Cullen is still wrong #ndpldr recently polled its email contacts to declare whether they agree/disagree with the statement “The NDP, Liberals and Greens should work together to defeat Conservative incumbents. After the election, they should cooperate to pass electoral reform.” They posted their preliminary results with nearly 8000 votes, and 95% of respondents agreed, with most strongly agreeing.

If this were a scientific poll of public opinion, the results would be definitive.

Of course, it was not a scientific poll but rather a straw poll of the small subset of actively involved young progressive Canadians. Not exactly a representative sample. But I won’t quibble with the results other than to emphasize that all this shows is what Leadnow members think, not all progressives or Canadians.

Yet, this is still urging some to argue that Nathan Cullen’s plan is on the right track to unseat Harper and replace him with something better. A friend linked me to this post on Praxis Theatre by Michael Wheeler where he argues that we need to work outside partisan lines to defeat Harper. Specifically he uses the Leadnow poll and some comments by EKOS pollster Frank Graves to defend his position.

The Graves article is on iPolitics (which requires registration to view, so I can only quote the conclusions Wheeler posted) and claims several things:

  • First that Canadians have strong negative views of political parties.
  • Second, that only 44% of people disagree that political parties have outlived their usefulness, which means nothing when phrased as a double negative. Further, this number is isolated from the other options – how many people have no opinion or think parties are out-dated – which means that political party supporters may still be the plurality.
  • Third, he concludes that NDP supporters are less supportive of the party system than Liberals and Conservatives. This doesn’t bode well for those hoping to get the Liberals to buy-in to any cooperation scheme though. It also likely reflects the fact that the NDP base has been only 10-15%, and it was only last year that Jack Layton brought the vote up to 30%. All this proves to me is that the NDP vote is softer than the (larger) Conservative vote or the (smaller) Liberal vote.
  • Finally, Graves states that young, non-voting Canadians have less trust in the government. It’s not clear to me how joint nomination deals will improve trust in government, as this seems to be taken on faith.

Wheeler’s conclusion sounds noble too:

Moving beyond their own self-interest to that of the country may ironically be their best chance for electoral success. Increasingly, progressive Canadians seem to be demanding cooperation from their political opposition that will allow them to vote FOR and not AGAINST something, through  a serious and credible movement to form a government that represents the majority of Canadians.

Yet, as I said back in October when I first considered Cullen’s joint nomination suggestions, this amounts to little more than uniting AGAINST something. The only reason people seem to be suggesting any cooperation is so that they can vote against the Harper Conservatives. It makes absolutely no sense to me how joint nominations somehow present a candidate you can vote for when  each of those candidates could simply run in the general election.

Here’s a scenario: Imagine you get three progressive visions for Canada coming to the joint nomination meeting in a Conservative held riding. The first argues that inequality is the issue of the day and that we must raise taxes on the 1%, lift seniors out of poverty, and reduce tuition fees. The second argues that the environment is the biggest issue. We should review the Enbridge pipeline, invest in Green Energy, and offer more investment to green energy, while not hampering the economy with unnecessarily high taxes. The third candidate wants to see a balanced approach of fiscal responsibility with social liberties. The government should implement smarter solutions to today’s problems while also seeking to reduce the deficit. Each candidate agrees on electoral reform as the first priority and that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have done untold damage to our country.

Because of the supporters who show up to vote (or who cast their ballot online or by mail) one of these people becomes the riding’s “progressive” candidate. It turns out during the campaign though that this candidate is actually against abortion, leaving many progressive pro-choice voters in the riding with a dilemma. Do they support a candidate who may roll back women’s rights (imagine that the despite the electoral cooperation, Harper still wins another government and one of his MPs brings forward a private member’s bill against abortion) or do they stay home on election day and protest the situation?

While this example is extreme, there are a number of sitting Liberal MPs who are pro-life, and similar issues will be just as passionate for voters in any riding. Some right-Liberals strongly oppose the NDP as neo-Communists, while some New Democrats see the Liberals as Conservative-light. Some Greens have left-wing economics, while others are quite right-wing – the only thing truly uniting their party is a concern for the environment.

In every riding will exist partisans who will not vote for one party or another. Many will switch to the Conservatives before they vote for a different party as well. Progressive votes are not transferable.

By reducing the number of options on a ballot, we necessarily reduce our democracy, and force strategic voting against someone rather than for someone.

The implementation issues

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that joint nominations won’t work if they happen, let’s also recognize that they probably won’t even be able to happen. The entire idea rests on getting each party to agree to allow these meetings. While a local riding association may choose to hold this meeting with their rivals, there is no guarantee that the parties will respect this decision. Each party has the ability to parachute candidates, so unless there is agreement from the leadership of each party, this idea is dead before it lifts off. To date, only one NDP leadership candidate has expressed any support for this idea and no one from the Liberals has agreed to it.

And as Denny Holmwood points out, even if Cullen wins the NDP leadership, he may not be able to implement the policy in his own party. It may be necessary for him to actually ask the members of the party for a constitutional amendment for this. Whether such a motion would pass is an open question as delegates to last year’s convention defeated a resolution to “reject any proposals to merge with the Liberal Party.”

Finally, Alice at Pundit’s Guide dissected the nitty gritty of what would actually happen if there was buy in from the NDP and the Liberals. She remains very sceptical of the entire situation. I strongly suggest reading her post, as she does the most thorough take-down of the entire proposal.


This post is already too long at over 1000 words. In a coming post I’ll try to lay out a defense of partisanship and the role that political parties have in our democracy.

I want to see Harper lose but there are no shortcuts to progressive victory. We have to actually get ready to do some real work to earn people’s votes.

8 thoughts on “Cullen is still wrong #ndpldr”

  1. Hi Ian,

    First off, even though we clearly disagree, thanks for taking the time to respond in detail to my post. New Democrats have a variety of opinions of how to get there, but I think we have the same hopes and aspirations for the political direction of the country.

    With regards to the iPolitics pieces, you can sign up for free for 2 weeks, which is how I accessed them. I found the entire series by Graves fascinating. Of course as a pollster he was WAY off in the last Federal election, and realized after that this was caused by a lot of younger people telling him that they were going to vote, but actually did not. So he is searching for a new way to investigate the mood and opinions of the electorate. The research is quite interesting.

    With regards to voting FOR something through cooperation – here’s the response to a similar comment I left on

    “I was thinking about how the “FOR and not AGAINST something” close to this piece would necessarily have me talking to someone in the comments, because I understand how electoral cooperation meaning voting FOR something could seem counter-intuitive.

    The something that the post-partisan activists I talk to are hoping to vote FOR, is a new spirit of cooperation and compromise that will allow the opposition parties to share power and promote the policies that are supported by the majority of Canadians.

    It is different than how politics have operated in the past where you vote on adherence to a singular ideology, that devalues all others and is based on ‘war room’ ‘us vs them’ mentality.

    Because I’m a NDPer, personally I’m pretty pissed off with the Liberal trend of campaigning from the left and governing from the right over the past decade. Nevertheless, Im not going to let my bitterness over this get in the way of us moving forwards.

    What we could vote FOR is to rise above all this partisanship and do something truly historic.”

    I am reticent to get to drawn into implementation speculation at this point. I bet there will be several proposals and counter proposals as this idea develops.

    Regardless, there is a startling amount of evidence to suggest that a Big Tent progressive alternative to Harper that will give people something to believe in would be extraordinarily popular with Canadians if not with party officials.

    Looking forward to your next post on partisanship.


    1. Hm. I’ve seen various, often in a sense quite successful political groups that favour a spirit of co-operation and compromise. The Tony Blair Labour party, for instance, and the Obama Democrats. This is not a model I’m interested in following; I back the NDP precisely to the extent that it resists this sort of compromise and instead fights for principle.

      What’s wrong with the modern right is not that they tenaciously fight for their beliefs and refuse to compromise on them. What’s wrong is, first, that their beliefs are false (and indeed largely a body of propaganda not really believed by those in control of the movement), and, second, that they so routinely stoop to such despicable methods in their pursuit of power–falsifying fact, indulging in dirty tricks, and routinely violating democratic norms and principles. It’s been my experience that those for whom the ends justify vile means typically turn out to have vile ends, as well.

      And what’s wrong with the modern left is not refusal to compromise. Far from it–overwillingness to compromise is a major source of damage to the left. One sees that weakness in debate time and again–a right winger will make an outrageous attack, and the left will waste their time defending themselves from whatever charge rather than attacking back harder. All it does is concentrate people on the ridiculous charge, giving the impression that there might be something to it.

  2. Thank you very much for the citation. It seems that belief in this plan is its own kind of religion.

    I look forward to your defense of partisanship. Without political parties, how would we govern in a parliamentary democracy? It would be back to the days of assembling sufficient votes to pass a budget through bribes, threats, and riding-specific expenditures. Not the kind of “confidence” in the government that would inspire confidence in the public, I dare say.

  3. Hmmm, Alice, it seems your comment does not address the commitment to genuinely and adamantly pursue democratic reform that is part of what both Leadnow and Cullen are promoting.

    If Greens, Dippers and Liberals each had an amount of seats approximate to their support by Canadians we could each vote according to our partisan ideals in an atmosphere that would require cooperation.

    Or maybe you would prefer we all voted strategically to pursue these ends? Just kidding!

  4. Sorry, not really understanding your point, but it’s not relevant to the practical problems with the nicely idealistic joint nominations “cooperation” scheme.

  5. “actively involved young progressive Canadians”
    how the hell would want to engage them?
    Your way is better, look at all the NDP governments we have had!

  6. Have to agree with Michael on voting FOR cooperation rather than against Stephen Harper, but more important to me is the math. As long as there isn’t a united left, we have one side of the spectrum with one vote and three parties each with a potential third of the vote on the other. Barring a miracle break-out of
    uniformity in the progressive movement, the conservative group forms government every time because even a little splinter in a diverse field means that they can win with as little as 26%.

    I am not one that thinks uniformity on the left or right does anyone any good. I think Canadians were better served when there was a clear difference between the Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. Those on the right had a choice to vote for a pro-choice candidate (to use your example). Your own argument is that the left is best served by not having to compromise, and I agree, but we’re never going to get the chance to make that decision because either we all vote one way, or we all vote at a disadvantage.

    What Cullen is talking about is working together once so we don’t have to lose our diverse voices in government. It’s not about a shortcut, but rather about acknowledging that people on the left are going to vote their hearts, wherever their hearts might lie, and making sure that expressing those leanings don’t confine us to the fringes forever.

    Let’s face it, this field plays to the CPC. They’re not about to push for electoral reform when they would be giving up their main advantage. The other parties will. They want their voices heard, and will create policy that ensures they can continue to be a part of this democracy. But they can only do that if they have a majority of the seats.

  7. A few thoughts:

    First, I see this as about uniting for a fair voting system as much as against the reckless government that is currently in power led by PM Harper.

    Second, there is an ongoing line of thought that cooperation means reducing our democracy. I disagree. A perpetuation of the status quo is far worse – it will likely result in further vote splits ensuring that, once again, the 61% majority (or whatever it is next time) who vote for parties other than the CPC will continue to have absolutely no meaningful power in government. We need a serious plan to break out of the trap our democracy is currently in, and I don’t believe any amount of wishing for a Liberal or NDP majority government is going to get us there. Implementing a plan that leads to electoral reform and fair voting would be a huge, huge improvement to our democracy.

    Finally, we don’t have a current break down of the Leadnow community by age – these numbers are old – but take a look:

    We never claimed the survey was representative of Canadians as a whole – it wasn’t supposed to be – but it is representative of our 80,000 person community distributed in every corner of the country, to give us an indication of what our community wants to take action on.

    That’s 80k+ Canadians who care about a range of issues – from asbestos to coal power, inequality and justice issues. We know they care about issues because they’ve acted on them, but the majority of those Canadians who care (most of which are not at all young or urban) (a) are not party members, (b) want the parties to cooperate to address those issues they care about including electoral reform, and (c) would be willing to join a party to push for cooperation. If that isn’t a carrot the NDP, Liberals and Greens should be paying attention to I don’t know what is. Most Canadians really don’t care about parties – they want action on issues.

    Thanks for the discussion, I appreciate it.

    Matthew (Leadnow’s Campaigns Director)

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