Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Choosing Party Leaders

In the wake of the 2015 both of the two opposition parties were forced to find new leaders. Stephen Harper stepped down as long-time leader of the Conservatives and shortly after the election the Edmonton convention forced Tom Mulcair out as leader of the NDP. In May the Conservatives gathered together to announce the selection of their leader, Andrew Scheer. Some controversy surrounds the selection of Mr. Scheer, especially given the incredibly narrow victory he had over Maxine Bernier.

My party, the NDP, is also in the process of selecting a new leader. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Julian (NDP - New Westminster-Burnaby, BC) who is vying for the leadership race, and soon Guy Caron (NDP - Rimouski-Neigette-Temiscourata-Les Basques, QC) will visit Brampton as well. As I compared the leadership contest I could not help but wonder if the Conservatives used a superior system to the one the NDP intends to use. Allow me to explain.

The Conservatives used a somewhat convoluted system, but the rationale was actually very sound. There are 338 federal ridings. Each riding was allocated 100 points as long as they had over 100 members. The points would be divided by the proportion of support each candidate received. So if candidate A gets 30% of the vote in Brampton South she got 30 points, candidate B for 25% of the vote he got 25 points. The winner was the first candidate to get over half of the points. Then preferential ballots were used to bump off the candidate with the lowest vote total and was eliminated or redistributed.

In contrast the NDP is using a one-member-one-vote system with preferential ballot spaced over a couple of weeks. This will give members time to respond to thecandidates left in the race, as I understand it. The NDP system encourages a mass membership to help select the party leader. I think there is benefit in spreading the vote out and allowing voters to respond as it goes. I'm curious as to how that will impact media coverage.

However, comparing the two systems I think the Conservative method has distinct advantages over the one the NDP has used. The Conservative leadership selection has two main advantages. First, it reflects how we elect governments. Until Canada switches to another electoral system it makes sense for the selection of a leader to match the first-past-the-post system in part. Before the 2011 election the NDP had a big problem: expanding beyond our traditional strongholds. There were maybe 50 or 60 ridings that the NDP competed in at all, but the party was nowhere in places across the 905 in Ontario, the vast majority of Quebec, rural Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick, etc. The party won in traditional areas of the West, urban centres, and areas of the near north. A one-member-one-vote system just reinforces our strengths were we are already strong. If we want the die-hard membership in a handful of areas to pick the next leader we are on that path.

The benefits of the riding-centred approach to selecting a leader is that it empowers local electoral district associations. When the Peter Julian visited Brampton we had New Democrats come in from Scarborough, Dufferin-Caledon, Mississauga, Hamilton and across Brampton come by. These scattered New Democrats were eager to meet one of the candidates, but the way our leadership system works the candidates have a great incentive only to visit strongholds and big cities.

The NDP needs to rebuild and grow its grassroots. I'm sure the leadership campaigns will help do that, but I think the other method would produce a more robust party at the end. I've spoken about this with long-time New Democrats and received substantial pushback. The Conservative system is inherently unfair. The 100 New Dems who might vote in Brampton South would be equal to the 1000 in Parkdale-High Park. That's unfair, but it reflects our democracy as it is currently constituted and winning Brampton South is theoretically as important for the NDP as Parkdale. In a riding system the candidates are encouraged to build the party where it is weakest and visit all communities in the country.

There is no perfect way to pick a party leader, but I think there are clear advantages and disadvantages to different systems. I think perhaps we should put some thought into what we want our leadership contests to reflect and what we want to get out of it for the parties we belong to.

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