By Kimball Cariou, editor of People’s Voice
Starting on October 23, British Columbians are receiving ballot packages in the mail, for the province’s referendum on electoral reform. Ballots must be returned in time to count by late November. Most progressive political forces, including the labour movement, are urging a “yes” vote to switch from the current “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system to proportional representation (PR). Like many other groups, the Communist Party of BC (a registered party) supports Mixed-Member PR, one of three options on the second part of this ballot.
But powerful right-wing forces are backing the status quo, warning ominously that a PR system would unleash a Pandora’s box of evils, such as minority governments which might put the brakes on unfettered fossil fuel extraction and export projects. “Quelle horreure”, as the French phrase says. Before we know it, even women might have the vote! Oh wait, that already happened…
There are also some maverick New Democrats beating the drum for FPTP, notably Bill Tieleman, who argue that the NDP can win a majority in the Legislature under that system with less than 40% of the popular vote. This has happened twice in British Columbia: in 1972 when Dave Barrett was elected premier with 39.6% of the vote for the NDP, and again in 1996 when Glen Clark won a majority with 39.4% support, 2.4% lower than Gordon Campbell’s Liberals! Under a PR system, these NDPers fear that their party would often be compelled to share power with others, as happened here in 2017 after the Greens won three seats. If the NDP was a socialist party, this argument might be more compelling, but of course in reality NDP governments usually stick with the overall neoliberal austerity outlook of the big business parties, tempered by some mildly progressive reforms.
But why exactly should people who consider themselves socialists and radicals advocate proportional representation as a more democratic electoral system?
Democracy is one of those concepts that nearly everyone supports in general, without necessarily agreeing on the crucial details. Look up the word in a dictionary, and you’ll find definitions such as “rule by the people through their elected representatives.” Fair enough, and most people wisely prefer this system over fascism, defined by the famed Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov as “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.”
But electoral “democracy,” in a capitalist country like Canada, often allows elected politicians to simply ignore the views and interests of the working class who make up the big majority of the population. Big business parties have perfected the art of sounding “progressive” or “populist” during election campaigns, only to defend the interests of corporations and the wealthy once they are in office. The federal Liberals, in particular, are infamous for their tactics of “campaigning from the left and governing from the right.” Yes, they are “elected representatives of the people” in a formal sense, but it takes enormous popular pressure to force such parties to implement any positive reforms. That can happen; Medicare, public pensions and some other gains were legislated by big business governments, although often in a limited form. But such moments are rare.
The most significant argument for proportional representation in Canada today is that working people would have a much greater incentive to vote for left-wing parties and candidates, such as the Communists.
Speaking from personal experience as a Communist candidate in many federal elections, I know that working class voters respond very favourably to our party’s policies. Public opinion surveys show that millions of people agree with us that the energy industry and the banking system should be under public ownership, which only the Communists advocate. We call for reduced military spending, a dramatic increase in taxes on corporate profits and high incomes, and solidarity with the Palestinian people struggling against Israeli apartheid. All these ideas have wide popular support, but not inside Parliaments or legislatures.
The main reason is that the FPTP system makes it incredibly difficult to elect candidates who present such radical policies. By and large, voters in Canada are aware that the game is set up to favour a few players. Even where Communists are on the ballot, the corporate media refuses to report on our campaigns. Voters are warned constantly that giving their support to a Communist might “split the vote” and let a right-wing candidate win.
Under a mixed-member PR system, voters would cast ballots for their preferred candidate at the riding level, but also for the party of their choice, without the fear of vote-splitting. The potential impact of this change can be seen in the Student Vote exercise carried out in high schools during federal and provincial elections. Whenever Communists are on the ballot in a Student Vote, they receive the backing of anywhere from 3% up to 10% of students who have studied the platforms of the various parties.
Clearly, there is sizable public support for the Communist Party platform. Under a fair PR system, this would result in the election of Communists, perhaps not immediately, but sooner or later.
While PR alone does not guarantee the election of progressive governments, it would give working people a realistic opportunity to vote for the policies they really want, and to elect Communists. This is one reason why right-wing parties and corporate forces in B.C. are campaign to block electoral reform by spreading disinformation and scare tactics. It also helps to explain why some partisan NDP voices oppose PR, fearing that a large number of working people would turn to parties further on the left of the political spectrum.
When you get your electoral reform voting package in the mail, don’t toss it into the recycling. This may be our last chance in a generation to make a real democratic change in the electoral system. Vote “Yes” for Mixed-Member PR, the option that can help put Communists in the Legislature and shift politics in BC back to the left!