I touched on many of the reasons I disagree with Nathan Cullen’s (pre-)electoral cooperation proposal a few days ago, which was primarily a reiteration of my previous statements on the issue. At the end I alluded to a post I wanted to write about the need for partisan party politics. This is that post. I did mean to have this done earlier but life somewhat got in the way.
It’s become increasingly hip to describe oneself as “post-partisan”. Political parties are seen as vessels for blind ideology, personal ambition, and are antithetical to real progressive change.
The bitter debates in the House of Commons between Conservative attack dogs and the opposition are held as evidence of the systemic inability of our institutions to look out for the public. Power is increasingly held by the Prime Minister’s Office, which is mirrored in parties by the position of party leader. Parties control messages, stifle individuality, and emphasize conformity.
The fact that the term hyperpartisan carries such negative baggage points to the general disgust with the status quo.
In Alberta, the desire to rise above the rhetoric led many progressives to form two movements – ReBoot and Renew Alberta – which hoped to find solutions to the apparent issues and find a way to bring progressive policies. One movement sparked a few conferences and the other resulted in the Alberta Party – a post-partisan political party. Sadly for their ambition, the Alberta Party remains at the level of popular support typically reserved for the Social Credit and Communist Parties, and behind the de-registered Greens.
Federally, this has led to calls for strategic voting, uniting-the-left, and more recently for joint nominations.
Why we have parties
But before we can talk about discussing a future without political parties, perhaps we should actually take a brief tour of where parties came from. I won’t claim to be a historian, so don’t discount me if I gloss over or omit some details, but here’s my basic understanding (i.e. high school Social Studies supplemented by Wikipedia).
Canada’s political system grew directly out of the the British Parliamentary system. The first political parties (as we might recognize) were the Whigs (Liberals) and the Tories (Conservatives). They were created primarily so that a number of politicians could either support or oppose the Exclusion Bill of 1678-81. The basic story is that a number of likeminded people realized the strength of organizing themselves for political gain.
As Alain de Botton said in a recent TED talk on Atheism 2.0, “if you want to change the world, you’re going to have to work together.”
This idea is clearly not lost on modern groups like Leadnow.ca who are also organizing to affect change in the world. In our federal (and most provincial) systems, independents are at a serious disadvantage to those supported by a political party. Parties provide branding and a coherent message that can grant a candidate legitimacy.
Parties provide some division of labour too. If I’m campaigning as an independent, I have to be an expert on everything that could come up at the level I’m campaigning for. By affiliating with a party that I generally agree with, I can focus my efforts (which will likely be more successful) on a few key issues. I can then also count on my caucus colleagues to support my issue as it’s understood that I will support their portfolios.
Now, it’s worth recognizing that not all political systems require formal political parties. Most cities in Canada (except for Vancouver, Montreal, and a few other cities) have no party system and Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are operated with a consensus legislature.
The absence of parties doesn’t preclude political alliances though. The Toronto City Council is notorious for its unofficial partisan divisions (left, moderate-swing, and right wings) and any mayor must balance at least two of the groups to pass policy. Further, vote splitting is rampant in the Toronto mayoral races where a half-dozen candidates with a chance of winning have to fight for a plurality, whereas the Vancouver mayoral race is a near de facto two (or three) person race.
Why I am a partisan
Within our political framework (a parliamentary democracy – which is far from ideal), political parties still have relevancy. From branding to being effective vessels for policy implementation, our parties should not be done away with hastily.
This is not to say our parties are perfect. The centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has been mirrored in every major party (including the NDP and Greens to varying degrees). Ideas seen as unelectable will be pushed out while the general ideology will shift centrist. Dissent is viewed negatively by the media (how many articles talk about anonymous sources and infighting).
Yet every party retains a desire to reach to its grassroots. The Conservatives have the most successful Canadian political fundraising machine in history and the NDP allows every member an equal vote for the party’s leadership. If the parties isolate their grassroots too much, they risk the lessons (potentially) learned by the Liberals after neglecting their supporters under Chretien and Martin. If the leadership refuses to listen to the members, there will be few volunteers during the elections.
So I look at our country as it stands and I imagine how I want it to be. The best vehicle I see to get us there is the New Democratic Party. It is not a radical communist group, but a modern progressive group of social democrats. I won’t agree with the party on everything (nuclear energy and naturopathy tend to spring to mind), but I see enough potential to make this country a better place.
There is no reason to fear political parties. If one doesn’t work for you, quit and join another. Thomas Mulcair jumped from the Quebec Liberals to the federal NDP, while Bob Rae jumped from the Ontario NDP to the federal Liberal Party.
The system may be broken but change is often easier from the inside. Join the team you believe best represents your values and vision and help them win.
In my next piece I will respond to a few of the comments to my last article on Joint Nominations – which even got featured on Macleans.com thanks to Aaron Wherry.