Damn Your Party?

In my post last week assessing the merits of Bill C-559 (a.k.a. the “Reform Act“), I pointed out that it risked creating or embittering conflicts between the caucuses and members of political parties. In particular, I wrote that

[i]t is at least conceivable that a leader would lose the support of the caucus while retaining the support of the party as a whole; perhaps more realistically, a party may elect a new leader who does not enjoy the support of the caucus … In such cases, how would it be legitimate for the members of the caucus to dismiss the leader and, in effect, impose their views to the party members [and potentially supporters]? Bill C-559 acknowledges something like this concern by providing that, upon dismissing a leader, the caucus only has the power to appoint an interim replacement, not a permanent one. But, given the practices of Canadian political parties, even giving a caucus veto power over the members’ choice (which is what C-559 amounts to) seems a decrease, rather than an increase, in democracy.

In a recent op-ed in the Globe, Doug Saunders notes this potential conflict too ― but on his reading of the political situation, it party members rather than MPs who are the potential bad guys, and the MPs the saviours of democracy who need more power and freedom. Mr. Saunders worries about “dues-paying members of [the] politicians’ parties, gathered in a fluorescent-lit hotel ballroom and predetermining the identities and actions of those supposed representatives,” “the most mysterious and unregulated force in politics.” The members, he claims, have too much power; so much that party leaders choose to act in their interests rather than in those of the country. Parties run on a set of widely discussed policies, but they also have obscure manifestos that only their members care about. Political leaders must have the courage to ditch these partisan commitments  in the name of the general good, but subjecting them to the membership’s control makes that less likely. Perhaps this was tolerable back when party membership was widespread, but it is no more: “somewhere between 1 and 2 per cent of Canadians are members of political parties,” which is as well, because this means that “[p]eople would rather vote for influence than buy it with a membership card.”  Mr. Saunders concludes that “[m]embers no longer matter, and we need to update the system to reduce their influence.” He recommends “[e]liminating the influence of riding committees over MP selection … empowering MPs to select the prime minister [and] making the caucus, not the convention, the policy seat,” as well as, most of all, having leaders “go against their own parties.”

This agenda, of course, is more, not less, elitist than the status quo, or at least it aspires to be so. Yet it seems rather divorced from reality. I wonder whether the members of Canadian political parties would recognize themselves in the picture that Mr. Saunders paints. For most members, the “sinister” influence they wield on Canadian politics is limited to voting for a leadership candidate once every five or ten years. The policy resolutions they occasionally adopt are routinely ignored by party leadership. It takes no courage, contrary to what Mr. Saunders asserts, to do that ― only habit. Whether or not it is a good thing, there is no problem in Canada with party leaders kowtowing to their members ― and this is the truer the closer a party is to power. Do party members “buy influence with a membership card”? Well, maybe, but they get about what they pay for ― a membership costs next to nothing, something like 5 or 10$ a year, and it yields next to nothing too.

If Mr. Saunders’ recommendations were adopted, the members of political parties would have no substantive role at all ― they would select neither their local candidates nor their leaders nor their parties’ policies. It is not clear, indeed, why anyone would become a member in such a system. Parties would be reduced to MPs and their surrounding political operatives, reinforcing the disconnect between the political class and the electorate it is supposed to represent. Mr. Saunders presumably thinks this would be no great loss.

I am not so sure. Of course, party members are not fully representative of the broader electorate. But they are more so than the MPs, staffers, and PR people gravitating around the MPs in Ottawa. A leadership election is the one moment when a would-be Prime Minister leader is forced to engage in retail politics and talk, at a fairly close distance, to lots of different people without many filters. He or she has to meet ordinary party members and ask them for their votes, in person, face-to-face even ― rather from a television screen. Mr. Saunders is right that leadership sometimes demands going against the wishes of one’s party, just it sometimes demands going against the wishes or preferences of the electorate, but leadership does not mean simply ignoring these wishes as if they did not exist. A leader must be able to engage with those who disagree with him or her; maybe to persuade some of them, and at least to let the others know that they have been heard. Arguably, the lack of these qualities is a problem for a number of political leaders in Canada now. Mr. Saunders’ proposals would make this problem worse, not better.

“Damn your principles,” demanded Benjamin Disraeli, “stick to your party.” Mr. Saunders would have politicians do the other way, sacrificing party to principle. This certainly sounds more high-minded, but in reality, we probably need both parties and principles. A single-minded devotion to anything runs the danger of fanaticism ― and fanatics of principle are no better than the partisan kind.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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