Ontario Liberals: A Party Worth Saving

Duverger’s Law is one of those empirical generalizations in social science that doesn’t have the force of laws of physics. It states that plurality-rule elections (such as first past the post) structured within single-member districts tend to favor a two-party system. The US conforms to this law while Canada is an exception. Right now, Duverger’s Law seems to be at work in Ontario politics.

Stephen Harper wanted to make Duverger’s Law happen at the federal level. His Conservative Party launched incessant attack ads on the leaders of the Liberal Party, especially when the Conservatives had a majority and the NDP were the Official Opposition between 2011 and 2015, with the goal of transforming federal politics into a two party system, with a centre-right party and a clear-left party. Harper believed that in this system, the Conservatives would win most of the time. It didn’t work, of course. But the Conservatives came close, and during that period many Liberals wondered whether the Liberal Party of Canada had a future.

A week is a long time in politics, especially during election campaigns. A week ago I thought that Kathleen Wynne’s strong performance in the last party leaders’ debate would revive the Liberals’ fortunes. I was wrong. The voters continue to tell pollsters that they prefer bullshitty Ford and chippy Horwath to proffy Wynne.

The vast majority of Liberal supporters prefer Andrea Horwath’s NDP to Doug Ford’s Conservatives. The logic of Duverger’s Law would lead them to vote strategically for the NDP, with the possible consequence that the Liberals could be left with no seats in the Legislature. That would pose an existential crisis for the Ontario Liberal Party.

Kathleen Wynne has responded to this spectre by saying that she does not expect to remain as premier but has urged voters to support Liberal candidates so they can hold the balance of power. She is articulating a position that I call evidence-based centrism, formulating a platform on the basis of evidence about what works, rather than ideological positions. Hence her attacks on the NDP’s promises to buy back the privately-held portion of Hydro One, not to fund for-profit daycare, and not to legislate an end to strikes in the public sector.

Wynne’s articulation of this argument against Liberals voting strategically for the NDP has led to the NDP’s tone of disappointment and anger towards the Liberals that has been obvious over the weekend.

The other thing that has been apparent over the weekend is the increasingly ideological nature of the NDP’s and Conservative’s attacks on one another. According to the Conservatives, the NDP will devastate the economy and according to the NDP, the Conservatives will decimate the public sector.

Will Wynne’s “third way” of evidence-based centrism succeed? There are two criteria. One is to win enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Legislature, Wynne’s stated goal. The other is to win at least 7 seats so as to retain official party status, which will facilitate rebuilding under a new leader.

I support Wynne’s idea of evidence-based centrism. I hope that the Liberals do end up holding the balance of power in a minority government situation. I prefer to see an NDP Government dependent on Liberal support so that the Liberals can save the NDP from their worst inclinations. As for Doug Ford, his performance in the campaign has entirely reinforced my judgement back in mid-March that he absolutely lacks the integrity, character, intelligence, and wisdom to be premier.

1 comment

  1. Sandy,
    I am not sure that Duverger’s Law has not held in Canada. Where we have three parties, the third party has usually had a proportion of seats that is much smaller than its share of the vote. e.g. the NDP for much of its history, the PCs in 1997. What we have had are parties which win a large proportion of seats in a region by being very strong in that region, even though their overall national strength is low. e.g. the Bloc Quebecois, or the Reform Party. So if we apply Duverger on a regional basis, it still holds in Canada.

    The United States takes it to an extreme by institutionalising their two party system, making it difficult for third parties to even get on the ballot. So I don’t know whether I would cite it as demonstrating the validity of Duverger’s Law.

    On the other hand, the UK is a good example of its validity, where there are few obstacles to anyone getting on the ballot. Yet third parties rarely come to close to replicating in seats their share of the vote. e.g. the Liberals and Liberal Democrats. Though here too the SNP shows how regional strength can reap a rich harvest of seats, despite national weakness .

    Also, in 2015 the Liberals ran to the left of the NDP which had moved to the centre to be “electable”. (Remember their promise to balance the budget versus the Liberals willingness to run deficits?) Voters were looking for a clear change from the Conservative’s centre-right politics and opted for the real alternative. So I would argue that the move away from the centre in Canadian politics has been happening for a while.

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