NDP vs Liberal Leadership Election Procedures
Aug 30, 2011

NDP vs Liberal Leadership Election Procedures

We are at a unique position not seen in a long time when both the NDP and the Liberals are set to elect new leadership and are currently led by interim leaders. Following Jack Layton's death, the NDP will hold its leadership vote in January of 2012 and the Liberals will delay their vote until the middle of 2013. I want to go over the details of the leadership election procedures and considered the consequences thereof.

Potential NDP Leaders Munclair and Topp
Before getting into all the details, I want to first make an appeal: get involved! Since 2003, both parties adopted a system where it is not just the party establishment that determines the leader but any person who signs up as a member of that party. All you have to do is register with the party ($5 sign up fee for students) and you can vote for your preferred candidates.

Voting in primaries and leadership races is, in my view, both more effective and more important than voting in the general election. It is in these races that your vote is most influential at making real differences in shaping the political spectrum. In a general election, the candidates from the main parties are so far apart from each other that voting, say, Conservative when one aligns with the NDP would be ridiculous. One is thus merely ratifying the leadership decisions of other people without involvement or even usually knowledge of this process. It is a very passive and disengaging experience for many. However, in a leadership election, one's vote actually is actively influencing what type of leadership and what major issues are to be prioritized by the party one generally supports. It lets us shape and influence the direction the parties go.

Election Procedures:

The basic procedure for the two parties is roughly the same. It is variants of a One Member One Vote (OMOV) system where registered members of the party can vote by mail, phone and Internet for the candidates they want, ranking them in order of priority. The leader is then elected via a multiple round, single trasnferable vote. This means that in the first round all the first choices on the ballets are tallied. If one candidate receives a majority of first choices, they win. If not, then the candidate with the least number of first choice votes is removed from the race (and others may well withdraw their candidacy) and the second choices are considered of those whose first choice is now irrelevant. If theses second choices are enough to push a candidate to majority they win. If not, the procedure is repeated dropping candidates and looking at the latter choices on ballets until somebody gets a majority.

The parties hold leadership conventions where large number of party members all show up at the convention to vote for the preferred leader. Unlike those of us who vote from home, these people get to vote each round and thus can change their ranking of choices based on the outcome of the previous rounds. Often a candidate who withdraws or is booted will endorse one of the other candidates. This may influence the voters at the convention to switch their vote to the endorsed one or for other tactical reasons. That said, the voters at home still make up the lions share of votes.

The major difference between the two is that the NDP retains a preferred status for delegates of various party supporters - mainly unions - who get 25% of the vote while the main voting block is weighted to 75%. These delegates attend the leadership convention and, because their votes are worth so much, are hugely influential at shaping the outcome of the leadership when they shift their bloc between rounds as various candidates drop out. As a more minor difference, the Liberals (like the Conservatives) rebalance the votes weighting them so each riding gets equal representation.

These systems are both very new. For the Liberals, they have never used it before; it was introduced in 2009 but that year's leadership convention, which ratified Ignatieff's ascendancy, retained the older system of simply a vote by one to two thousand delegates made of major party members and their backers. It was a beauraucratic, pro-establishment, and not very democratic system so there is a real opportunity to make a difference now. The NDP introduced the OMOV system in 2003 when Layton was elected, also moving off the back of a delegate based previous system. That election saw nearly 60,000 NDP members participate.
One further difference involves the candidates themselves. For the Liberals, they need to raise a minimum $50,000 entrance fee, have a $3.4M spending cap, must collect 300 signature (100 from at least three provinces) as a nomination, and defer 20% of funds raised after a half million to the party. Or at least, these were the 2006 rules, they are subject to change according to the National Board of Directors as these are not constitutionally mandated. Contrast this with 2003 NDP's $7,500 entrance fee, half million dollar cap and similar vetting procedure needing half female signatures, inclusion from every province and inclusion from youth and seniors. The NDP Federal Council will set the exta rules for this coming election in the next few weeks. Regardless, the differences in amounts of money needed are significant and result in a lower bar for inclusion of NDP candidates compared to Liberal candidates not well connected to the party establishment donors - a good thing I think.

Effects of these procedures:

I won't mince words: the trade union voting for the NDP is antiquiqated and detrimental to democracy and the growth of the party. I am not disagreeing that the NDP should have close ties to its base nor am I suggesting that those ties being unions is bad, but I do not believe it is appropriate for these special interests to have such a large stake I determining the outcome of NDP leadership elections. If someone from a union wants to vote for a candidate, they can register with the party and vote - either at home or at the convention - just like everybody else. Imagine, if the Conservative party reserved 25% of its voting for delegates from corporations, what NDP supporter would say that was a good thing for democracy? Corporations and unions both have appropriate roles to play, they will undoubtably remain influential, but they do not the official sanctioning of direct power within our parties.

I suggested earlier that voting in leadership races is very important and that ones vote really matters. The fact that it is a Single Transferrable Vote system makes this doubly so. Even if our most preferred candidate is not electable (as so often happens in multiway races), then our second and third choices also matter and also influence the outcome. Nobody needs to "vote for the lesser of two evils", they can just rank the evils behind their real first choice(s). Further, it allows us to make a strategic vote while not compromising our principles and sends a clear signal to the party about what our preferences are so in the future they can see, say, that a minority candidate and their views received support which will influence future elections, the prioritizing of issues, and the direction the party goes.

The 2006 Liberal leadership race demonstrated some of the interesting effects that can happen with Single Transferable Vote (whether the outcome was preferable is an entirely separate question, and the outcome of one election should not be considered an adjudication of the process). Initially Ignatieff and Rae were the front runners with Dion somewhat behind tied for third/fourth with Kennedy. As the more polarizing figures of Ignatieff and Rae appeared unable to break their deadlock and may lead to fracturing within the party, the delegeates (this was pre 2009 rule change) ended up switching as candidates pulled out to go for Dion who was consided safe if uninspirational instead. He was elected in the fourth found. In the future, however, it is unclear how this would play out because there will presumably be the majority of votes coming from outside the convention and so such inter-vote politicking will be suppressed.

If you search for it, one immediately and readily finds the constitution of the Liberal party and can read all about the leadership procedures I have sketched above. If, however, one wants to do this for the NDP is simply isn't possible. I found some dated references that it was difficult to find on the net and then other references implying it had been scrubbed from the net, but in the end I could not find it. These general procedures I have outlined came instead from hearsay about the 2003 election. It is to me entirely unacceptable that this document is not readily and prominently displayed on their website. Such transparency and accountability is a core function in a modern democracy.

The reason this is the case is almost certainly that it is huge political liability because it retains socialist language. This was a recent mini crisis a few months back when it was being considered whether to adjust the preamble to the constitution (which is readily available in the public domain) to remove the socialist leanings in it. Ultimately the amendment was rejected, but this points to the larger issues the NDP has in attempting to move away from its roots from an era where different value and economic systems (namely socialism) were readily part of the public discourse, and into a modern, relevant, powerful party of the left. I believe that whomever the new NDP leader is in a post-Layton era they need to strongly consider addressing the issue of constitution reform.

Before 2003, official membership in the NDP (or Liberals, for that matter) was largely about building donation and volunteer networks as well as local candidacy. They were not going to say no to the average person who empathized with the party but didn't have the time, money, or desire to contribute, but they were not actively sought out. With the ability to actively participate in federal leadership votes, there is now a distinct purpose for average Canadians to get involved and become party members. 2003 saw 60,000 votes. The 2004 Conservative election, in which Harper won over Belinda Stronach and Tony Clemment, got almost 100,000 Conservatives out to vote.

Compared to general elections, these are still small numbers. But they are far more democratic and representative of the party bases than they ever were before. Most importantly, the structure now exists in order for Canadians to get more involved. With the addition of Quebec to the NDP's base and with eight years since the new system was first tried, I expect the number to increase and hope that it does so significantly.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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doconnor said...

The 25% union vote isn't in the constitution, so Federal Council has the power to change this. I doubt it will be 25% this time now that union donations are banned.

With recent failures of capitalism, socialism may start getting more relevant.

bazie said...

Possibly. For instance, at the convention in June there wasn`t any debate on the role of labor unions and Layton explicitly said they wouldn't cut "traditional ties" to the labour unions which, given the lack of donations, it isn't too unreasonable to suppose it is an allusion to the delegate share. Especially because they are currently leaderless (and hence don't have someone to rally behind pushing for one electoral structure over another) it is quite possible it will be retained. Anyways, we shall see one way or the other in the not too distant while.

Anonymous said...

"Imagine, if the Conservative party reserved 25% of its voting for delegates from corporations, what NDP supporter would say that was a good thing for democracy?"

Except that indirectly they did. If the Liberal party requires $50,000 in donation prior to being able to apply and caps at 3.5 million than their candidates are going to be tired closely to business. Unfortunately that's what I've seen more and more from the Liberal party in the last ten years. They've fallen further to the right, leaders being wealthy businessmen, and policies losing touch with the average working Canadian.

I'm a professional who cares about the working class as well as the marginalized populations of our country. The liberal's lack of connecting with these issues has pushed me to the left.

bazie said...

True. The Conservatives are even worse, incidentally, at 100k entrance fee in 2004

bazie said...

In the end, doconner was correct. The 25% share is gone and the half million dollar spending cap remains.

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