The Trudeau Liberal government in Ottawa has reneged on a promise to reform the electoral system by introducing some variant of proportional representation (PR) that would replace the long-in-the-tooth Winner-Take-All system (aka First Past the Post – FPTP). PR was put in the Liberal program when the party was languishing in third place and needed to draw votes especially from the NDP. This was classic bait and switch.
Electoral reform is off the immediate agenda but it is not likely to go away.
But why proportional representation? Aren’t there more pressing issues in the class struggle?
Firstly, because PR has become a contentious issue across the political spectrum. The labour movement and the small minority of socialists within it should not abstain from this debate. The issue cannot be left to the opportunists, neither the Liberals nor NDP governments that have never pursued electoral reform.
We don’t choose the battles we fight according to some preconceived schema. Discontent will focus on this or that injustice, opening cracks in the façade of the ruling order. Canada’s undemocratic First Past the Post (FPTP) system is just such a fissure.
Confidence in bourgeois electoral politics is faltering. Voter apathy based on the correct perception that most votes don’t count, a suffocating ideological consensus, the under-representation of women and racialized minorities – these are among the manifestations of a gathering crisis of legitimacy.
Parliamentary majorities are now routinely constructed on less than 40% of votes cast based on scarcely more than 25% of the electorate.
The second point is that electoral reform including proportionality has been a consistent demand of the labour movement internationally. The unions as well as the NDP and its predecessor, the CCF, spearheaded the struggle to extend the franchise, first to working men then in the battle for women’s suffrage and in support of the vote for aboriginal peoples and youth. PR is a continuation of the struggle to democratize the electoral system.
Many forms of proportional representation have been proposed or implemented. The following are the most relevant to the Canadian context and our discussion:
- Party-list PR (used in 85 of 94 countries that have PR). Parties present lists in large regional or even provincial multi-member constituencies. The lists can be closed or open. This system achieves the greatest degree of proportionality and situates representation firmly in the party orbit.
- Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) is used in 7 other countries. The NDP has supported this option and it figures prominently in the campaign of Fair Vote Canada. It is a hybrid, two tier system that is at least semi-proportional. Voters would cast two ballots, one for a single candidate elected by plurality voting and the other for a party list. This would involve multi-member constituencies larger than current electoral districts. The idea is to achieve a compromise by amalgamating winner-take-all and PR.
- Single Transferable Vote is a system used in parts of the English-speaking world, notably Ireland, Scotland (local elections) and Australia (the Senate). It involves a ranked or preferential ballot in multi-member districts.
- Former Liberal MP and Cabinet Minister, Stephane Dion, has put forward his own version of STV which he bills as preferential, personalized and proportional (P3). It too involves a ranked ballot with transfer of 2nd choice votes. Its main effect would be to strengthen representation across the country for the major parties while disadvantaging or eliminating smaller parties.
PR systems also establish a minimum threshold of popular vote a party must attain before it can win seats. This ranges from 10% in Turkey to 0.67% in The Netherlands. In Germany, it is 5% and in Israel it was 1% but has been raised to 3.25%.
Our preference is for a fully proportional party-list system. In Canada, this would have to be broken down by province or large regions within a province. We want to preserve the party identification of voters based on political program and ideology. We also argue for a low threshold of 2% of the popular vote to qualify for seats because it will encourage smaller parties and stimulate democratic debate.
Party-list PR can be based on open or closed lists. Closed lists mean the political party has pre-decided in what priority candidates will be allocated a seat. Voters have no influence on the party-supplied order in which candidates are elected. If voters have some influence by registering their preference then we refer to it as an open list.
Closed lists can be used to include women or minority group candidates. On the other hand, open lists may favour more social or ideological diversity than a closed list pre-determined by the party brass.
In the absence of a fully democratic internal process for selection of party candidates, we prefer an open party-list system.
We are less enthused about the Mixed Member Proportional model even though this is the one the NDP supports. There is a sacrifice of proportionality in deference to the lone sitting MP whose role is to intercede with government on behalf of his or her constituents. In New Zealand which has a mixed member system, some have observed that the MPs elected by plurality tend to be long-standing party hacks while party list candidates are more dynamic and diverse in their backgrounds and political commitments.
Advocates of STV cite voter choice within or between parties, local representation and encouraging “common ground” as advantages. To the extent that this system would reduce the influence of political parties especially small ones, we see it as a disadvantage. It is also not fully proportional. However, a version known as STV+ adds a variable number of top-up seats to achieve better proportionality. In such a case, we would favour a high ratio of top-up seats, as in the Scottish local assembly elections where there are 2 top-up seats for every 3 seats.
A reformed electoral system for Canada must accommodate diverse regional and national realities. But it is a myth that voters are united by mainly local concerns. The “honourable member” is increasingly a relic of a bygone era. Better to strengthen democratic participation in political parties and engage voters in issues of society-wide and planetary significance which of course have their local and regional dimension. This aim would be facilitated by a voting system that is fully proportional, that is, one based on party lists.
The Trudeau Liberals are facing justifiable censure for their electoral reform betrayal. At this point, with no government legislation on the table or indeed the horizon, the purpose of this resolution is more to guide us in discussion and debate with other forces advocating Proportional Representation.
Adopted at the Convention of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’action socialiste, May 14, 2017.