The Conservative Counter-Strategy

An aside before today’s main post:  I hear a lot of commentators describing what the Liberals are trying to effect as “democratic reform”.  That’s not quite so: the Liberals are trying to effect electoral reform.  The phrase “democratic reform” is a rhetorical device intended to cast the status quo as undemocratic.  A new electoral system will almost certainly affect political processes and outcomes.  Some of these effects will be positive; others, negative; and indeed, in many cases actors will differ over whether a particular change is positive or negative.  Moving on…

The Conservative Response

The more interesting aspect of electoral reform to consider IMO is the response of the Conservative.  As it stands, the Conservative counter-strategy consists of two elements:

  1. Argue for a referendum on two grounds: i) that the Liberals do not have a popular mandate to change the electoral system; and ii) that governments / politicians (of any stripe) ought not to be allowed to unilaterally change the rules of the game because they will invariably do so to further their interests and not the public’s.
  2. Threaten to use their Senate majority to block electoral reform unless the Liberals agree to put the question to a popular referendum.

Is this strategy a cynical one?  Absolutely, but no more so than Liberal claims that electoral reform is needed to ensure that “every vote counts” or Liberal counter-claims that the recent election did indeed confer on them a popular mandate for every item in their platform.  All sides are – to paraphrase Elster – propagating hypocrisy dressed up as public service.

How successful is this strategy likely to be?  The Conservatives’ rhetorical strategy is certainly full of logical holes and contradictions (e.g., using an unelected branch of the legislature to block legislation passed by a duly elected government… though there is that John Turner episode that the Grits probably prefer not to talk about).  But I think the Liberals are swimming against the tide here:  1) populism is deeply embedded in Canadian political culture; 2) perhaps as a result, we have a history of putting critical issues to plebiscites in this country – and no one argues that this is a mundane issue; 3) the BC and Ontario precedent is to use plebiscites to decide over electoral reform; 4)  I just think the public mood in advanced Western democracies is no longer so deferential to elites; 5) the Conservatives don’t actually have to win this argument; they just have to make the process of electoral reform troublesome enough that the Liberals give up; and 6) given that most plebiscites fail, the Liberals may come to want the Conservatives to win this argument; it gives the appearance of living up to their promise while leaving in place FPTP (under which they’ve done very well, thank-you) .

But the Tories shouldn’t get too comfortable:  what if the Liberals to agree to a referendum, and then use their weight in committee and on the floor to ensure that the referendum was over the Alternative Vote (AV) (which the Liberals want) and, say, closed-list PR (which the Liberals know would lose)?  Put differently, the Liberals can use their majority to determine what alternatives are put before the electorate… and they are under no obligation to put the status quo (FPTP) on a referendum ballot.

So the Conservatives need a back-up plan.  Presumably, that’s a Senate blockade regardless of how the Liberals proceed.  But (as I’ll explain in an upcoming post), they have to be aware that the Liberals can and will stack the Senate it they are intent on electoral reform.  So what’s the back-up, back-up plan?  Clearly, FPTP is the Conservatives favoured electoral system; under FPTP, the Conservatives have recently (i.e., the last 15 years) been able to translate a vote share of approximately 33 percent into a series of minority and majority governments. Understand, however, that the Conservatives’ success under FPTP was due mainly to vote-splitting on the political left. When the political right was split between the Reform and Progressive Conservatives in the 1990s, FPTP worked to deliver the Liberals a series of majority governments. Thus, whilst the Conservatives might prefer to remain with FPTP, altering the electoral system to AV would not be the worst outcome.  Under AV the district magnitude would remain at one, and this by itself would allow the Conservatives to remain as one of the two largest parties. Canadian electoral politics might then come to resemble a mirror-image of Australian politics, with the Conservatives taking on the role of the Australian Labor Party—often consigned to opposition but sometimes able to form government alone. One possible outcome of electoral reform, then, is for the Liberals and Conservatives to agree to replace FPTP by AV and to forestall any possibility of reform along more proportional lines that would threaten both of the large parties. Such an agreement would represent the two large parties tacitly ganging up to sideline the NDP and Greens. I don’t discount this possibility one bit.

There is an alternative, however.  The  one advantage the Conservatives enjoy over the Liberals is that they are currently the lone viable party on the political right. This means that any reform, whether to AV, MMP, or STV, leaves the Conservatives in a similar position, that is, with a monopoly on the political right albeit consigned to (the official) opposition for long stretches. (That’s not so bad: the official opposition gets all sorts of perks.) Thus unlike the Liberals, who I see as having strong preferences for AV over STV and (especially) MMP, the Conservatives are much closer to indifferent over which of these alternatives prevails. (Put more formally, the Conservatives’ preference ordering is FPTP >>> AV >= STV, MMP.)  This provides the Conservatives with two openings. First, this makes the Conservatives’ threat to stall electoral reform in both the House and Senate eminently credible. The Conservatives might be able to exploit the combination of their credible intransigence & the Liberals willingness to evade what may quickly become a quagmire to gain some say over the content of any referendum; they could then insist that any referendum be over all options: FPTP, AV, STV and MMP.  Supporters of electoral reform might then fail to coordinate on an alternative to FPTP a la John Howard’s manipulation of the Republican referendum in Australia.

Second—and this is more speculative—the Conservatives might credibly threaten to throw their support behind MMP. Why would this be credible? Well, on the argument above the Conservatives are largely indifferent over reform to AV or MMP—but the Liberals are not; the Liberals IMO strictly prefer AV to FPTP to MMP;* MMP will leave the Liberals as one of three left-wing parties, perhaps positioned as the natural left-bloc formateur, but never in a completely dominant position.  And the risk of splitting into 2+ parties the face of PR is just as high for the Liberals as it is the Tories.  Such a threat might then serve to force the Liberals to 1) put electoral reform to a referendum on the Tories’ terms, or 2) to give up on the project entirely.  In short, the Conservatives’ one advantage in all this is that they can afford to be far more risk-acceptant than the Liberals over electoral reform; in some ways, the Tories just have much less to lose.

* The wild card in all this for me is how the Liberals rank STV (in small-M districts) relative to FPTP.  One view is that as the centre party in the party system, the Liberals stand to do better under any ranked-ballot system than any other party.  A contending view is that the degree to which the Liberals benefit from a ranked-ballot system invariably declines in the district magnitude.  This is because STV becomes increasingly proportional as the district magnitude increases.  Clearly, there is some M beyond which the Liberals are better off under FPTP. It’s probably between 2-3 seats. 

  • At M = 2 (so a Hare quota of 33%+1), most districts would return 1 Liberal and 1 Conservative.
  • At M = 3 (so a Hare quota of 25%+1), I suspect many districts would return 1 Liberal, 1 Conservative, and 1 NDP (or Bloc or Green) – but results of 2 Liberals and 1 Tory or the converse (e.g., in AB & SK) would be frequent.**    
  • At M = 4 (so a Hare quota of 20%+1), almost every district returns 1 Liberals, 1 Conservative, and 1 NDP, with the 4th seat a wild card. Districts where 2 Liberals or 2 Conservatives are returned would not be uncommon. **

**To appreciate this, note that the NDP exceeded 50% in only 2 districts last election, and  received > 21% in only 140 districts last election; so give them +5% in the latter to account for the fact that the NDP’s vote % last election was sapped by strategic defection; these incentives will decline as M>1. But then divide 140 / 3 and the NDP makes the quota in just 45-50 M=3 districts.  In contrast, the Conservatives exceeded 52% (i.e., 2 quotas at M=3) in about 40 districts, and the Liberals exceeded 52% in 112.

Of course, extrapolating in this fashion from last election’s results is naive; people will alter their voting strategies. In addition, much will depend on how district boundaries are drawn.  It will really matter, for example, if one merges 3 districts in which the NDP, say, is uniformly strong versus merging 1 district in which the NDP is strong to 2 in which it is weak.  That said, I see the Liberals about as well off under M=4 as under MMP; this is the M at which the NDP can be assured of making the quota in most districts.  I see the Tories having monotonic preferences over M: so M = 1 > M=2 > M=3…  This suggests to me M = 2 or M=3  as the compromise figure between the Liberals & Conservatives were STV to be chosen.  But what I really think is that the NDP better be careful what they wish for because I doubt they’re getting MMP…

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