With polls showing paper thin margins, it's time Greens consider a new electoral strategy.
Federal Green leader Elizabeth May: Harper's outspoken critic might end up being his big helper.
[Editor’s note: Elizabeth May submitted a response to this piece, which The Tyee published two days after. You can find it here .]
Everyone who follows federal politics knows that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, has been an outspoken critic of a great many of the policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. She objects to his anti-terrorist legislation (Bill C-51), whose real purposes are to instill fear in the public while permitting the legal expansion of spying on Canadian citizens. She has condemned his abuse of the House of Commons -- omnibus bills, stifling debate, proroguing Parliament, centralizing power in the Prime Minister's Office and his abuse of the Senate -- appointing a collection of party bagmen among other patronage appointments. She opposes his muzzling of scientists, his lack of interest in data and information, his advocacy of oil sands exploitation and support for pipelines. And so on.
Elizabeth May is also one of the hardest-working, most-knowledgeable, well-respected members of Parliament.
Then why are she and her party actively pursuing an electoral strategy that is almost certain to elect more Conservatives?
In 2011, apart from electing only Elizabeth May (in the riding where I live), the Green Party finished second in only one riding. One. Nationally, the party got less than four per cent of the vote, down from nearly seven per cent in 2008. Now the Greens are actively recruiting candidates for the fall election. Who knows -- they may double or triple their vote. Maybe.
But in the next election two main camps are sure to emerge. On one side will be those Canadians who desperately want to replace Mr. Harper with someone else -- almost anyone else. Whoever has the best chance of defeating his government. On the other side will be Conservative party loyalists, for whom virtually no malfeasance on the part of the Harper government is enough to make them change their vote. It is strange how this kind of loyalty transcends a conservative's usual respect for public institutions and tradition, for fiscal accountability and transparency, for the prudent expenditure of taxpayers' money, and for fairness and justice, all of which have suffered miserably under Stephen Harper's reign.
The fact is that even in their wildest dreams, the Greens cannot displace more than a handful of sitting MPs. No one including May is under the illusion that the Green Party could form a government. But in choosing to run candidates in ridings that have the best chance of electing someone other than a Conservative, Elizabeth May is playing right into Stephen Harper's hands. She is his best electoral ally, because her party will draw votes from New Democrats and Liberals -- the parties with the only chance of defeating Conservatives. This splitting of the opposition votes is just what Stephen Harper needs to form another majority government.
Math Harper likes
In the 2011 election, there were 11 seats where the combined Liberal and Green vote was greater than a winning Conservative, and 6 seats where the combined New Democrat and Green vote was greater than a winning Conservative. The Greens had no chance of winning those ridings, but a greater Green vote in 2015 will only make a Conservative victory more likely.
Let's not forget that in this year's election, more seats have been added to Parliament and riding boundaries have changed. That makes predicting riding outcomes even more suspect than usual. But using the 2011 vote redistributed to the new ridings, there are three seats in B.C. where a combined NDP and Green vote would have defeated an elected Conservative.
In Courtney-Alberni, a new riding, the redistributed vote would have resulted in a Conservative victory over the New Democrat by 2,399 votes. The Greens would have had 3,933 votes in that riding -- just 6.8 per cent of the vote, but enough to deny an NDP win. The Greens can't win this seat, but they can help elect a Harper candidate. In S. Okanagan-W. Kootenay, it's the same story. The Conservatives outpolled the New Democrats by 2,961 votes using the new boundaries, but the Greens, with only eight per cent, would have had 4,514 votes. Again, enough to assure a Conservative win. Ditto in Vancouver Island North - Comox - Powell River. A Conservative margin of 2,183 over the New Democrat, with the Greens getting 2,625 votes. Just 5.2 per cent, but enough to help elect another Harperite. The point is that even if the Greens triple or quadruple their votes in ridings like these they still can't win, but they can help the Conservatives.
There were two other seats in B.C. won by Conservatives where a combined NDP and Green vote would have put the NDP very close to victory. And there were a couple other seats narrowly won by the NDP where a stronger Green vote could cause second-place Conservatives to be elected. In none of these seats does the Green party stand a reasonable chance of being elected.
Elizabeth May and her supporters like to think that she has a more long-range vision than other politicians, who rarely look beyond the next election. But the strategy that the Greens are pursuing in the run-up to the 2015 election is exactly designed with just that one election in mind. And it is a bad strategy if her objective is to defeat Stephen Harper.
A proposed solution
So what to do? The Green Party could choose not to run candidates in seats where another opposition party has a good chance of defeating a sitting Conservative. They could in fact run very few candidates, and concentrate resources in Elizabeth May's own riding and a handful of others where opposition vote-splitting is less an issue.
For that matter, I also think that the NDP should choose not to run against Elizabeth May -- and I say this as someone who has voted for the NDP for 40 years. The NDP is not going to defeat her (the party finished a distant third in 2011), and not running against her helps ensure that she will be back in the House of Commons, which she should be.
In seats where the Greens choose not to run, they could -- for one election -- endorse the New Democrats. It now seems, with the momentum of a stunning victory in Alberta and increased support reflected in recent federal polls, that NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is emerging as the best hope of defeating Harper's Conservatives.
After all, the New Democrats have a good environmental platform, and, crucially for the Greens, are committed to implementing a system of proportional representation. Could Elizabeth May trust an NDP government to live up to this commitment? I don't know; I'd like to think so. It's worth a chance.
This would be a difficult pill for Greens to swallow, but in the longer term, it would be beneficial to the country and to the Green party. The priority of progressives in Canada must be to defeat the Harper government. This requires courageous initiatives. And if the NDP were to form the government and bring in proportional representation, the Green Party would be certain to have representation in Parliament from that time forward. It's time to take a bold step to help make that happen.