Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) can still win the next election, scheduled for October 2015. Yes, opinion polls have turned against the CPC. It’s true many Canadians cannot abide Harper. And there is no great economic news in sight that can be used to whip up Conservative support among non-partisan voters.
Thanks to Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, Stephen Harper can repeat his 2011 victory by garnering support from one voter in four. All he needs is for four voters out of 10 to stay home.
The 25/60 rule says when only 60 per cent of Canadian citizens go out to vote, 25 per cent of the voters can deliver a majority government. In 2011, the Conservatives received 39 per cent of the vote, and won 53 per cent of the seats, because only 61 per cent of Canadians made the effort to vote.
Political power to redefine the public interest and remake the country was handed to the CPC by 24 per cent of eligible Canadians voters.
Of course to be re-elected, Harper must hold on to this core support, the fabled Conservative “base.” Witness continued CPC emphasis on building pipelines, tax cuts, tough-on-crime measures, exalting the military, and portraying the leader as a tough guy.
In the last election there were far more absentee voters (39 per cent) than CPC supporters (24 per cent). The disengagement from the electoral process is the key to the success of the Conservatives in Canada and of right-wing politics elsewhere.
The Conservative strategy is to drive people away from politics and politicians. Attacking the character and suitability of rival leaders through constant television advertising, and contributing to “gotcha” journalism through a stream of commentary focusing on personal foibles helps create disgust with politics.
Canadian democratic icon Thérèse Casgrain led the Quebec fight to get women the vote. A national award for voluntary service was named after Casgrain, a fitting tribute, recognizing the importance of citizen action in securing democratic rights. The Casgrain award was abolished by the Mulroney Conservatives. After it was reinstated by the Chrétien Liberals, the Harper Conservatives disappeared Casgrain again, and re-branded the honour created in her name … the Prime Minister’s Awards.
It was as if the Harper government wanted Canadians to forget that the right to vote had been fought for, and used to promote human well-being.
In the magnificent drive for U.S. civil rights legislation, the late Martin Luther King said “our weapon is our vote.” A goal of the movement he led was to register black voters. Would-like-to-be-democrats living in a country without voting rights understand what King was aiming to achieve.
The extension of the electoral franchise has been an historic objective of the labour movement and the women’s movement for good reason. No meaningful social and economic legislation can be expected without pressure from large numbers of voters.
In the Ontario provincial election, the Liberals secured re-election because a further-to-the-right Conservative leader scared off voters, and because Ontario labour made a concerted effort to get union members to vote.
In British Columbia, the clearly right-of-centre Liberals won re-election despite a significant effort by the BC Federation of Labour to get the vote out for the NDP. Strong opposition to the B.C. Liberals emerged in an earlier campaign mounted to withdraw the GST. That opposition had dissipated by the time of the 2013 election. With a charismatic new leader and not enough electoral strength from the other right-wing party, the Conservatives, to divide the anti-NDP vote, the Liberals won.
As Nora Loreto reported from the Peoples’ Social Forum, building on the success of the Ontario labour effort to mobilize the vote, a union campaign to implement a strategic voting campaign is being talked about as the way to defeat the Harper Conservatives in 2015.
These campaigns have been tried in the past and have yielded contradictory results. For example, in 2011, strategic voting suggested that the Bloc was the best bet to keep Harper weak in Quebec, that is, until the Orange Wave happened, and 59 NDP candidates were successful in winning Parliamentary seats.
Former CCF/NDP MP, the late Colin Cameron, used to say that in years of successful campaigning, he never asked anybody for their vote. He asked them for their attention. “If I got their attention, I got their vote,” he would say.
Defeating Harper at the polls will require getting people’s attention, and convincing them to engage in the political process. It is not enough to blame Conservatives and other political parties for the failure of citizens to get out to vote.
Citizens need to be clear about what is at stake when political power gets into the hands of people like Stephen Harper, whose idea of the common good is that it is best served by corporations, and that the role of government is to enable monied interests to pursue private profit.
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.