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The Case Against an NDP, Liberal, Green Coalition

Teaming up to defeat Harper's Conservatives is undemocratic and won't work.

Bill Tieleman 21 Feb

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. He was president of NO STV in the 2005 and 2009 provincial referenda on electoral systems and strategist for Fight HST in the 2011 provincial referenda on the Harmonized Sales Tax. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

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Cooperation hallucination? History shows poor record of electing 'unity candidates.'

"War without allies is bad enough -- with allies it is hell." -- British World War II air marshal Sir John Slessor

There are only two problems facing those who want an "electoral coalition" to defeat the Stephen Harper Conservatives in the next election. It's undemocratic. And it won't work.

Despite that, social media group is promoting efforts for the New Democratic, Liberal and Green parties to "cooperate" to field a single alternative candidate to defeat the federal Conservatives in key ridings and end the Harper government.

And Internet activist group goes one step farther, even advocating in an email that its supporters consider joining the Conservative Party to oppose Harper policies from the inside, as well as join the other parties to push to "make democracy work."

Both groups support NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen's idea that the NDP hold joint nominating meetings with the Liberals and Green Party in Conservative-held ridings for the 2015 election.

Despite their enthusiasm, the electoral cooperation approach has failed repeatedly in the past, most recently in last year's vote that saw Harper win his first majority.

And how do Leadnow and Avaaz expect to make democracy work better by reducing the existing options available to voters?

At any cost?

The premise behind these concepts is simple -- the Harper Conservatives are so evil and permanently destructive to Canada that nothing else but stopping them matters.

Democratic choice and the real ideological differences between the parties are to be sacrificed to stop Harper.

Even during the Second World War, all parties ran candidates against each other in the 1940 and 1945 federal elections -- surely no one can say Canada today requires such a draconian step as eliminating some parties' candidates?

Using dubious scare tactics to force Canadians to accept lowest common denominator politics is reprehensible.

What Harper is doing is highly objectionable to those who voted against him. But the Conservatives earned a mandate in an election where strategic voting to block them was widely advocated and failed.

And these groups forget about right-wing policies held by both the Liberals and Greens -- both are deemed "progressive" -- because they aren't Conservatives. Many NDP voters don't share that perspective.

It's as if these groups effectively want to create a new centrist political party out of the three existing and quite different ones.

No guarantees

Of course, that's not the way Leadnow, with 80,000 members, and Avaaz, with over 600,000, see it.

Their goal is to terminate the Harper government, followed by some undefined "electoral reform" after the next election.

Then the Conservatives would never form government again and everyone -- except Tories -- would live happily ever after.

But it won't work.

First, electoral cooperation plans have always failed miserably.

In the 2011 election, several groups promoted strategic voting -- endorsing the candidate they felt had the best chance of defeating a Conservative, or retaining a close opposition seat threatened by a Tory.

Project Democracy says over 405,000 people consulted their strategic voting website, and many others heard about their efforts.

But while Project Democracy targeted 84 ridings, they were successful in only 26 of them, where non-Conservatives were elected. Conservatives won the other 58 ridings -- or 69 per cent.

Interestingly, Project Democracy admits it endorsed the "wrong" candidate in 11 ridings, meaning they promoted the candidate who it turned out had less of a chance to defeat a Conservative than another opposition candidate. Oops.

Another strategic voting group called Catch 22 targeted 60 ridings but saw opposition members elected in just 15 of them -- and in only four of those 60 were Conservative incumbent MPs actually defeated.

These awful results demonstrate the flawed approach.

And it's not just the last election that's the problem. It's all of them.

Myth of the 'unity' candidate

Political analyst Alice Funke has studied the electoral cooperation concept at length at her informative Pundits' Guide website and concludes: "I believe there is already so much evidence that these tactics don't work."

Second, it's highly unlikely that the NDP or Liberal parties will agree to the joint nomination proposal.

Aside from it requiring party constitutional changes, a majority of members would probably reject the idea.

Third, as Aristotle said: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

In other words, you can't simply add up Liberal, Green and NDP votes in any riding and presume they will all go to a "unity" candidate against the Conservative.

Right of centre Liberal supporters would likely rather vote Conservative than NDP or Green if a candidate from either of those parties was jointly nominated instead of a Liberal, or simply not vote.

Within the NDP, many members could never vote Liberal either, should someone from that party be their only offered choice.

Take a good look at some of the policies of past federal Liberal governments -- like cutting Employment Insurance eligibility, eliminating the deficit by dramatically reducing health care funding transfers to the provinces, cutting the public service or taking military action in Afghanistan and it's easy to see why NDP voters wouldn't jump on board.

Some Green voters would equally have trouble with either an NDP or Liberal candidate in the joint nomination scenario.

And NDP voters now know that their party would never have won official opposition status if 2011 electoral cooperation efforts had been successful, since the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois would have won more seats as a result.

'Huge for us' says Cullen

On a personal level, as a New Democrat supporter, I don't want to be told that the NDP won't field a candidate so I have to vote for a Liberal or Green running in my riding.

In Vancouver-Quadra I couldn't bring myself to vote for current MP Joyce Murray, a former Gordon Campbell-B.C. Liberal cabinet minister who gutted the environment ministry and supported other slash and burn policies by that government.

Could electoral cooperation lead to "independent" NDP, Liberal or Green candidates running against the wishes of their respective parties? Or could new parties or true independents be the result of a narrowing of voter choices?

But NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen, the B.C. Member of Parliament for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, isn't convinced by these arguments and thinks Canadians are ready for his plan, particularly after winning support from Leadnow and Avaaz.

"These two groups coming on board is huge for us," Cullen told the Canadian Press last week. "They have networks that go far, far beyond normal party structures... The sheer number, that's absolutely staggering."

So far an online poll by Leadnow called “Cooperate for Canada” has accumulated about 15,000 signatures calling on the NDP, Liberals and Greens to cooperate in key ridings to defeat the Conservatives. The NDP membership is expected to easily top 100,000 as of the Feb. 18 cut off date to be able to vote in the leadership contest.

"During the next election, the NDP, Liberals and Greens can cooperate in key ridings to defeat Stephen Harper's government, and then pass electoral reform to make Canada's democracy work better for everyone," Leadnow says.

Cullen's view of how much support these groups have may be correct and certainly should he win the leadership, no one could deny he would have a mandate to explore the concept within the NDP. (Note: I respect Cullen's energetic campaign but I have endorsed Peggy Nash, who rejects his proposal.)

Don't count on 'electoral reform'

There's still another problem waiting post-election, should all these difficulties be overcome and the electoral coalition be successful.

The second part of the plan is to introduce some type of electoral reform to Canada's current First Past The Post voting system, which Leadnow and Avaaz condemn.

But the record of success for electoral change referenda is as bad as that for electoral cooperation -- abysmal failure.

Every recent electoral system change proposal have been defeated -- the Single Transferable Vote was rejected by voters in both 2005 and 2009 in British Columbia, where I was president of No STV, the official opponent group.

While STV received more than 50 per cent support in 2005, it failed to meet the supermajority required by the B.C. government for change. In a second 2009 referendum, STV was overwhelming rejected, with a 61 per cent vote against it to 39 per cent in favour.

Voters in Ontario in 2007 gave First Past The Post strong 63 per cent backing versus 37 per cent support for a Mixed Member Proportional system.

And Prince Edward Island also handily defeated Mixed Member Proportional by a 63.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent vote in 2005.

Those decisive rejections in three different provinces should give pause to those campaigning to combine 2015 electoral cooperation with a subsequent change to proportional representation.

When given clear information about alternative electoral systems, Canadian voters have decisively chosen to keep First Past The Post.

By tying the losing record of electoral reform to the failed results of strategic voting, the groups advocating in favour of electoral cooperation may have found the surest way of actually defeating it.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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