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The first step to a progressive government in Canada: Take away the Liberals' majority

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Image: PMO/Adam Scotti

It’s obvious at this point that Trudeau is breaking the key promises that got him elected Prime Minister. Immediately following the 2015 election, cracks between the Liberals rhetoric and their actions became apparent. Now, a chasm is there to swallow up anyone who tries to make a connection between Liberal promises and Liberal policy. Best not to try.

And yet, a majority of Canadians want that rhetoric to be reality. A majority wants electoral reform, climate action, an end to privatization, redistribution of wealth, and meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous nations.

The usual logic of democracy says "if you don’t like the government, elect someone else." Since we only recently got rid of the Conservatives (who are opposed to all the things the majority wants), conventional wisdom says there's one side with a credible shot of forming a government with a majority agenda: the New Democratic Party.

The case against an NDP government without strong, independent movements

Conventional wisdom also says the NDP won't win the 29th federal election.

But let's ignore what they say for a minute and consider what would happen if the NDP won. The dangers of electing a nominally progressive government when powerful movements can’t force them to act in the face of corporate pressures are well established:

  • Obama was elected on a tidal wave of youth Democratic Party organizing, which was deflated when he teamed up with Wall Street.
  • The Alberta NDP won a surprise victory in 2015, but has been totally unable to confront the oil industry’s legalized theft of billions in natural resources. They have since become Alberta's most effective cheerleader for pipeline expansion and growth of tar sands extraction.
  • Labour movements in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were able to squeeze a few good policies from their respective provincial NDP governments, but that faded as labour leaders' insider status morphed into unconditional support for provincial NDP governments that tend to dabble in privatization and other neoliberal policies as they become more comfortable in power.

The lessons are clear: when a government is elected and there is no independent movement that holds it accountable and pushes the agenda, corporate power will prevail. Who happens to lead those parties matters little.

No matter how committed, politicians will tend to take the path of less resistance rather than picking big fights that they might lose. This dynamic is compounded by the fact that left-leaning governments tend to hire dozens of movement leaders into staff positions, co-opting movements and blunting their ability to act independently.

If a hypothetical NDP government did choose to fight the inevitable corporate backlash on its own, the task would be as overwhelming as it is unprecedented: mobilizing mass support to counter corporate power and fending off daily attacks while governing is not a task that many would take on willingly.

Liberal minority as a stopgap

Minority Liberal governments on the federal level are different in a few important ways. Because they want the progressive votes that will give them a majority, Liberals will consider left policies that would otherwise be unthinkable. And because the NDP owes the seats that it has to its base, it can be much more principled.

As a result, Liberal minorities often result in shockingly progressive policy -- relative to what we're used to, anyway.

As recently as the embattled Paul Martin government of 2005, the NDP was able to convince the austerity-minded former Finance Minister to add $4.5 billion in spending for affordable housing, education, Indigenous communities and public transit.

Lester Pearson's back-to-back minority governments brought in universal health care, official bilingualism, the Canada Pension Plan and a 40-hour work week. They raised the minimum wage, initiated a Royal Commission on the Status of Women Canada, and declined to send troops to Vietnam. The threat of further losses to the then-recently founded and ascendant NDP proved potent indeed.

Pierre Trudeau's minority in 1973 yielded a slew of progressive measures to David Lewis' NDP, including the creation of Petro-Canada.

The downside is that minorities usually don't last long. The Liberals typically take credit for popular policies that they are forced to implement and aim to gain a majority government so they can get back to unpopular policies. In 2005, the NDP saw this coming and pulled the plug less than two years into Paul Martin's mandate. The result: an election that won the NDP more seats -- and also got us 10 years of Stephen Harper.

In 2019, movements won’t be strong enough to hold an NDP government to its commitment to progressive policy. They probably won't be strong enough to elect an NDP government at all. The results of electing a "progressive" government that pulls a Barack Obama or Rachel Notley are likely to squander progressive efforts at best, and be disastrous at worst.

The best chance for progressive gains seems clear: build the power of movements while working for a Liberal minority in the short term.

Getting to "No"

The Liberals received 6,930,136 votes in the 2015 election. Moving that just a few percentage points would involve convincing hundreds of thousands of people to change their vote: a difficult task to say the least. But to eliminate the Liberal majority, they need to lose 15 seats from their current total: a far more manageable task.

There were a lot of places where the Liberals barely won against NDP opponents. Here are 14 ridings where Liberal candidates beat the NDP by 4,000 votes or less:

From this perspective, the math looks pretty good. That's 26,976 votes. An average of 2000 Liberal voters would have to stay home in these ridings, or 1000 would have to switch their vote to the NDP. Given that Trudeau's youth turnout will already be hit hard by broken promises, the margin could be razor thin in many cases.

If Trudeau loses a few close seats to the Conservatives, or the NDP win back some of their old seats in Halifax or Vancouver, there's our minority.

Campaigning for a Liberal Minority

So how do we move those votes? By highlighting the gap between Liberal rhetoric and policy, and by offering a reasonable alternative.

The first step is a matter of education. Here's what an effort to highlight Liberal hypocrisy could look like:

1. Identify the progressive issues that resonated most with 2015 Liberal voters by riding

2. Run ads via social media that highlight Trudeau's failures

3. Identify areas with a high density of Liberal voters who might either switch or stay home if they knew a little more

4. Identify and train activists on the ground

5. Get the word out through events, canvassing and local media

Local campaigns will have different messages refined through trial and error, but it amounts to this:

"On issues that matter to you, the Liberals have failed to act. A Liberal minority would be much more responsive, and as a voter in this riding, you could make big impact."

Attack ads get a bad rap. Personal smears that impute impure motives are nasty but get results, as the Conservatives have demonstrated. However, a sturdy lambasting of a government's record from a principled stance is rare, underrated and can be quite effective. Usually, the only people doing the attacking are other parties, who are not particularly principled themselves. An independently managed "Liberal Minority" campaign would not have these kinds of limitations.

Campaigns like LeadNow's Vote Together show that third-party campaigning can be very effective when it is framed around specific goals. Now that the Liberals are in power, it's possible to run such a campaign without actively selling short a progressive outcome. That's because the "strategic voting" message would be aimed only at Liberal voters, and only in specific areas.

Building movements

To get to the point where movements are powerful enough to bring an NDP government to power and then hold it to its promises will require much more than an election campaign. However, an independently managed campaign for a Liberal minority could make a crucial contribution in two ways:

  • By establishing the idea that progressives can work on an electoral campaign without disappearing into the NDP
  • By building the independence of planning and action that will be required when the NDP do form government

The idea of working independently of a party without necessarily being its opponent is still foreign in Canada. Americans, however, are rapidly coming to understand that that is precisely what is necessary. It takes decades to start a new party in a first-past-the-post system, but creating an organization that can intervene in campaigns, nominations and policy debates is much easier.

A stepping stone

A Liberal minority is not an ideal result, but barring the emergence of massive popular movements on the left in the next year or so, it is arguably the most progressive possible outcome for the 2019 election.

A Liberal minority would give NDP an opportunity to be the best version of itself, forcing progressive policy from the Liberals. It would give movements a chance to build their strength and exert influence while lessening their vulnerability to being co-opted by a future NDP government.

No one can say that a Liberal minority is a satisfactory outcome, but it might just be the best starting point for something better.

Dru Oja Jay is the executive director of Friends of Public Services and co-author of Paved with Good Intentions.

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