A New Political Alignment May Follow Canada’s Federal Election

As much as Canada’s federal election delivered historic consequences for every political party, the election’s future significance turns more on historic changes within the electorate than on changes of any significance within any particular party.

There’s a strong — though barely visible — possibility that the unrest and volatility expressed by voters will drive political change during the next years of Conservative majority rule.

A major political realignment — on the scale of two earlier cycles of massive realignment over the past hundred years of Canadian history – is in the works. With any luck, this long-lasting realignment will be more telling than the immediate breakthroughs achieved by the NDP (winning official opposition) or Greens (winning a first seat), or the episodic setbacks suffered by the Bloc and Liberals.

The starting point for any forecasts of the future is recognition that the forces which produced a Conservative majority do not represent trends of either today or tomorrow. Rather, the Conservative triumph is historical in the deepest sense – the outcome has been imposed by yesterday’s electoral accounting rules, which only register wins of individual riding candidates with the largest minority vote in their oft-gerrymandered riding.

Conservatives won almost entirely by virtue of vote splits among the 60 per cent of voters opposed to the direction Conservatives have in mind for the country.

This snatching of electoral victory from the jaws of popular vote defeat expresses the fact that Harper Conservatives learned well the lessons after the biggest Conservative setback in Canadian history, when the Progressive Conservative caucus was reduced to single digits following the 1993 election.

The unification of the rightwing Reform Party and centre-right Progressive Conservatives was the first major sign of a long-term realignment in keeping with a new political trajectory that had been wending its way through media, government and the economy since the late 1980s.

Once a new realignment gets underway in the years ahead, this week’s Conservative victory will be recognized more as the end of an error than the beginning of a new era.

The error lies entirely in a first-past-the-post system of identifying winners in each riding — a system embedded during the 1800s, when there were two loose political parties. This system is totally out of whack with the task of giving voice and representative government in a country with five political parties. It is political accounting systems of the past, not voting patterns of today, that rack up majorities.

Forgive me while I dust off my ancient notes from the days when I was a professional historian, and review the cycle of political realignment which went from 1919 through to the 1970s. This phase adapted to such tectonic changes as the rise of women’s suffrage, massive unionization, large-scale urbanization and industrialization, as well as new movements toward bilingualism, multiculturalism, feminism and basic “welfare state” initiatives.

In those times, the political centre of gravity lurched to the left, and the only debate was how quickly various political parties would respond to demands for egalitarian and protective reform. New Democrats were known as “Liberals in a hurry,” though the truth is that they were just as much Progressive Conservatives in a hurry. Progressive Conservative governments of that era (think of Bill Davis in Ontario) were able to deliver more egalitarian changes than any Liberal or NDP governments have delivered since the 1990s.

Almost every progressive change approved by Canadians and incorporated into the Canadian identity dates from this cycle of realignment — including medicare, old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, public broadcasting, accessible public high schools, colleges and universities, as well as advanced civil rights legislation and human rights mechanisms.

Since the watershed of the free trade deal with the US during in the late-1980s, the steering wheel of the entire political spectrum swerved hard to the right. In the new cycle, the only debate has been how quickly various parties would respond to “the new world order” of deregulated trade and banking and cutbacks in public services.

Despite staggering increases in economic wealth and productivity since the late-1980s, the setbacks in public wellbeing imposed under this cycle of realignment have been staggering.  Homelessness and begging, almost unheard of before the 1980s, became normalized. The same goes for malnutrition, obesity, food banks and hunger. Pollution magnified to the point where it threatens the basic fabric of life and wellbeing.  Entire heavy industries in steel, auto, smelting and telecommunications have disappeared. The ability of the country to feed itself – as recently as the 1960s, average foods travelled less than 200 miles to a supermarket — has been lost.

The reality of political realignment since the 1980s was masked by the “common man” rhetoric of Jean Chretien’s and Paul Martin’s Liberals, who ruled the Ottawa roost during the 1990s, introducing many fundamentals of neo-conservative structural change. The re-united Conservatives refashioned themselves as “Liberals in a hurry” to cut taxes – icing on the cake left by reforms the Liberals implemented.

So that these changes can be understood as part of an over-arching realignment, not just the actions of one party, it’s important to note that most of the heavy lifting of restructuring and embedding market-ruled economics during the 1990s was done by the Liberals, as it was done by the Democrats’ Bill Clinton south of the border.

Harper’s major political insight, which has allowed him to consolidate his victories, was his understanding that tax cuts were the main vehicle of further change. By his dead-on reckoning, the neo-conservative agenda did not need to be confounded and conflated with theo-conservatism or brazen Sun-style redneckism.  The critics who accused him of plotting to introduce such agenda items were barking up the wrong tree, partly because they failed to appreciate that so much work had been done for him during the 1990s, and partially because they couldn’t imagine that devotees of neo-conservative economics could take their distance from divisive social issues irrelevant to the economic elite.

Harper’s equally cunning electoral insight was based on mastery of riding-by-riding manipulation of the first-past-the-post system of politics based on the linking of distinct minorities in particular areas.

By contrast, the voters opposed to Conservatives were divided among at least four camps, each vying for the same mainstream demographic.

Social Liberals, many of whom – Toronto’s Carolynn Bennett comes to mind – are among the boldest visionaries in the country, worked for the Liberal camp. Union types and supporters of Big Government worked for the NDP, despite a leader, Jack Layton, who’s a champion of green businesses, social entrepreneurs, non-profits and a vibrant “third sector.” Environmentalists who believe it’s possible to construct parties and governments on the basis of one lens on policy issues work for the Green camp. In Quebec, the most ardent, innovative and popularly-supported social egalitarians in the country could normally be counted on to back the Bloc Quebecois.

I have witnessed self-sabotage many times over my life, but still am astonished that a clear majority of people would rather go down to defeat by splitting their votes three and four ways rather than defeat one party with diametrically opposing views on social, economic and political policies.

Such divisiveness is especially obsolete in an era when the decentralizing combination of social media, social entrepreneurship and the mushrooming of Non-Government Organizations dramatically reduce the need to elect governments united behind detailed and fixed policies.

Today’s popular sector has the means to introduce a wide range of personal, community-based, voluntary sector and public sector tools available to implement progressive social change. Autonomous social and economic organizations now offer, for the first time in history, a range of precision tools that can be both efficient and responsive to a variety of social, economic and environmental needs.

To quibble over relatively modest differences among justice-minded Greens Liberals and Quebec sovereigntists rather than collaborate for government that could let many flowers bloom is to misunderstand the era we live in.

Talk of coalitions and strategic voting is way behind the curve. Both tactics are responses to an inherently inappropriate system of disproportionate representation.

It is time for realignment. It ain’t over ‘till that’s started.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, May 5-11, 2011 to provide context for readers outside of Toronto; to see the original, please go to www.nowtoronto.com )

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