No, progressives don’t hold the balance of power — but they could

By ruling out a formal coalition with others, the Liberals have signalled their intent to govern in a grand alliance with their natural partners in the status quo: the Conservatives
Photo: joiseyshowaa

“One should never enter into a negotiation unless one is prepared to walk away without a deal.” — Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece.

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After the election, Justin Trudeau wasted little time in pouring cold water on the hopes and dreams of the centre-left activists, unionists, party supporters, and NGOs who have been unanimously and vigorously celebrating the influence they believe they have in this Liberal minority government.

By ruling out a formal coalition with others, the Liberals have signalled their intent to govern in a grand alliance with their natural partners in the status quo: the Conservatives.

Somehow most progressives have yet to accept the reality. We need to wake up and reject the fantasy that the Liberal party is in a position of weakness. They are not, and escalating pressure on parties to “cooperate” only plays into the Liberal strategy to hoist progressives on our own petard.

Look around on social media and you will find no shortage of posts pushing Green, NDP, and Liberal MPs to work together. This places pressure on parties that on their own have no leverage to negotiate with an uncooperative government that does not share their policies on social and economic justice.

Instead of demanding cooperation to their own detriment, progressives must begin building leverage right now against the Liberal minority government.

Pressing the NDP and Greens to go along to get along puts them into a no-win scenario, asking them to support a Liberal budget filled with ideas they campaigned against. If progressives advocating for cooperation at all costs get their wish, then the NDP and Greens will find themselves caught in the same trap as the UK’s Liberal Democrats. In 2011, Nick Clegg was given the balance of power by voters and chose to support the Conservative economic program. This led to an electoral wipeout as voters blamed the weak junior partner for all the government’s faults and rewarded the strong majority partner for the perceived benefits.

Instead of demanding cooperation to their own detriment, progressives must begin building leverage right now against the Liberal minority government. We must come together to hammer out and articulate our bottom line for support, and we must back the centre-left opposition to the hilt if they need to vote down the spring budget based on our collective demands.

Canadians fighting for action on progressive issues must be prepared to show the Greens, NDP, and — critically — the Bloc that they will support them at the ballot box if they pull the plug on a milquetoast Liberal government that wants to continue its program of serving Bay Street instead of Main Street.

The threat of a snap election must not be a hollow boast. The Liberals are well funded by their rich friends and would relish a chance to fight another election while they have more money than the other parties.

To give teeth to the threat of a snap election, our organizing must entail building cross-party electoral coalitions of centre-left candidates in ridings where an orange and green team would stand a chance of beating a blue or red team. That means local Green and NDP riding associations need to start a dialogue about implementing serious agreements to not run against each other in these ridings.

To negotiate with the Liberals we must pursue realpolitik because it is the only language that the Liberal party understands. In February 2020, we need at least 20 ridings to begin scheduling Green-NDP primaries where there are vulnerable Liberals. If this happens, the pressure on the PMO to negotiate with the progressive opposition will start to build from inside his own caucus. If they are rational actors, they will blink first, and if they’re not, then progressives must punish them at the ballot box. The broken promise of electoral reform means we have to think creatively to win in a multi-party majoritarian system.

A progressive primary agreement in the case of a snap election should be attractive to both the Green Party and NDP, which are too strapped for cash to run 338 serious campaigns in six months’ time. Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh would do well to encourage others to follow the lead of Green candidate Michael Kalmanovitch, who stepped down in Edmonton Strathcona and endorsed the NDP candidate, ensuring the only centre-left victory in Alberta.

Progressives need to be ready to walk away from this Liberal minority government

This early competition will be a win-win scenario for movements and parties too. Parties will see the benefit of increased participation and interest from voters, volunteers, and the media. Movements will have an opportunity to push candidate hopefuls to offer concrete proposals and champion the bold policy agendas often absent in general elections. You can see this tactic in action in the way that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have expanded policy debate, and brought in money and volunteers during the Democratic primaries.

Some will advocate for the NDP and Green Party to build a long-term plan to take government. But if we truly believe the climate science, we don’t have two more years to wait to bring about policy change. We may not even have much more than one year to ensure greenhouse gas emissions peak before reaching the dangerous tipping point of 1.5 C of warming.

At a point when so many people are going all-in to save civilization as we know it, it is incumbent on our movements for labour, environmental, and social rights and their political wings to go all-in too.

Partisan party activists like me may not like the idea of working with someone who just a week ago was a political foe, but the majority of Canadians who voted for climate action on Monday showed us that there is fertile ground for cooperation.

If we seize this opportunity with the seriousness and humility it calls for, progressives may just build enough leverage to really hold the balance of power in this minority parliament. Progressives need to be ready to walk away from this Liberal minority government — otherwise, they will leave the negotiating table empty-handed.

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