Canada, despite the international identity it possesses as the USA’s younger, less-powerful sibling, has always been more progressive than its downstairs neighbour. They were the first country in the G8 to legalise same-sex marriage. Their laws regarding the smoking of cannabis are amongst the most relaxed in the world, and it looks likely a total decriminalisation is imminent. So perhaps it is not surprising that, flying in the face of the rise in popularity for right-wing parties that many political commentators are describing in the USA and Europe in recent years, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada celebrated last week a decisive majority victory after nine years of Conservative rule.
There are a number of political and societal reasons that one party should win an election. While it is very easy to say that a country like Canada could expect a win for the “progressive” party, a dissection of this election shows that this victory was not as forward-looking as it may appear.
To start with the basics, let us examine the reasons that people vote at all. Statistics show that many ordinary people in many countries are disillusioned with politics and believe that their vote does not make much of a difference. So looking at which elections are well-attended can give us part of the answer. The Canadian federal election had one of the highest turnouts in Canada in recent times. It also saw, in terms of seats changing hands, the most radical change in terms of parties holding seats ever in Ottawa. Similarly, the 84% turnout of Scots in 2014’s independence referendum was the highest ever recorded in any referendum or election in the UK’s political history under universal suffrage. And, famously, the 2008 US federal election that brought Obama to presidency broke records with its participation numbers. So, the Liberals’ message of change was vital not only in their success but also in engaging people with democracy.
On the other hand, evidence exists that in the direst of straits the electorate can be horribly afraid of change. The Scottish independence referendum, famously, went against predictions of a “Yes” victory and ended with far more people voting for the status quo than what polls had suggested. Many commentators assured the UK a hung parliament in the 2015 General Election—their predictions were invalidated when people voted for the Conservatives. In short, many people voted for what they were used to: stability.
This popular engagement in democracy coupled with the extreme desires for either wider stability or radical change has led to a rise in so-called tactical voting. This is when members of an electorate, in order to keep out a common enemy, who actually support one party choose to vote for another because they think it has more chance of winning. The classic example in the UK is Liberal Democrat supporters voting Labour in order to concentrate the anti-Conservative vote. A similar phenomenon has been noticeable in Canada. In the last few months, the phrase “Anyone but Harper” has become common amongst Canadian young people wishing to avoid another four years of Conservative government. (Stephen Harper was Canadian Prime Minister for the last nine years.) For young voters, anyone would be a better Prime Minister than Harper. In a similar way, apart from the last election, many Scots with liberal sympathies chose to vote Labour at UK-wide elections rather than SNP, Green or more fringe parties (the 2015 election of course removing the SNP from their position as fringe in Westminster), simply because they thought they had more chance of success in beating the Conservatives. Tactical voting is common; it is an accepted practice and has become part of how democracies, particularly first-past-the-post systems, operate.
Of course, tactical voting has always existed. A number of the most radical political changes of recent years have seen decisive majorities that some analysts would suggest were largely the result of tactical voting. The USA in 2008 is a good example, with people voting for the Democrats simply to get rid of George Bush rather than because they necessarily supported Obama’s policies. Despite its long history, the tactical voting phenomenon has become more common as time goes on.
In Canada, the National Democratic Party seems to be the loser in the last election due to tactical voting. Traditionally Canada’s third most powerful party, the NDP became the official Opposition in 2011, beating the Liberals. Many people thought they could become stronger in the 2015 election, and the popularity of their policies remains high. However, in 2015 they lost a significant portion of their seats, mostly to the Liberals. The tactical voting phenomenon could be the culprit: people turned to the Liberals because they saw them as a more viable majority government over the more progressive NDP in their quest to secure a Prime Minister who was “Anyone but Harper”.
In addition to this phenomenon, there is another reason to suppose that the Liberal election is not as revolutionary as it may first appear. Canadians have seen a Liberal majority in power before. The ostentatious change they voted for may actually have been a call for stability. Trudeau may be progressive in some ways, but ultimately Canadians have seen a Trudeau in power before: Justin’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a man acclaimed as one of Canada’s most progressive prime ministers over thirty years ago. In this way, this change could be seen as a return to Canada’s roots.
In short, commentators around the world describe a shift toward the extreme on either side of the political spectrum. A “radical” shift left in Canada may seem like just a progressive reaction to this. I suggest, however, that it is not: it is instead people reaching out, in the midst of this chaotic world, to the familiar.