“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” It’s an appealing argument, especially when the proposed course of action implies a favourable electoral outcome. For those on the left in Ontario, the unkown devil would be Tim Hudak. The prospect of his victory in the next election is regularly invoked to make progressive minded people cringe and consider voting for a party that is not their natural first choice.
Niagara – Strategic voting (SV) has been around for years and goes like this: parties, unions and interest groups will target ridings where, in the last election, the margin separating the first and second place candidates was small. In these ridings, supporters of those parties which came in behind the two front runners will be told, “Don’t waste your vote. Vote strategically. Vote for the candidate that is best placed to defeat the PCs” In this context, it’s interesting to examine the riding of Niagara Falls where there was a by-election on February 6. In the Forum poll, the week before the by-election there, voter intentions appeared as: NDP 38 % Tories 36 % Liberals 19 % Greens 3%
Voting smart –Looking at the above, those SV enthusiasts on the left would have come to the following conclusion: it’s going to be a close call, we have to convince a good number of Liberals and Greens to switch their votes to the NDP. The phone calls would have gone out “latest polls show the NDP guy is only 2% ahead of the PCs. Surely you don’t want to wake up on Friday morning to find that that this gap has been closed and that Niagara is sending a PC to Queen’s Park.” And that -“vote smart” message would have been specifically aimed at Liberal supporters, the 19% who, a few days before E-day, were still planning to vote according “to their guts and not their brains”. i.e. those who were still parked outside the SV camp. For, if you look at the numbers above, it is clear that a good number of voters in Niagara had already decided to vote strategically. How else to explain 3% for Green voting intentions when a different poll, taken outside of an election context, would show their support at 7-10%. How else to explain a projected Liberal vote of 19% when the Liberal vote, between 1990-2011 in Niagara, averaged out at 38%.
Are the members listening? The question is: does the SV message, when delivered to union members, get heeded and, if it does, what is the impact on the actual vote? When the member gets the SV robocall from the union president, a common reaction will be “Screw you, I’m voting how I want to vote.” The funny thing is that the SV proponents delude themselves into thinking that not only can they persuade their members to vote the “smart” way, they believe that the actual realization of their exhortations could make a difference. Let’s look at how the Niagara vote went on February 6. NDP 39% Tories 37% Liberals 19 % Greens 3% Not much difference from the Forum poll on voter intentions a week before. And the comment in the Toronto Star: the next day: “Polls had suggested Gates (NDP) would win a landslide, but Maves (PC)kept it close as many Liberal voters appeared to rally to the Tories to stop the NDP.”
Etobicoke North: Take one more riding, Etobicoke North, where in this coming election, the NDP challenger, Nigel Bariffe is an elementary teacher, an ETT and community activist. In 2011, the results were as follows: Lib: 12, 082 (share of vote 48%) PC: 6,065 (share of vote 24%) NDP: 5,420 (share of vote 21%) So for the brilliant mathematicians of strategic voting, the analysis goes like this: the incumbent Liberal is threatened by the second placed PC. To push the NDP in the riding is more likely to take votes from the Liberals, thus potentially offering a scenario where the PC guy walks up the middle and wins. Conclusion, we don’t work for anybody in the riding but we advise our members to “vote smart” to keep the PC guy out. So, it’s all cut and dried – no possibility of looking at the forces on the ground and saying, “look, the NDP guy was only 600 votes behind the PCs in 2011; this time we’ve got a good lefty NDP candidate who, with union support, could mobilize a lot of activists to come out and work for him; we have a real chance, if not of winning, at least of pushing the PCs into third place.” And the conclusion? Yes, many voters do vote strategically. The point is, however, that there are as many SV folks on the right trying to keep an NDPer out as there are people on the left trying to keep out a PC. And the other conclusion? Eugene Debs, the American trade union leader and socialist, nailed it when he said 150 years ago, “I would rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want and get it.” And if you want a good socialist analysis of the Ontario election, read this from Socialist Alternative, Canada
Tim Heffernan retired secondary school teacher; former Executive Officer, Secondary Teachers’ Bargaining Unit, OSSTF District 12 (Toronto)