Life on the Fringe

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Have you ever chaired a meeting of the Anarchist Party? No? Well, neither has anyone else. Anarchists, by their nature, argue with everyone, including, I suspect, themselves. When I was involved in left wing politics in university, the old joke was – what do you get if you put two Trotskyites in a room? Three political parties.

Such is life on the fringe of politics. In Canada, like everywhere else in the world, there are literally more than a dozen political parties (currently there are 23 registered with Elections Canada). Most of these parties never elect anyone to Parliament; most of them barely qualify as parties, struggling to retain members or even leaders. Made up of mostly iconoclasts, they seldom have a coherent party platform let alone a strategy of gaining seats.

One of the great bugaboos of proportional representation is that it will lead to a proliferation of small parties and permanent minority or coalition governments. While the latter is often true (though not always, stable majority coalitions of similar parties is often the rule), the former is not particularly a disease of PR systems. Majoritarianism which isolates specific communities or interest groups can lead to the creation of a multitude of regional parties that succeed in gaining seats if not power in first past the post systems.

In Canada, we have the example of the Bloc Quebecois – formed by those in Quebec who feel their interests are not met in a united Canada. The heavily Western based Reform party was no different – a regional party of people who felt alienated by the policies of the central government.

In the United Kingdom, there are now 11 political parties with seats in Westminster. This is the same number as found in Israel and two less than in the Italian Parliament. When you count in parties represented in local governments, there are as many parties in England as there are in any other democracy in the world. The difference is, of course, that despite the fracturing of the vote, the vast majority of seats go to the few parties who gain a significant number of votes. For example, the Conservative party gained a majority in the last election with a mere 36.9% of the vote. The Labour party, with just over 30% gained far more seats than all the other parties combined (who had nearly 33% of the vote).

The situation in the UK now is that the government can safely ignore the interests of the majority of citizens and still get re-elected. First Past the Post has created a virtual dictatorship.

This is, of course, a fairly recent phenomenon, created by the increasing ghettoization of national and economic interests. As British communities grow more divided on religious and ethnic lines, they are likely to see more political fragmentation rather than less. Protest parties – with no interest beyond their sense of grievance – will become the norm and the UK may well become ungovernable as a result.

Hopefully, matters will never come to such a head in Canada. A sensibly designed proportional representation system – with minimum cut-offs for representation in Parliament – will permit regional and other interests to have a real voice in government without overwhelming Parliament with a proliferation of disparate and angry voices – as is now the case in the mother of the Westminster system, England.

And that’s ten minutes.

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