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Unintended consequences: Attacking Leadnow and strategic voting

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As I have noted before, partisan political narratives often die very hard -- even when these narratives have begun to do far more harm than good to those who continue to espouse them.

One of these, increasingly, is the fixation by many New Democrat partisans on insisting that they are the only "real" "progressives" (while all the other parliamentary parties are supposedly the "same") as well as on attacking their old nemesis among progressive voters: the Liberal Party. 

Recently a group calling itself The Real Vote added fuel to that fire, by creating a petition calling on Leadnow, a group dedicated to the defeat of the Harper government via an Anything But Conservative (ABC)-style "strategic voting" campaign, to stop advocating for voting Liberal in ridings where the Liberals have the best chance of defeating the Conservatives on the grounds that, because the Liberals voted for Bill C-51, they are not "progressive." They are suggesting Leadnow, which is "non-partisan" in its efforts to defeat Harper, drop Liberal candidates from its strategic voting campaign; which would mean, in practice, an endorsement of the NDP in all but three or four ridings in the country.

In April, Paul Moist, National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) also criticized Leadnow on the same grounds -- though he was at least openly doing so as an NDP partisan, as he included the Greens (in spite of Elizabeth May's steadfast opposition to Bill C-51 from the start, unlike Tom Mulcair) as also not being "progressive." At the time he said that Leadnow's strategy was "mistaken" and would lead to "unintended consequences."

Yet even if one accepts their premises in whole or in part, these attacks on Leadnow are, in my opinion, profoundly misguided.

If you are a New Democrat they are even misguided from a purely partisan point-of-view.

In fact, despite intentions, saying that "Neither the Liberal Party of Canada nor the Green Party are progressive," as Moist did, not only implies differences between the progressive parties that are far greater in the minds of NDP partisans than they are in reality, but, far more importantly to those who wish to aid the NDP's cause, serves only alienate many "progressive" voters that the NDP absolutely needs to win government.

In any honest strategic voting effort or narrative (as I have argued previously) the NDP are certain to be the primary beneficiaries as even a cursory analysis of the existing parliamentary reality, as well as recent polls, shows.

Even if one rejects strategic voting as a concept (which I absolutely do -- in fact I support none of the mainstream bourgeois "progressive" parties, the NDP included), the point is that attacking a sincere desire on the part of progressive voters who are inclined to vote for the Greens or the Liberals for "strategic" reasons to defeat the Harper regime, or denouncing the parties that some progressives are normally inclined to support but who may be leaning to voting NDP this time, far from making them more likely to switch over to the NDP, is quite likely to have the opposite effect.

There are some rather obvious reasons for this.

First, as the last Ekos poll showed, a far greater number of Liberal voters, 45 per cent, see the NDP as their second choice as opposed to those who see the Conservatives as such, which is only 12 per cent. Three times as many Green Party voters have the NDP as their second choice (24 per cent) as opposed to the Liberals (seven per cent) or the Conservatives (eight per cent).

Regardless of how leftists and New Democrats may see these Liberal and Green voters, what is important is how they see themselves -- and many of them quite clearly see themselves and the parties to which they are primarily committed as progressive.

Telling them that they are fundamentally wrong (or that all the other parties are the same) is, frankly, a truly bad "strategy;" especially given that, to any objective observer, the NDP and Liberals have never been closer ideologically. They are almost like wings of the American Democratic Party.

This is also a bad strategy irrespective of how one feels about strategic voting and is true even though there is no doubt that leftists and New Democrats should always be critical of specific positions taken by these parties, most especially the appalling and pandering position, now backfiring terribly it seems, taken by Justin Trudeau on Bill C-51.

The point is that the focus of the NDP (and, one might note, the party's strategists do seem to be increasingly getting this) should always be the Conservative government and not its opponents, as not only is this what an opposition party that truly sees itself as the next government would do, but also because it sets the NDP up as the natural alternative to the Tories in a way that is not designed to drive swing voters the NDP needs away from the party.

This is part of how the NDP and its partisans can reframe the strategic voting narrative. It will not happen by talking about how the Liberals and the Greens are "not progressive" (even if you cling to the notion that the NDP is fundamentally different) or by attacking groups like Leadnow whose supporters are committed opponents of Harper, which is, if nothing else, a clear starting point in trying to get them to "lend you" their vote.

Ultimately, any strategy to attract the needed Liberal/NDP swing voters is not really about the Liberal Party at all -- it is about these voters.

And the ones that are important to the NDP are dedicated to seeing Harper defeated.

In the last Ontario election, the ONDP and its partisans almost seemed to go out of their way to alienate progressive voters like these using a similar line of reasoning to Moist's about the Liberals (and, one supposes, Liberal voters) as well as some odd notion that the really important objective was to win over Conservative "swing" voters -- an absurd miscalculation, even though the Liberals were the government (albeit a minority one), that would only be more absurd with a Conservative government.

This did not turn out particularly well.

The strategy's fundamental flaws continued to be revealed in the recent Ontario by-election in Sudbury. 

There can be unintended consequences to every strategy -- and this one could easily drive Liberals and Greens leaning to the NDP right back where they came from.


Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece stated that The Real Vote campaign suggests Leadnow endorse NDP or Green candidates. In fact, the petition asks that Leadnow stop endorsing Liberal candidates. The piece has been amended to reflect the language of the petition.

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