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The Myth of the Conscious Political Party

June 4, 2010

Two links to the growing discussion about suggestions that the Liberals and NDP form some kind of coalition to win the next federal election.  First, the Globe.

Scott Reid asks that we “Don’t sacrifice the Liberal Party for a coalition of the centre-left”.  He makes some good points that the idea of a formal coalition and combined platform and election strategy before an election, as seems to be suggested by a recent Angus Reid poll, has some serious flaws.  We shouldn’t want to reduce the number of parties just to to change government.  The NDP and Liberals are legitimately separate voices.  If people begin accepting the Conservative view that there are only two voices, the Left and the Right, then we are really losing something.  While I agree with Scott Reid’s rational points I take issue with his emotional argument for why such a coalition is a bad idea.  He claims that there is something Noble and Great about the Liberal party that should be defended for its own sake, as an institution. He claims that political parties encapsulate traditions, that they anchor principles that we must fight to defend in the long term even if we must lose elections in the short term.  Well,  I have a simple response to that notion.


Political parties are strategic tools.  Tools to organize people, rally like minded voters and frame policy. Parties should be flexible and changeable over time.  They should be democratic and listen to the people who choose to be their members.  Political parties are not people. They are not conscious entities with beliefs and principles. They shouldn’t even be like religions, although that’s the closest analogue.

Political parties are functional components of our democracy.  Why should we be held to some conceptual notion of what the Liberal party “is” if the world is changing?  I vote for one party or another based on my trust that their leaders understand and hold principles similar to mine.  The party ideology has some effect on that but one of the frustrating things about parties, and why I have refrained from becoming too involved in any one, is that party members become defensive of “the party’s position”.

Lets make this clear. Political parties don’t have positions. They don’t exist, they are figments of our collective imagination that serve a useful purpose, like the economy and corporations.  People have ideological positions and they should always be willing to defend to themselves based on their own ideas and reasoning rather than referring to a party as justification.  So no, I will not defend the history and existence of any party just because it has been around a long time or instituted health care.

The Liberal party did not institute health care. The leaders and MPs at the time and thousands of government employees and health care workers across the country instituted health care. People did it, not a party.  If those people did it as members of a party, representing a party, or even, frighteningly, “for the good of the party”, then that is their prerogative. But for present Liberals to claim pride that their party did this is sentimentalist, sloppy thinking. Its understandable, a natural human fallacy we all participate in. But it is still sloppy and it has no place in real discourse about politics or our democracy.

Second link: The Cat provides a thorough analysis of the Angus Reid poll and outlines in detailed a Third Option.  In my opinion this is really the only option for a pre-election coalition that works.  I’m not convinced a pre-election coalition is required, but if it is, the cohesiveness of the parties must be maintained.  Also notable is his culling from the data that puts the lie to the myth that Bob Rae is unelectable in Ontario. Being from Ontario and growing up during Rae’s tenure I have never understood the certainty about this.  I understand there is some anger on the union side about betrayal and some unfortunate pension cases that should have been made exceptions, but Bob Rae is a powerful personality perfectly in line with mainstream Ontario.  If he had been chosen as leader of the Liberal party during that fateful day instead of Stephane Dion who knows where our country would be now. Somewhere different certainly.

But no matter.  We have the cards we are dealt with.  What must happen next is that politicians must be convinced to play an honest game of cards and that does not mean just ‘sticking to the principles and history’ of your party for its own sake.  It means looking pragmatically at the options available, considering all of them, and choosing a strategy that respects democracy. Choosing a strategy that respects the valid options available in our democracy, which the Brits have recently reminded us of (thanks MotherDem). Above all it means choosing a strategy that will bring about a more representative result in our next parliament.  So that we do not once again end up with a party receiving ~35% of the national vote and running government all on their own.  I don’t care who they are, or who they made a deal with, if they’ve over 45% or even, gasp, 50% of the national support collectively. Then they can work out policies in parliament, representing the will of most Canadians. That’s what elections really are, or  should be, all about.

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