Susan Delacourt wrote in Toronto Star over the weekend that perhaps the solution to the crises in our democracy is to abolish political parties. It was a bold idea, but I think misplaced. Delacourt is trying to solve the problems of excess control of party leaders over their parties and caucuses. Instead of liberating MPs from their self-imposed shackles we should blow-up the prison itself. Apologies for the strained metaphor.
What would the House of Commons look like with 308/338 independent MPs? My first guess is very confusing. After the election and Canadians form a House the MPs would be forced to try to figure out the various political allegiances that exist within the new body. As in municipal politics they would likely affiliate with some political party on another level. For example, Toronto’s City Council is “non-partisan” but it is an open secret who are New Democrats, Liberals and (Progressive) Conservatives.
A non-partisan House of Commons would likely have to function like both the traditional House of Commons, and perhaps a bit like the modern-day Northwest Territories legislature. Much in the same way the Speaker is elected perhaps the collective House of Commons would nominate and choose candidates to become Prime Minister.
The problem with this system is that without the basic discipline afforded by a party MPs would have to be cajoled for every single vote. Governments would be at extreme risk of falling if Brampton South did not get its share of the pork. The horror would be if we exchanged our functional, though undemocratic, House of Commons for the dysfunctional sideshow we see in the American House of Representatives. More than now politicians would become fierce partisans for their local ridings, for better and worse.
I recently read Andrews’ analysis of Washington’s Farewell Address which discusses the rise of political parties. Origins are an important thing to consider in this context. Ultimately political parties exist to serve two groups: elected officials and voters. Elected officials no longer have to haggle for every single coalition. They are conveniently grouped into basic factions. You might suggest that parties have narrowed the discourse in Canada, and they likely have but there are some fundamental questions that divide all people in their political views on social matters, economics, foreign policy that make sense to divide officially.
Believe it or not but political parties serve voters. If the people in Brant, Ontario are opposed to the Harper government over the last few years they can express their frustration by tossing out their Conservative MP. In a non-partisan House of Commons voters would have an incumbent that voted with the government a majority of the time but declares his/her independence. Voters, in general, hate politicians but like their local incumbent. Political parties facilitate the transfer of power to new groups as basic organizing units. For citizens parties are, perhaps, the best way to engage in formal politics. Joining political parties, working on a campaign or working on a local Electoral District Association can get people involved and exercise greater political power. Also for unknowns interested in standing for office political parties offer instant brands and legitimacy. Without them only local notables would be able to advance, which may result in a concentration of power in the hands of existing elites, those with finances, familial political connections, etc. and an even less diverse House of Commons.
I wholly endorse the intention of Ms. Delacourt’s proposed reform but the method would hardly help Canadian democracy. Political parties are fundamental to the fabric of our political culture and they evolved for distinct purposes. They need reform, not abolition.