‘Winning’ in Politics

Tomorrow night will be one of the most memorable in recent Canadian history. The Toronto Blue Jays will face the Kansas City Royals in game three of the playoff series – we will have the first realistic chance in a decade to replace the governing Conservatives with one of the other parties. But rather than endorse one of the leaders, I want to draw your attention to something more important, even more important than choosing a governing party for the next ~4 years.

The way we talk about politics is antiquated. The idea that a party can ‘win’ an election simply doesn’t make sense in a system where no party ever gets more than 42-44% of the vote (speaking of elections in the past four or so decades). I ask you, what does it mean for a party to ‘win’ an election? Under conventional uses of the term, I think that few would recognize 40% of the vote as enough to warrant a ‘clear majority’ in all but the most silly of games. Yet, somehow this has become the accepted threshold for ‘winning’ in Canadian politics. The governing Conservatives have been governing with the support of 39% of the electorate for the last four years without the media or the electorate questioning their legitimacy in any relevant way.

But as bad as this sounds, it isn’t nearly as bad as reality. In Canadian politics a party can ‘win’ simply by getting the most seats in parliament. The Harper Government ‘won’ the election of 2008 even though they only received ~37% of the vote. What I want you to do is to ask yourself what it means to actually ‘win’ in politics. The fact is that most parties think that if they come in first place, no matter how narrow their lead, they receive an authority to govern which transcends the actual results. A party which receives slightly more than a third of the popular vote governs as though they have a majority of the support (although this did not work out too well with Joe Clark, Harper has successfully governed as though he had a majority through two successive minority parliaments). Why is this acceptable?

The simple answer is that we have been conditioned to find it acceptable. We should be outraged that a minority, and by minority I mean either a minority in name or a minority in practice (a government with a majority of the seats with a minority of the popular vote), feels that it has the authority to govern without taking opposing views into account.

The only cases where it seems acceptable to run by a winner-take-all system is in sports. It makes sense to us that the sports team which scores the most goals ‘wins’ the game. But unlike politics, sports are trivial (sorry Blue Jays fans). Whether a sports team wins a game or not won’t impact a refugee’s access to healthcare, it won’t impact next month’s climate summit in Paris, and it doesn’t determine the direction of Canadian politics for the next four year.

We treat politics like another game which can be won or lost by narrow margins, and this is simply unacceptable in a democracy where legislation is supposed to come from the people, all the people. We need to stop treating elections as something that can be won, but rather as something which simply determines the composition of the legislature which must work together.

No matter what happens tomorrow, we can know one thing for certain, either the Blue Jays or the Royals will win. But we cannot know which party will ‘win’ the election. Not because we are in a tight campaign, but because no one can ‘win’ an election. If the Liberals receive a plurality of the seats tomorrow, then they have done just that. They must work with the other parties to pass legislation which will hopefully reflect the will of Canadians. But this will only be successful if we stop referring to one party as the winner, and the rest as the losers. Labeling some as winners and others as losers doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion, and only gives undeserved power to a minority. We would do well to abolish such a term from our political vocabulary.