What is a public to do in an election where the incumbents have spentyears engaging in scandals, polarizing society, abandoning its mostvulnerable members, tearing the health and education infrastructure toshreds, and destroying labour standards?
Vote them out, of course.
But hereâe(TM)s the problem: their nearest rival is doing its best to lose theelection. The opposition leader has no personality. The governmentâe(TM)s nearest rivalspent the entire last term in opposition voting with, instead of againstthe incumbents, on issue after issue. And their nearest rivalâe(TM)s campaignplatform fails to distinguish itself from the neo-liberal lunacy that hashad such devastating consequences.
This is the situation in Ontario, but it is increasingly a problem forevery jurisdiction where people have the right to vote. Indeed, U.S. readerscan probably substitute “Republicans” for “Conservatives/Tories”,“Democrats” for “Liberals,” and “Greens” for “NDP,” and be stunned — ornot —by the similarities. Voting ought to give the public some power tothrow a gang of crooks out of office. The trouble comes when the otheroption is just another gang of crooks, barely distinguishable from thefirst crowd.
The Conservatives have held power in Ontario since 1995. In that time,they gutted the environmental inspection infrastructure, resulting in sevendeaths from contaminated drinking water in Walkerton. They tried, andpartially succeeded, in privatizing the electric utility. They built, andsold, a new highway to a private corporation. They rolled back hard-wonlabour rights. They cut welfare benefits by 21.6 per cent and attached far morepunitive conditions to “welfare fraud”. It is widely believed that this led directly to the suicideof Kimberly Rogers, a young woman who was pregnant when she killed herselfunder house arrest for “welfare fraud”.
The governmentâe(TM)s political style has been tosingle out groups for demonization — unions, the homeless, theindigenous, people with disabilities, welfare recipients — so as to make politicalpoints by attacking them, in the media and through legislation. They werereturned to office in an election in 1999, an event that demoralized thepublic and heightened the arrogance of the Conservatives. Another electionwill occur, perhaps as early as the fall, and it is clearly time for them to go.
The Liberals, however, who could replace them, are a disgrace. A quicklook at their website shows it. They attack the Conservatives not forhaving a despicable agenda, but for not fulfilling that agenda completelyenough. Instead of attacking rate hikes for public transportation even ashighways were built for private profit, their plan is to regulate the newhighway “exactly in line with what the Harris-Eves Tories promised, butdid not deliver.”
Instead of dealing with the diversion of funds fromsocial investment into policing and prisons, they think it, “encouraging tosee the [Conservative] government offer imitations of our plan for thingssuch as public school choice, maximum waiting times for surgery and morepolice on the street”. Instead of understanding that the Conservativescreated a funding crisis by their tax cuts in order to destroy publicservices, they attack the Tories for, “violating the Taxpayer ProtectionAct and delaying promised tax cuts with his 2002 budget.” Instead ofdecrying standardized testing as a diversion from real education andserious investment in the public system, the Liberals promise to “improvestudent achievement across the province by 50 per cent.”
With a platform like this, and a leader in Dalton McGuinty morededicated to declaring how similar he is to the Tories than anything else,the Liberals are the Conservativesâe(TM) best hope for winning a thirdelection.
As bad as the Liberals are, another election victory for the Conservativesis the worst-case scenario. It would increase their arrogance anddemoralize the public even more. But why should anyone vote for theLiberals?
The third party in the province is the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Howard Hampton. This isa social democratic party, with strong links to the unions and aprogressive platform which, unlike the Liberal platform, does promise toroll back some of the devastation the Conservatives have unleashed on theprovince. The NDP doesn't have the resources of the Liberals, won't getthe same amount of airtime or media coverage, and is far behind in thepolls. The Liberals, instead of realizing the gains they could make bymoving left, choose to try to frighten the electorate into not voting NDPlest this result in a Tory victory. But a strong NDP campaign could pushthe Liberals to more humane positions, as the Democrats were pushed by theGreens (though not nearly as much as they ought to have been pushed ifthey wanted to win) in the 2000 U.S. elections.
What the NDP has not done, however, is explicitly join the socialmovements. When the NDP held power before 1995, they were constrained inall the ways that progressive governments always are: demonized in themedia, threatened with capital flight, and hit with institutional barriersto reform. What a left government can do in such circumstances is fightback, empowering the people and trusting them to defend social progress.The struggle in Venezuela, under far harsher conditions and with higherstakes, is an example of this. Many in the NDPâe(TM)s social movement basebelieve the government capitulated instead of fighting. Since elites don'toften support social democratic parties, the NDP ended up losing many ofits (popular) friends and retaining all of its (elite) enemies. Theconfusion and divisions on the left helped bring the Tories to power.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (www.ocap.ca) is planning a seriesof public actions to embarrass the Tories and contribute to theirelectoral defeat. They are clear that, “There is only one demand that canbe put to a regime like that of Ernie Eves — GET OUT!” For whatevergovernment follows the current Tories, OCAP has other demands: housing,living wages, and immigrant rights, for starters.
But what are voters to do? The results of the 1999 election show that Torypower is concentrated in the 905 telephone area code of suburbs around Toronto, while thecity itself and the North — two communities which have suffered worst at thehands of the Tories — are against. How much of this suburban vote have theTories alienated with their privatization schemes (suburbanites have topay electricity bills too), their education cuts (suburban kids go toschool), their health care attacks (suburbanites get sick), and theirthreats against immigrants (lots of immigrants live in the suburbs)? Howmany will stay home, disgusted with the non-alternative presented by theLiberals and convinced by the logic of the system that a vote for the NDPis a vote for the Tories (which, unfortunately, could be true in manyridings)?
The truth is that for social movements the very spinelessness of theLiberals makes them more desirable as opponents than are the ideologues,fanatics, and crooks who make up the Conservatives. All things beingequal, it is better to fight a less ruthless opponent than a more ruthlessone. An Israeli commentator, talking about the continuity between theLabour party and the Likud party of Ariel Sharon in that country, said hewould vote Labour because he would rather live under a hypocrite than afascist.
If an election brings the Liberals to power, it will be easy to remind theLiberals that it wasn't that they won, but that the Tories lost — and thatthe Liberals can be defeated in turn.
What does this mean in terms of “tactical voting”? There are plenty ofpeople (including this author) who believe that the whole electoralsystem, from its basis in political parties to the system of campaignfinance to its winner-take-all nature, is stacked to favour the rich andpowerful. The economic system, indigenous sovereignty or autonomy, so manymatters that go to the heart of what society is about are not up fordecision in elections. This means that any vote at all is a tactical vote.Any vote at all is a choice of the lesser among evils. If the best casescenario for the election — an NDP victory — is unlikely, the questionbecomes: how much more evil is the absolute worst-case scenario (a Toryvictory) from the next-to-worst (a Liberal victory)?
Advocates of the NDP point to the pitfalls of tactical voting in the1999 election. They contend that the tactical voting approach in ridingswhere the NDP was strong and could have won divided the anti-Tory vote,letting the Tories win. In other ridings, where Liberals were stronger butnot quite strong enough, non-tactical voting probably yielded the sameresult. Such a situation could be avoided by an NDP-Liberal coalitionagainst the Tories. But this won't happen because the Liberals areunprincipled and the NDP insist (understandably) that the Liberals andConservatives are indistinguishable. So, voters are thrown back to thequestion: how much worse is the worst-case from the next-to-worst? Appreciably worse, in my view.
Until the election, OCAP's position is the principled one: the campaign isanti-Tory. The message: the Tories have to be defeated. On election night,voters who feel that the electoral system has deprivedthem of any meaningful choice will have to decide just how to do this. The real politics happen between elections, anyhow.