It was supposed to be our “Obama moment.”  January 26, one week after George Bush’s last day in office, the progressive coalition would topple the federal Conservatives and manifest the “62 per cent majority” government that Canadian voters had elected three months earlier.

Of course, the moment never came.  But something interesting happened during the election and during the short life of the progressive coalition.  People were getting involved. For a moment, the social taboos were lifted and political discourse was cool.  People had strong opinions and expressed them loudly. 

First it began as an ‘anything but Harper’ movement.  Then it grew into a spontaneous national grassroots support network for the Coalition.  Viral videos began appearing on YouTube.  Grassroots websites designed by students attracted tens of thousands of supporters. At the Toronto ‘Rally 4 Change’, I noticed dozens of faces that I had never seen before at party events or movement rallies. Jack Layton and Stéphane Dion were even joined on stage by Leslie Feist and Broken Social Scene.

Youth attracted to non-partisan mobilization

The interesting thing is that this sudden youth-driven electoral mobilization was uniquely, and fiercely, non-partisan.  The Facebook groups about the coalition were much larger than the parties’ own campaign groups had been.  And can you imagine Feist attending an election rally for the Liberals or the NDP?  The big stars, as well as most of their fans, keep a safe distance from party politics. 

So what brought these people out in January?  What suspended the political apathy, especially amongst youth?  It seems to me that many younger Canadians are more comfortable with political engagement when the focus is on a set of values, rather than a party.  Or when parties are working together, rather than fighting against each other.  This is important because it indicates what message will attract the next generation of Canadians as they begin to explore our political landscape.

Memo to the NDP

If the NDP wants to be relevant to this new generation, the party needs to look at ways of showing that we represent a new politics that puts collaboration and inclusiveness before competition and power-seeking.  The attempt by the major parties to exclude Elizabeth May from the leaders’ debate is example of how not to reach out to this generation, and the backlash was well deserved.  That was only a taste of what could come, if a cultural shift doesn’t take place within the electoral Left.

People are looking for a political discourse that is open, honest, inclusive and inviting.  These are the values that were the foundation of Obama’s campaign.  These are the values that attracted people to the Coalition rallies.  Previous election rallies featuring Layton attacking Dion, or vice versa, attracted dozens.  But rallies with them on stage together, supported by Elizabeth May and Gilles Duceppe, drew thousands.

How do we sustain this energy?  One campaign that could attract this energy and this demographic is the movement for electoral reform: a multi-partisan movement for fairness, effectiveness and stability in government.  This is an issue that can get people interested, erode apathy and reach a larger audience than any partisan campaign.  It’s already happening in B.C., where voters are set to participate in both an election and a referendum on May 12. 

Online buzz for electoral reform

The overwhelming majority of the online buzz is about the BC-STV proposal for proportional government — not about the parties. Even homemade viral videos are coming back in fashion.  It feels like the Coalition buzz all over again. On Facebook (a good indication of buzz amongst our younger citizens) the YES for BC-STV group is quite large and growing rapidly each hour, while the B.C. NDP group is smaller and relatively stagnant. 

You would think that the B.C. NDP leadership would want to be at the forefront of this movement.  Polling shows the vast majority of NDP members in B.C. support the STV campaign.  Many prominent progressives such as David Suzuki, Maude Barlow and Judy Rebick are all in favour.  And some federal NDP MPs in B.C. are openly supporting.  But the provincial caucus remains inactive on the issue, in stark contrast to the B.C. Greens who are strongly in favour and advocating for reform.

The unfortunate truth is that the NDP has always supported voting reform on paper, but not when in power or close to power.  We’ve had NDP governments in four provinces, and all have failed to pass legislation that would democratize our elections.  The optics are bad.  What it says is that we as a party are as opportunistic as the others. The risk of perpetuating this image is significant. 

NDP neutrality handing Greens a breakthrough

The Greens try to paint themselves as the innovative modern party in contrast to the major parties who they frame as old-fashioned, out of touch political dinosaurs.  By taking a neutral stance on the referendum, the B.C. NDP is giving the Greens exactly what they want, and handing them an electoral breakthrough on a silver platter.

Some progressive leaders have even gone beyond neutrality and are actually opposing electoral reform.  This smells of opportunism as the B.C. NDP can win a majority in the province under first-past-the-post. 

The Left must take on electoral reform

Sadly, the tactics being used make the situation even worse.  Instead of intellectual debate, we are witnessing fear mongering and false rumours being spread about STV in attempts to feed opposition.  Misleading data from other countries is being used to fabricate arguments, such as the notion that STV will result in fewer women being elected.  Experts and feminist leaders firmly reject the accusation, and it’s embarrassing to see some progressive leaders align themselves with this type of political activity.

If we’re serious about growing as a movement, then it’s time for the Left to take on the issue of electoral reform.  Not at the bottom of our agenda, always slipping off the radar, but as a torch bearer leading the way. 

How do we attract younger voters who are turned off by divisive party politics and attracted to collaboration?  How do we shift our mentality to one of inclusiveness that welcomes new voices to debate, rather than fear those voices?  How do we align ourselves with Obama’s “change we can believe in”?  It’s a change that is defined not just by progressive values, but also by a commitment to a new politics that is multi-partisan, mature, open and inclusive.

Our “Obama Moment” wasn’t on January 26.  But it could come on May 12.  British Columbians are leading the way. 

We can either be part of the change, or we risk becoming political rust, watching the landscape change around us.


Dave Meslin is a New Democrat and a community organizer, based in Toronto. His background is in grassroots advocacy and he has created a variety of projects including the Toronto Public Space Committee, Spacing Magazine, Toronto Cyclists Union, Dandyhorse Magazine and City Idol. Hours after writing this piece, Dave got on a plane to British Columbia to join the campaign for BC-STV.