to. I have a friend at the Home Office who often attends Commonwealth conferences with the UK delegation. His view is that the institution is an anachronism and that it lost its raison d'etre years ago. His response to Canada's participation in these conferences: bemused. We seem to get interested in issues (like Africa) for about two weeks before the conferences, and then ignore them for many years afterwards.

          • That's Canada's foreign policy of the last 6-10 years; scatter-shot at best, on anything other than Afghanistan. Its not just related to Britain or the Commonwealth. Many of our partners in the rest of the world are noticing, but Canadian's seem not to. Don't get Well's started on the subject – oh yeah, he doesn't comment anymore anyway.

        • Well, you are more likely to meet a cantonese speaker in Nova Scotia than a Gaelic speaker. But that’s not really the point…

  4. >likely to control more seats than the Liberal Democrats even if Labor finishes third in the polls due to Labor's regional strength.

    'due to Labor's regional strength'? Why not 'due to actionably liable gerrymandering'?

    • Is it? Doesn't Britain have an impartial organization to draw the election boundaries like Canada does? It does seem strange how solid Labour's seat numbers are no matter how little of the vote they get. A majority with 35, a chance at the most seats in the Commons this year even if they come in third in the popular vote… it seem ridiculous, and far worse than the state of things in Canada. No wonder the Lib Dems want electoral reform.

    • How is gerrymandering "actionably liable'? What do you even mean by that?

      Gerrymandering generally means working within the existing rules (however unethically) to establish favourable electoral boundaries for oneself or one's party. It is almost by definition unethical, but legal.

      • It's that 'generally' and 'however unethicallly' that makes all the difference.

  5. I find it bizarre that the article would claim that a possible Liberal Democrat win in the U.K. would be of relevance to the NDP in Canada.

    Other than the fact that it's a '3rd party' that might come to prominence, it seems strange that you would identify those two parties, given that the Liberal Democrat party in the U.K. is more congruent to the Liberal Party of Canada and Labour in the U.K. is closer to NDP in Canada.

    Both U.K. LibDems and the Canadian Liberals are members of the same Liberals International organization and indeed at a recent Liberal event in London, Michael Ignatieff was introduced by Charles Kennedy, the LibDem's former leader.

    So, yes, the shocker is that in the U.K., the 'NDP' have been in charge for the past decade.

    What's happening is that the U.K. could move from Labour (left) to Liberal (center-left).

    The lesson is for Britain: the ability of the Liberals to govern a successful G7 country such as Canada for roughly half the last century should be a useful lesson for the U.K., where the Liberal Democrats are often dismissed as a non-mainstream, unknown party that could damage the U.K.

    • The post was not about the comparison of the LIB-Dems to the NDP on the political spectrum. It was about the significance of a strong finish by a third party in a Westminster-based FPTP-voting democracy.

      I was doubtful of Cosh's flippant dismissal of NDP supporter's ability to see the significance, so good job for proving his point.

  6. What people here do not seem to realize is that both the Cons and Labour are actually to the right of our Conservatives (see health care, immigration, defence). One might say that the Lib Dems are really equivalent to our Tories in mushy middleness (though even the Lib Dems strongly support the UK's Afghan mission as part of the effort against international terrorism and its threat to Britain).

    Mark
    Ottawa

  7. A word to Cosh – perhaps this doesn't matter to you, but the headline makes it sound like this is a sports piece. I would have skipped it entirely if I hadn't clicked on it by accident, only to find that it's got nothing to do with hockey and is instead a very interesting political analysis.

    As to the Brits – perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, but I am inclined to think that part of the dynamic is the complete absence of a right-wing alternative to Labour. There is no Thatcher there today, and I think that if there was that individual could win. As it is there is Brown (a complete disaster who will still draw votes simply because of party loyalty), Cameron (essentially a Labour politician in all but name), and Clegg, who is likely even further left. Given those three options it's no wonder voters throw up their hands in despair and opt for whichever one shows the most personality regardless of policy.

    • I avoided this post for two-days for the same reason.

  8. It seems highly speculative to imagine that such a thing [recovery of a raison d'être] could ever happen to the NDP. (I'm not aware that there exists some brand of “awareness of one's own irrelevance” fairy-dust that can be sprinkled on NDP supporters.)

    The NDP is not irrelevant. The NDP is a legitimate home for its supporters; those whose sense of social justice is to take from those who have in order to redistribute to those who have not, to an even greater extreme than is underway in this country already. You and I may not agree with it, and, thankfully, most Canadians shy away from their philosophy, but that does NOT make them irrelevant.

    In fact, while disagreeing just about completely with the NDP platform, I respect them far more than I respect the Tories right now (*cough* pragmatic *cough* abandonment of whatever they said they stood for) or the Liberals (we should be in power because, well, just because, after all we are the Liberal Party of Canada).

    No pixie dust required. Those NDP MPs are there and are relevant because the voters voted them in.

    • And what of those NDP supporters who will never, ever see the person they voted for in office? With the way our political system is set up, the incentive is for parties to concentrate their resources in winnable ridings and ignore the ones where they don't have a chance. All parties deliberately ignore a large portion of their own supporters come election time, and in terms of votes to seats, NDP voters are worse off than any other party that actually wins seats.

      While the NDP isn't irrelevant, that certainly doesn't mean that many of its supporters are.

      • My riding will forever be Liberal. Sometimes I have voted Liberal, sometimes (make that most times lately) not. When I get outvoted, I ave not once considered myself irrelevant. That's why we have votes — we can't all "win."

        You can turn this into a FPTP slagging if you wish, and there is a lot to discuss pro and con, as there are for its alternatives. But just because (as an agnostic I might even start praying) the NDP will never govern, to charge them with irrelevance is missing the point.

    • The points you make about the NDP apply equally well to the Bloc.

      Odd that the two most "relevant" parties are the two least likely to govern.

      • Yes. I would add, further, that the Reform Party of its time also qualifies.

        But all three of these parties, who actually care enough about their reason for being, have all had a huge impact on public policy in Canada.

        Broadbent's 1970s NDP was called "the conscience" of Parliament, and wielded a whole lot of lefty influence, especially when they had the balance of power during Trudeau's minority.

        The Bloc has made Quebec a disproportionate menu item for years, whether or not they were Her Majesty's *cough* Loyal *cough* opposition.

        Reform helped immensely when Chretien-Martin rode Mulroney's Free Trade to prosperity and Mulroney's GST to surplus because the Liberals at that time paid decent lip service to restraining spending — the "conscience" of Parliament at that time was Manning's Reform Party.

        • Minor correction: David Lewis was NDP leader during Trudeau's minority in the 1970s…

          • Ah, yes, thanks. Substitute "The" for "Broadbent's" above for greater precision.

  9. This is a boring artic

    This is a boring article with a dumb title, and written under an off-the-wall presumption that more than one in a thousand Canadians know anything about or are in the slightest interested in the arcania of British politics. British Politics! ye Gods! the politics of decline is held up as some sort of lodestar of political sophistication for we hapless colonials? Still?

    The debates, G B's very first (!!), showcased two astonishingly dated upper crust twits making effete debating points with a clapped out old Scottish radical socialist who has put the finishing touches on GB's decline to the lower reaches of the second rank, or perhaps it is the upper reaches of the third.

    Find something uplifting to comment on and for Heaven's sake stop being seduced by the erudition imparted by a first class education such as both of the current leader twits in England have had. The skills thus learned equip one for nothing better than journalism.

  10. The last half of this article is intelligible

  11. This will be an awesome case study for Canadians, too cowardly to try anything not yet fully formed in England; Too busy being 'not American' to be self actualized Canadians; and, lacking the ability to perform abstract thinking, will wait for someone to draw them a clear picture of exactly what is wrong with first past the post.

  12. The average Canadian (I know because nobody is more average than me) doesn't give a hoot about British elections. and the results over there hardly translate into any impact in Canada, unless part of a larger global trend. Such as the swing to the "right" of the 1980's that bought us Reagan, Thatcher & Mulroney.

    The self-destruction of Tony Blair and now Obama hardly constitute any kind of global trend.

    Our country is well-managed witnessed by our strong showing during the world-wide recession and our quicker than projected recovery. I highly doubt that the results of a British election amongst politicians that Canadians don't know or recognize will have any impact here.

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