Last year the Canadian Greens won their first ever MP, Elizabeth May. It’s been an uphill struggle for one of the largest Green Parties in the world competing, as they do, under a first past the post system in a geographically vast nation. However, this week saw incredible results for the Canadian party in two of three Parliamentary by-elections coming in second and third places.
In Calagary Centre this represented a jump of over 15% and in Victoria a jump of more than 22%, less than 3% away from winning the seat outright, votes taken from all the other parties. Wowzers! That’s right. Wowzers.
Leader Elizabeth May said on election night “For the Green Party of Canada, these by-elections mark a new stage. Tonight’s results demonstrate people trust us in numbers greater than ever. We now need to build on that trust and offer every Canadian a real choice in 2015”.
Astonishingly in Victoria it’s not even as if the candidate was the well established opposition as the Green selection was tied, decided on a coin toss and then, last month, the winner of the toss stood down and handed it over to the other candidate! It’s one way to get press coverage I suppose.
A left vote
Many press reports blame the Greens for keeping the Tories in by splitting the left vote. That’s a bit rich when you’re coming second and does show that often these arguments about “splitting” votes is more about a sense of entitlement than a genuine pluralist-left concern. What’s clear is that there is a mood of discontent against the government which is left dissatisfied by the “official” opposition. As Calgary candidate Chris Turner said, “A new political movement of sorts is beginning to coalesce here and it’s not necessarily around old party lines”.
There is a hunger for a party that is outside the cloying consensus of respectable Parliamentary politics and the Greens have managed to capture that mood (at these elections at least). This is despite, or perhaps because, of the fact the Canadian Greens are hardly the most left-wing Green Party on the international scene.
Their focus on the environment, the economy and communities is radical without being wacky, strong without being dogmatic. By taking an approach the polar opposite to triangulation May said “The votes we got were from people who felt great about their vote”. Not the lesser of two evils but a party that gave you a real reason to vote for it by being prepared to say something that some voters really wont like, but simultaneously able to present a credible face.
The Global and Mail said that “the Greens flooded the riding with volunteers on the ground, delivering a message that the popular Ms. May needs help in Ottawa [but]… they waited until the final week to spend the bulk of their campaign dollars. The idea was to create a surge without giving the NDP time to react.”
That strategy meant that while more voters cast their ballots for the Greens on election day in Victoria the early voters were enough to tip the balance against them. Whether or not that means it was a bad strategy is a matter of debate.
The lesson here, I think, is that any party to the left of the mainstream political consensus can make headway if it a) chooses it’s battles, b) truly commits to those battles in a focused, strategic way, and c) is able to convince voters that you offer something different without appearing entirely alien.