Why is there both a New Democratic Party (NDP) and a Green Party? Examine them, really read their positions and philosophies. The two parties are essentially the same and where they’re not, they’re frequently complementary. In the following, I’ll present why I think the two parties must merge and what it might look like if they did.
Creating a Green Social Democratic Party (GSDP) would solve a lot more than just NDP members’ occasional unease with the “New” in their name. Its combined members would provide a very strong third federal party. A GSDP would embody the perspective and vision to be an exciting alternative to both the Conservatives and Liberals. The GSDP merger could also garner the momentum to galvanize voters.
There are two ways I’d like to consider this. One way is to offer a critical examination of platforms and try to argue that the two are largely complementary (if not nearly the same) with only minor inconsistencies (by the end of this article I’ll propose what the union of the two might look like). The other way is to talk about fuzzier things like perception or emotion. I think it’s necessary to consider both ways but as much as I wish I could say the critical way provides a stronger motivation, I think the argument on perception and emotion is the more powerful motivator right now.
In political discussion, some people allow themselves to be swayed through logic and critical thinking. Often though, vote switching happens when people feel unhappy with their prior allegiance and have the perception that an alternate group is going to be the winning team. Additionally, voter malaise is reversed through sparking people’s emotions. So the parties need to play their logic to the right feelings and emotions for a successful strategy.
I’ve rearranged all of the data from the 2008 election, in a spreadsheet, to see how things would have looked (by riding and province), had there been a GSDP (this was possible due to the data Simon Fraser University makes available for download here more info from the government web site here). I’ve also created an unfinished spreadsheet outlining a GSDP platform with its NDP and Green Party correspondences (This is admittedly a long post… everything’s linked at the end – skip there now).
Here is a hypothetical scenario, summarizing how things might’ve looked, had there been a GDP in 2008.
|Green Social Democratic Party||Liberal||Conservative||Bloc Québécois||Independent||Other||NDP||Green Party|
|Hypothetical Popular Vote||3411745||3627891||5208796||1379991||89387||75055||N/A||N/A|
|Hypothetical % of Popular Vote||24.7%||26.3%||37.8%||10.0%||0.6%||0.5%||N/A||N/A|
A GSDP would have caused both the Liberals and Conservatives to lose a few seats. In the details, it’s interesting to see that some of the seats the Conservatives would have lost were initially very close calls but a combined NDP/Green vote wins.
You might look at my summary chart above and think that a GSDP would only have won 11 more seats than the NDP did on its own. But I’d like to argue that that seat number is less of interest than the total percent of the popular vote it would have won. At almost 25% it would have been neck-and-neck with the Liberal party and closing in on the Conservative party. With that sort of momentum, in a new election there is a chance it would start to sway additional voters or galvanize others out of their malaise, thus pushing even more votes to a GSDP.
Before arguing either the critical or emotional sides, I think the first essential question is what are the problems the two parties currently face, which could be resolved by merging? Without identifying their problems it would be unclear what a merger should solve. Simply, neither the NDP nor Greens have ever received enough votes to form a government and according to ongoing polls, neither is improving its odds. To date, neither is capable of capturing the hearts and minds of enough of the population to govern.
Things the NDP Needs to Overcome
The NDP has accomplished significant things for a party that’s always been in opposition. The NDP must often realize its goals through a bargaining position, balancing the power of the dominant party (though not always, for example the recent environment bill). The NDP has generally been strong on vision but winning occasional concessions to accomplish a few goals isn’t wholly satisfying. Opposition status has grown stale.
In spite of Jack Layton’s frequent calls in the last election for voters to push the NDP high enough to form the government, the NDP remains more-or-less stuck in the polls. His calls were entirely appropriate—he needed to crystallize the goal of the campaign and make it as real as the Liberals and Conservatives. But the NDP needed a bigger boost than it got. To get that boost it needs something else.
The NDP has to break away from the all-too-common perception many Canadians hold of the NDP. While much of what the NDP wants, might actually be in-line with a large population of Canadians, I believe from what I’ve read and people I’ve talked to, that they somehow cannot see the NDP as a party that embodies the nature of the Canada they would like—but they don’t see this through a critical evaluation of current NDP positions, they see it through historical perceptions dragging on present day sentiments. There is a dissonance between what the NDP actually would like to accomplish and people’s preconceptions of NDP dogma.
The NDP is often accused (in various forms) of essentially being stuck in the rhetoric of a political past. Looking at the positions the NDP usually takes and issues it raises, I’d disagree. Nevertheless what’s undeniable about the accusation is the feeling expressed within it. A lot of people do perceive the NDP as stuck arguing yesterday’s class struggles and ideologies (even though they are still relevant). Much of the public perceives the NDP as an ideologically stuck party. People don’t see the NDP as a party with great understanding of how to approach our present problems. It’s seen as a party that lacks the political vocabulary to present a successful vision for building Canada’s future.
I’m talking about what I take to be general public perception and feeling, not necessarily the actuality of the NDP’s platform, principles, perspective, or team. In fact, I think the actual NDP perspective and program is quite strong with vision and practicality, and merits support.
People don’t get past easy generalizations or stereotypes. This point was really obvious when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives first prorogued parliament to avoid the Conservative government’s collapse on non-confidence. The Conservatives successfully framed the NDP/Liberal & Bloc coalition using the word “socialist” to villainize the NDP, and then stick it with epithets that are easily lobbed by opponents and understood by the many. Even though I’d argue the perception is inaccurate, the socialist frame evokes a past that is more popularly linked with collapse and mistrust than know-how and vision; and in North America, it also invokes loss of freedom. These are emotional things the NDP has not yet overcome.
The NDP is well-recognized for its social democratic positions. We have our medicare system because of the early roots of the NDP. The NDP frequently takes positions, which are ahead of their time and while bashed early, often sees vindication eventually. Its well-founded stances and early insight on the best Canadian action would certainly be given greater weight if it had more influence.
Things the Green Party Needs to Overcome
Unlike the NDP, the Greens haven’t elected any MPs. The Green Party has been relegated to yelling from the outside, trying its best to motivate citizen action and sway opinion. The Green Party has been somewhat effective in increasing awareness of the issues it champions, which forces the other parties to shift their own positions if they want to prevent some of their own voters from moving to the Greens. But I don’t expect they worry too too much about losing significant numbers of voters to the Greens, which many still believe are an inexperienced, or worse, a naïve party.
The Greens weren’t capable of dispelling that perception in the last election. Embarrassing e-mails leaked pleading for barely qualified candidates to lend their names to ballots as Greens. Elizabeth May travelled the country by train, which rightly or wrongly many people viewed as a laughable way to campaign though it was reported as more likely due to insufficient funding. There were many positive elements to the train tour, especially considering the Greens were able to make a statement on the amount of pollution airplanes emit. Nevertheless in spite of some valiant attempts, the Greens were unable to popularly frame the conversation in their favour—and on an unfair meta-level that also spoke to the perception of inexperience.
The Greens have steadily increased their share of the vote but with the current parties it seems unlikely that the Greens’ current positions and appeals are likely to gain much more. Nevertheless they’ve been slowly building their support. Between the federal elections of 2006 and 2008, the Green Party saw an increase in the number of people voting for it; the Bloc, Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP all saw their numbers decrease (note the NDP saw the smallest decrease). So in spite of the Green Party’s singular momentum, in all current opinion polls it still consistently lacks the voting preferences of enough people to be much of a serious contender against the other parties.
The Green party has been ineffective at revealing itself to voters. Many Canadians don’t understand how the Green Party positions itself, frequently debating whether the Greens are left or right leaning. I’m not a fan of the left/right labeling of the political spectrum, I think it’s a distraction to public critical thinking, but a lot of people rely on the left/right short hand. The left/right label instantly indicates how a party’s priorities might line up with a person’s own thinking. To successfully dump the old left/right labels in the trash, the Greens need to affect a resounding game change on political discourse—but so far, they haven’t succeeded.
For the converted, the Greens however have built quite an interesting modern political vocabulary: abstracting environmental principles into all walks of life. It’s the only party that explicitly presents a holistic vision. The Green party’s focus on things such as prevention (health care), efficiency (waste and the economy), and interconnectedness, truly speaks to our culture. Even the Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff recognized some of this at the recent Liberal event envisioning the future Canada. He talked about a network model of governing.
In order to increase its share of the vote the Green Party will have to rely on getting people to the polls that don’t normally vote or else convincing voters from the other parties to switch. The “switching” option is unlikely. It’s unlikely the Greens will get many switchers from the Conservatives since they share very little in terms of platform, perspective, and ideology. The Greens do have some things in common with the Liberals and the Liberals have been suffering over the last few difficult years in terms of raison d’etre and organisation: they’re certainly losing some supporters. But the Greens also differ in many significant ways from the Liberals and will have a lot of convincing to do, to get Liberal supporters to change their minds. Furthermore, a more traditional switch for Liberal supporters would be to the Conservatives or NDP (depending on their leanings): it’s unclear how the Greens could overcome that.
The Bloc’s base could be a source of some new votes for the Greens since they share a number of similar stances to current issues but it’s very unlikely the Greens will be able to count on converting much of the Bloc’s base. The Greens certainly wouldn’t adopt a stance in favour of Quebec sovereignty—the major driver behind the Bloc’s existence.
That leaves the NDP. The Greens’ best chance lies in capturing the NDP’s base. Ideologically the two parties are practically indistinguishable (more on that shortly). If you’ll allow me some leeway, assume that the two parties *do* take a close-enough stand on the issues that would be of the most interest to NDP supporters. Why should an NDP voter switch to the Green Party? What is the advantage?
The Green Party isn’t promoting a particularly different approach, they have fewer members, and unless a particular MP is above and beyond the NDP’s candidate, there’s no reason to assume that they’re going to be able to accomplish anything more than the NDP candidate. The Greens have a lot that is not clearly overcome to win over an NDP vote. And it’s never easy to change voting habits.
Edging Out the Others
The NDP and the Green Party ought to be beneficiaries of the voters that grew disillusioned with the Liberal party. The Liberals are probably closer in their positions to both the NDP and the Greens than they are to the Conservatives. So far however, neither the NDP nor the Greens have managed to capture those voters imaginations in a large-scale way. Together however, they might affect a real change in the political discourse.
Their individual problems are exacerbated by some frequent faulty logic employed by many voters. The rationale goes something like “I’d vote for the NDP (or Green Party) but they have no chance of winning, so instead I’ll vote for party x.” That’s self-defeating illogic of the worst kind. Every vote provides another shot at winning. The NDP and Greens do have just as good a chance of winning as any other party, so long as the voter casts his or her vote in their direction. Nevertheless this lousy line of reasoning is employed by a significant quantity of people. Both the Greens and the NDP must deal with it one way or another.
I propose that rather than try to convince each voter—that uses the above faulty reasoning—to change his or her perception. A combined NDP/Green party would instantly have well over 20% of the vote intentions from most polls. That means it would be an extremely strong contender beside the Liberals and Conservatives, which have tended to poll in the 20 to 30 percent range over the last several years. That displays competitive momentum in an obvious, public way. In other words people would start to feel like, “these guys have a chance at winning, I’ll vote for them.” An obviously strong third option that is both solidly rooted in Canadian history and promotes a fresh vision for our times, could motivate against malaise.
Platform – Creating the Green Social Democratic Party (GSDP)
It’s ridiculous for parties to compete for the same voters without presenting us with any critical differentiation. Over the years, I’ve read and reread the NDP and Green platforms. I’ve been unable to discern substantial policy differences or even serious philosophical differences.
About half a year ago, I decided to do an experiment. I’d go through each party’s platform, line-by-line, and systematically match each position in a comparison grid. I wanted to see if my perception was correct or if there was indeed some significant difference between the parties. I made a lot of progress and then the Greens released an updated platform this year. Let me say that the new one doesn’t significantly change their positions, but it’s arranged and worded differently enough to thwart my experiment. It was too frustrating for me to start mapping things all over again. Nevertheless the progress I did make is what led me to be confident enough that my theory on the parties’ similarity was true. I’m making that spreadsheet public so that if anyone else is interested, they’re welcome to contribute to it.
I’d like to now summarize what I discovered in the two platforms and suggest what a framework of their union might look like. The framework combines the two parties’ issues and where the parties were not quite the same but complemented each other’s gaps, I’ve tried to compose a perspective that integrated them. I found it almost impossible to identify anything in the parties’ platforms that was irreconcilable.
The Green Party may not have been entirely able to shed its early image as a single issue party but it does have a comprehensive platform and environment issues are near the top of most peoples’ minds in our era.
The Green Party has developed as a relatively recent global movement. Granted, Green parties in different countries have their differences but it’s significant that the Greens have pushed the range of discourse well beyond national boundaries as an inherent part of their make-up. This fact of the Green Party’s DNA lends inherent consideration to international relations.
I’d like to claim that a defining element of our current era is interconnectedness, particularly because of the way the Internet has changed society. The concepts and ways of seeing connections (links) between issues extends beyond just technology. We live in an era of free trade agreements (for better or worse), international treaties, and great collaborative concerns in recognition of worldwide issues. We know what goes on around the world and care, we care so much that we intervene in all kinds of ways that are not just commerce or battle. The Greens get this. The Green Party platform is structured for a holistic approach.
On the other hand, the NDP’s platform is inherently social. It’s infused with the care Canadians have for one another and presents a Canada joined together in humane and increasingly egalitarian, well-being.
The NDP platform starts immediately into the jobs front as a primary lense toward other issues. It groups things like food safety, affordable housing, consumer protections, workplace fairness standards, and innovation through that labour lens. Even on health care and the environment, it tends to approach these issues from the top as a manner of employment, or human engagement with the activities. So it is already moving, from one perspective, toward what the Green Party platform attempts: approaching things holistically.
The NDP is the root of our respected and socially innovative Medicare system. Although this system has some problems, there is a lot of will from both parties to improve it. In particular something the Greens can add is their approach to preventative care (and focus on efficiency). This is an under-appreciated area of work, that could alleviate much of the stresses on our current system.
The NDP is at the forefront of thinking on issues like copyright reform. While it is not explicitly explained in its platform, MPs like the NDP’s Charlie Angus have great understanding of the issues central to the Internet and digital media. These are not to be brushed aside; they profoundly impact Canadian culture and business. The Green Party, while less-vocal on this front, explicitly calls for a free and open source software strategy in its platform. To make this distinction shows that the Green Party has studied issues around intellectual liberty involved in the digital age. It indicates a strong likelihood that the Greens’ position on copyright reform and related topics would be in-line and complementary to those espoused by the NDP.
When it comes to workers’ rights and workplace equity, the Green Party might as well be cheerleading the NDP’s positions. They talk a bit differently but they call for the much of the same. I used the word “surprisingly” here because many people still think the Green Party resembles the Conservatives in this respect, but the Greens’ platform does not hold up to that impression at all.
The one, perhaps glaring difference became public during the 2008 election when the NDP’s Jack Layton argued primarily for a cap-and-trade approach to addressing some of our environmental problems, while the Greens’ Elizabeth May argued primarily for a tax shift. Though they argued differently, their platforms don’t really exclude the possibility of the other.
For example, the NDP’s platform promotes tax shifting it just doesn’t call it that. Under the rubric of “creating jobs and innovation in a new energy economy” the NDP argues that each region and industry should have a strategy designed for it (not a single overall strategy that doesn’t respect the region/industry), which includes tax – reform centered around environmental well-being and broad public interest. That sounds like another way of referring to a green tax shift. The NDP’s platform actually speaks in this way in a few sections, promoting green industry through tax incentives.
Clearly then the NDP is not closed to this method of environmental reform, but perhaps wisely, it talks about it differently than the Green Party did. And why do I say “wisely” because the Conservatives have succeeded in villainizing any discussion on taxes unless it’s about decreasing them. As Stéphane Dion discovered in the prior election, it’s very difficult to get the wider public to see the value in a tax shift on subjects not-easily-made-concrete, especially when being attacked by the glossy, energetic, propaganda machine of the Conservatives.
The point here however, is that what appeared in debates as a critical platform difference turns out not to be. Those are just a few examples, I could go on pulling examples from the two platforms. It would only continue to show that they’re two parts of a complementary program.
While I previously argued that the Green Party has a lot to offer in terms of a modern political vocabulary the NDP’s political savvy and experience is essential to properly wielding this vocabulary.
Joined together, the goal of a GSDP would likely be human well-being through a holistic lens, which integrates the environment, culture, and common fundamental societal needs with particular respect to economic fitness and constraints.
In broad strokes, the NDP’s platform was structured in the following categories: jobs, health care, environment, and other key priorities (which include things about accountability, human rights, communities, and global relations among other things). The Green Party’s platform was structured in the following categories: economy, averting climate catastrophe, preserving and restoring the environment, people, planet needs Canada (about gobal relations), and good government.
I’d propose that all of the items within those categories can be well organized in a Green Social Democratic Party platform structured with the following categories: Work and the Economy, Environment, Well-being, The Greater Community (global relations), and Governance.
After studying the two parties’ platforms I filled in my proposed GSDP platform structure with the main concerns in each of its categories—roughly 70 items. I was in the middle of (before the Green Party released its newest platform) identifying the passages of each individual party’s existing platform where they clearly show support corresponding with the proposed GSDP platform.
Although I started this project mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, if you’re interested, you can
- download the GSDP platform union in ODF spreadsheet format (OpenOffice.org Calc)
- access the GSDP platform union on the Google Docs publicly shared spreadsheet (it’s shared, feel free to contribute).
I’ve rearranged the data from the 2008 election to see what it would have looked like if the NDP and Green Party merged as a GSDP. If you’re curious to see what would have happened in your riding or how it would have changed the election results, you can download it here (ODF format) or view it online through Google Docs.
And finally, I’m not the only one to consider this possibility. I notice that there are two Facebook groups: GREENDP and NDP & Green Party Merge devoted to an NDP/Green merger and a very interesting discussion under the context of fair electoral reform.