Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Electoral Cooperation (or, the NDP and the Liberals Part Two)

A blog or two ago I suggested that electoral mergers are not flags of convenience. They occur for specific historic reasons that involve more than people in opposition saying "hey, let's get together to win an election." Instead, they occur because the differences that organized people into different political perspectives are no longer relevant, because people come together for a new reason (say, as did Harper and his crew to fundamentally alter Canada).  There may be other reasons but my point is that we need to treat politics seriously. We can't see it just as bunch of win-the-election by hook or by crook; the one is the same as the other Ottawa soap opera. (Spin doctoring is important for politics, to be sure, but spin doctoring is part of how an historic bloc functions and has changed over time.)

The possibility of an NDP/Liberal merger or electoral coalition, I suggested, might be one of those "time is right" ideas not in the sense that it would ensure defeat of the Conservatives. It wouldn't. I won't predict who will win the Stanley Cup next year; I'm not going to predict who will in an election in three years time! Instead, the time is right because of historic changes. There has been a great deal of talk about these historic changes and, frankly, my own view is that they are easy to overestimate. In all the talk about changes (communications, technology, education, jobs, media), we might think about the things that have remained the same. We might get an oddly long list.

Historic change, then, is not some vague type of thing ("everything changes"). Instead, it is specific set of changes in the organization of society, the place of Canada in the global capitalist order, gender relations, etc. The rise of the CPC is one element of this change. It represents the views of a particular set of ideologues (what Gramsci called "organic intellectuals") and a specific organization of society. It signals the rise to power of a specific historic bloc (a particular formation of social classes) that imagines Canada's future in a specific way and looks to use government to attain that imagined future. It involves the articulation of the aspirations of subject classes through a dominant class. I need to do more work on this to be even more specific but you get the point. The rise of the CPC both is and is not the historic change to which the NDP and the Liberals need to respond.  It is not an historic change in the sense that losing an election is not necessarily an historic change. The PCs lost a bunch of elections in the 1960s and 1970s (1963, 1965, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1980); the NDP lost even more if you add in 1979 (won by Clark's minority PC gov.). These defeats were not historic because the structure and nature of Canadian politics did not change as a result of these defeats. Being on the losing side in an election might demonstrate, for instance, a balance of forces in a particular historic bloc.

On the other hand, some electoral defeats (which, of course, are wins for others) do signal changes. The 1921 election of King's Liberals signaled a wider shift in the nature of Canadian liberalism and Canada, for instance.  

The Harper electoral victories, on the other hand, can be an historic change if they represent the development of a new historic bloc; that they signal a transition in the organization of Canadian society (both domestically and in terms of how Canada relates to the world). I have been suggesting that this is precisely the case. Mulroney's 1984 victory was of "historic proportions" but did not really change the character and nature of Canada. Indeed, his efforts to do so by and large failed in the face of opposition from Canadians who were willing to "turf out" the Liberals but who remained committed, with lot of caveats here, to liberal ideas. In effect, in 1984, Canadians tried to opt for liberalism without the Liberals. Mulroney's failure was that he misunderstood this and, wrongly, believed that his victory meant that Canadians were turning their back on Trudeauvian liberalism. They weren't. They turned their backs on the Liberal Party, but not the ideas and image of the country it inspired.

Harper's victories can be seen as something else. I don't think Canadians have ditched the ideals of liberalism but I do think that Harper and his crew are setting out, in a more thorough and careful way, to alter the fundamental conception of the country. Unlike Mulroney, Harper seemed to understand that he did not have a mandate to change Canada and that part of his job, as a Conservative, was to lead Canada in a new direction though without actually saying that was what he was doing. He understood, in other words, that there is a difference between wanting to change things and having a mandate to change things. You can change things, if you don't have a mandate, but it requires a different type of politics. This is what Harper is up to.

If this is the case, the Liberals and NDP face a number of possible options for the future. If they are facing an historic change, they may indeed want to reconsider the character and nature of their parties. If they are facing an historic change, their task in opposition, is to articulate a vision of Canada that can serve as a realistic option to Harper's conservatism. This might require a new party. Indeed, I'd be so bold as to suggest it will. But, if Harper's victories do not represent the development of a new era, as it were, in Canadian public life, then something less than a merger will work. Indeed, branding alone might be a good reason to maintain different parties. The Liberals, for instance, retain regional bases of strength (anglophone Quebec, middle class Ontario, parts of Newfoundland) that might not go for a new party. In this case, an electoral coalition of sorts that would allow each party to win seats without having to devote resources to competing with the other - useful in the face of the Tory war chest - would certainly have an appeal.

So … to conclude: losing an election is something that requires analysis. For neither the NDP, Liberals, nor the old PCs or Reform, is an election loss a reason to "jump ship." One needs to carefully analyse what is going on with that loss, why it occurred, etc. before one decides on a response to it. Abandoning an ideology one holds dear (say, liberalism or socialism or conservatism) is not easy. Precisely because it is not easy, no party can assume that its followers will, in fact, follow it into a new political party. We know that a lot of PCs did not follow their leaders. Losing an election might indicate simply that one lost an election. This happens in a democracy. It might, however, mean something else. I will bet we will only see a merger if members of the NDP and Liberals have decided that their loss in the last election means something else.

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