Why the federal Tories may want to embrace this unconventional political strategy

Here’s how the Conservatives could help themselves, help the Greens, and — at the same time — hurt the Liberals
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 05, 2020
Green leader Annamie Paul (Chris Young/CP); Conservative leader Erin O’Toole (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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I know, I know. Byelections mean nothing. One should never assume their results will mean anything relevant when it comes to the next general election.

That is almost always good advice for politics watchers to follow. But every now and then, a nugget of fascinating information emerges that could prove to be quite useful next time out of the gate.

I think that might have happened in last week’s byelection in Toronto Centre.

You could certainly say the two byelections that happened in Ontario’s capital city last week (York Centre was the other) were rather unimportant to everyone except the contestants themselves. The turnout was extremely low: 31 per cent in Toronto Centre, 26 per cent in York Centre — neither number was surprising, given the pandemic and the fact that the standings in the House of Commons weren’t going to be radically altered regardless of who won.

But there was a solid storyline to follow in Toronto Centre, if only because the new leader of the Green Party of Canada, Annamie Paul, was running there, and many people wanted to see how the first-ever Black major-party leader would do in one of the country’s most reliably Liberal ridings.

As it turned out, the answer was: pretty well, but not well enough to win. Yes, the Liberal vote dropped by 15 percentage points from the 2019 general election, and Paul increased the Green vote almost five-fold.

But a lot of the post-election grumbling was focused on the NDP, which took 17 per cent of the votes — votes the Greens had hoped would go to them and make Paul more competitive with the eventual winner, Liberal Marci Ien.

There’s often a tendency in these situations to assume that many of the progressive votes are interchangeable among the parties. So, had the NDP declined to run a candidate, extending a so-called leader’s courtesy to Paul, would that 17 per cent of NDP support have gone Green instead?

One can never know, but the likeliest answer is, absolutely not. The Greens and New Democrats have quite a good hate on right now, as both vie for the right to be the progressive alternative to the Liberals in English Canada.

However, lost in this shuffle was a different play completely. It was a strategy the Conservatives could have employed but didn’t. It represents a possible missed opportunity for them this time, but one they might explore next time.

Here’s the idea.

Last year, Conservatives became all too aware of the fact that they’re astonishingly popular in the Prairies (Edmonton-area MP Mike Lake won his riding by almost 53,000 votes) but not nearly popular enough in too many other parts of Canada. The party needs to find another million people to vote for it, or the results of the next election could be the same as the last.

Could a stronger, more prominent Green party help the Conservatives in that mission? At least one Tory stalwart says yes. For half a century, Hugh Segal has watched politics as a chief of staff to both a prime minister and a premier. He was a candidate for Parliament twice while in his twenties. He ran for the leadership of the old Progressive Conservative party. And he’s been a senator. If there’s one thing he knows, it’s that Tories have a better shot at winning when his party is united and the progressive vote is more evenly distributed among as many parties as possible.

That was surely one of the key formulas to the Ontario Tories staying in power for 42 straight years, from 1943 to 1985, as successive premiers skillfully ensured the centre-left vote was as evenly split as possible between the Liberals and New Democrats.

Today on the federal scene, that means trying to split the progressive vote as evenly as possible among the Liberals, the NDP, the Greens, and the Bloc Québécois. If you were drawing a Venn diagram of those parties, the biggest areas of overlap might actually be between the Liberals and the Greens.

“Frankly,” Segal recently told me, “the smart strategy for the Conservatives would have been to step aside [in the Toronto Centre byelection] as a Green leader in the House from Toronto would have split the Liberal-NDP vote along generational lines.”

Going forward, Segal thinks, that strategy would allow more Conservatives to “sneak in” in our first-past-the-post system; he points out that an evenly split progressive vote could allow Tory candidates to win ridings with as little as 25.1 per cent of the votes.

In other words, in ridings where the Conservatives have no hope of winning (as in the Toronto Centre byelection), the smarter play might have been not to run a candidate at all and, instead, to urge all Conservative supporters to vote Green.  

If enough voters were to do that, it could theoretically elect more Greens and deprive the Liberals of more seats — at no cost to the Conservatives.

“A Black, female Green party leader who is articulate, urban, precise on climate change and social justice just eats into [the NDP] vote and the Liberal vote, too. Why make it easy?” says Segal, who adds that the Greens are less hamstrung by “union biases” than the NDP and “more likely to liberate themselves from those constraints.” Plus, he says, “the centre-left, largely WASPY, United/Anglican Church feel of the party to date has clearly been set aside for a more inclusive and diverse public presence via Ms. Paul.”

Before we go too far down this road, let’s point out that Segal was recommending this course of action for the byelection Paul was running in. And let’s also acknowledge that it’s hard to convince supporters of a party whose roots go back to the founding of the country to embrace such an unconventional strategy. Parties take a great deal of pride in nominating candidates to run in every single riding, even if some of them attract virtually no support.  And critics could say there’s something anti-democratic about depriving voters — even in Toronto Centre, where Conservatives are an endangered species — from having an additional political choice.

But what if the Conservatives adopted this strategy in a general election? What if, rather than trying to secure bragging rights by running in every riding, the party opted for a more strategic approach? The Conservatives’ new leader, Erin O’Toole, raised eyebrows in a recent speech by saying some remarkably conciliatory things about organized labour — the kind of things we haven’t heard from a Tory leader since Brian Mulroney, who once refused to cross a picket line to attend a conference at a hotel. Could O’Toole imagine embracing this strategy, which may be unconventional but could also be quite helpful to the Tory cause?

Let’s see.

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