Without a new Canadian Chartism, Canada remains a democratic joke

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Welcome to the mid-1800s. The mass political movement of the hour is Chartism. In Britain, its venue, its demands include universal (male!) suffrage and a secret ballot. In about 20 years it peters out. It takes about a century until its main demands succeed.

Elections become normal, then boring. Chartism is relegated to history tomes. When I was in high school, it was on Ontario’s mandatory British History course. (Another revival for premier Doug to ponder.)

During my own political formation, electoral politics seemed indescribably pointless. Parties were dominated by rich elites. Change meant Tweedledum replaced Tweedledee. Politically serious youth advocated violent revolution (since "no ruling class ever surrendered power willingly").

Less romantic souls did "community organizing." Only ambitious dullards entered electoral politics. I wrote an election book called Waiting for Democracy, on the premise that elections are what they stiff us with instead of the real thing.

So now we're in the midst of a political surge, which you could call The New Chartism, as if the old Chartist demands were never met, just subverted.

This week's example was the election of a Black woman in Boston, Ayanna Pressley, over a 10-term Democratic incumbent. She destroyed him. Her views are radical, like ending cash bail and swift reform of criminal justice. These are Black Lives Matter positions. It wasn't about race. The incumbent was backed by Black American heroes, like John Lewis. But he was a Clinton, establishment type.

It's as if the universal franchise never happened or, if it did, was beaten back -- as it's often been in the U.S. South. Pressley embodies and is backed by voters who feel omitted: the new Chartists.

This is true for many Trump voters, too, when they say, "He hears us." In the U.K., the Labour party has been simply swamped by waves of mostly young, left-wing voters who've seized the party away from entrenched prigs like Tony Blair and most of their incumbent MPs.

I think it's fair to use the U.S. and U.K. as models since, like us, they're among the few remaining dinosaurs with antiquated British voting practises, like first past the post. Yet there's no real sign of a new Canadian Chartism. We have provincial referendums on voting reform but they always fail, due to unenthusiastic governments and an inexplicably hostile media.

All the more reason to yearn for it. We're the worst case available of a blighted electoral system. We routinely endure governments that got around 40 per cent of votes and act like absolute monarchies.

In the U.S., Donald Trump is at least visibly irritated by the fact that Hillary Clinton got a few votes more than him, but lost. Here, neither Kathleen Wynne nor Doug Ford even shrugs. The last time a federal government got more than 50 per cent of votes was 1984. It's virtually pointless for the excluded to engage seriously while the system stays as it is. Unlike the U.S. or U.K., a new Chartism here means structural change.

Like what?

Either: kill first-past-the-post. I don’t care how. It could be proportional representation (PR) so you'd need a coalition with an actual majority to govern. Or a preferential, ranked ballot so whoever is elected must get there with more than 50 per cent -- my own choice, since I hate giving party apparatchiks added power.

Or: merge the existing parties down to a two-party system. It's what the U.S. and U.K. have and it's why outsiders don’t have to reform the voting system, but simply take over one of the parties. With two parties, a true majority becomes far more probable. Here, it would mean uniting the Liberals with the NDP and maybe Greens. Nationally, the Liberals would predominate but provincially, the NDP might be dominant. Then, let the bloodletting begin.

Without a new Chartism, we remain a democratic joke. Resurgent Chartism is a sign of the iconic power of voting.

When I was writing plays, often with political themes, I was surprised how often scenes of voting appeared in them, given my articulated contempt for the dreary, bourgeois electoral process. But there's something to be said for icons and symbols that assert an attraction across centuries. They have the power to move people to action, and change.

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star. 

Image: Percy/Flickr

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