Tuesday, 7 February 2012
What does John Cummins really want?
Of the two provincial by-election campaigns about to get underway in BC, the race in Chilliwack-Hope may be the more interesting. It looks like the fight in Barry Penner’s former riding will be between a BC Liberal candidate with impeccable conservative credentials, and a BC Conservative party candidate with impeccable conservative credentials.
Well, it’s true. The BC Liberal candidate is Laurie Throness, who was chief of staff to former Conservative MP Chuck Strahl, and calls himself a “policy conservative.” The BC Conservative Party candidate is John Martin, a professor of criminology and former Chilliwack Times columnist, whose party describes itself as “BC’s only true conservative party.”
So with two candidates trying to “out-conservative” each other, maybe this is as good a time as any to ask what it is that BC Conservative Party leader John Cummins actually hopes to achieve.
Because it seems to me that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between BC Conservative Party electoral success and the likelihood of an NDP election victory in 2013. And I am guessing that, unhappy as some folks are with the current government in Victoria, the kind of people who are likely to support Mr. Cummins are likely to be even unhappier with the prospect of NDP Premier Adrian Dix. And yet that is almost certainly exactly what will happen if they achieve the success they seek.
Admittedly, the force of this argument is only as strong as the electoral formula which has explained BC politics for over sixty years. But the thing about an enduring formula is that unless and until that unforeseeable moment when everything changes, the formula is the best explanation we’ve got. And the formula here is very clear: when the “centre” and the “right” are united under one umbrella, they win; when they are fractured, the NDP wins.
That is the explanation for the NDP’s three electoral victories.
In 1972, after 20 years of Social Credit government under WAC Bennett, the NDP under Dave Barrett were elected. In that election the perennial third party Liberal vote stayed flat, the NDP popular vote increased slightly (from 331,000 to 352,000), and the Socred vote declined by 125,000 from the 1969 election. Where did the Socred votes go? Not to the NDP. The fourth party Progressive Conservatives went from a scanty 1,087 votes in 1969 to over 143,000 votes in 1972. It was the Progressive Conservative upswing that gave the NDP their win.
In 1991, in the aftermath of the Vander Zalm premiership, Socred supporters fled the party for Gordon Wilson’s BC Liberals. The Socred share of the popular vote declined by 25%. The BC Liberal Party’s share of the popular vote increased by slightly more than 25%. The NDP won 51 of the 75 seats and formed government under Mike Harcourt.
One of the enduring myths of the 1991 election is the claim that centrist voters decided to opt for the more moderate Mike Harcourt as an acceptable alternative to the Socreds In fact, the NDP share of the popular vote declined between the (disastrous) 1986 (42.6%) and (successful) 1991 (40.7%) elections. There was no mass migration of voters towards Mr. Harcourt. There was just a split of the centre-right, and the result was an NDP victory.
Similarly, the NDP managed to eke out another win in 1996, although their share of the popular vote declined still further (by a percentage point to 39.5%), because the centre right vote split four ways: BC Liberals (41.82%), Reform BC (9.3%), Social Credit (6.3%) and Gordon Wilson’s PDA (5.7%).
Jack Weisgerber, who led Reform BC in the 1996 election, felt so bad about what he had done to help the NDP get elected that he actually made an appearance in the 2001 BC Liberal platform document, saying (and this is a quote), “I’m not going to make that same mistake again.”
The formula has continued to operate since 1996. Putting the lop-sided anomaly of 2001 to one side, the NDP under Carole James actually managed to increase their share of the popular vote in 2005 and 2009, and yet lost to the BC Liberals, in large part because the centre-right vote stayed intact, although the Green vote at nearly 10% was probably unhelpful to the NDP.
That’s the storyline. For sixty years and more, third and fourth parties of the centre and right have come and gone, and so have their leaders. Their only significance to the ultimate equation of who has formed government is that whenever they have attracted a significant percentage of the vote, the benefit has gone to the NDP.
Given this history, what is it, then, that John Cummins is up to?
I’m not sure. I know John Cummins. He was my MP for a time, and we used to see each other at events in the community. He was a good constituency MP; hard working, diligent, and utterly unafraid to stand up - indeed, even get arrested - for his beliefs. He’s not kidding when he says he’s a real conservative.
But in my time as a BC Liberal MLA, I had colleagues in caucus and supporters in the party whose views were just as conservative as those of John Cummins. Just like the liberals with whom they shared a party, they had principled views which did not always match those of their more centrist or moderate colleagues. And we spent many long hours in the caucus room working to find the common ground that allowed us to stay united as a party. Although I am not a member of that caucus today, I still know BC Liberal MLAs who represent a host of different points on the ideological spectrum, and I am quite sure discussions in the caucus room are as vigorous today as they were a decade ago.
The result, of course, is that the policy direction of the BC Liberal Party has never been inflexibly either conservative or liberal, although for the most part it has followed a path that accommodates both. No doubt, this legacy could quite possibly be frustrating to someone who believes strongly in one set of views or another, especially those who practice their politics from the safety of their armchairs. But for those who seek elected office, the truth they will discover is that all politics, sooner or later, is about compromise. It’s as rare as a unicorn for anyone in our system of government consistently to get their own way. The genius of those who are really good at elected government is how they use the wellspring of principle as a guide, not a straitjacket, because the real world is almost always far too complex for the simple application of rigid ideology.
Mr. Cummins is not resting in his armchair, entertaining friends with his political opinions. He seeks elected office. Or at least, he is the leader of a party that is nominating candidates for elected office. Perhaps his agenda is to displace the BC Liberals as the coalition party of the centre right? Not likely. He often had trouble fitting in with his federal Conservative caucus; he’s not a coalition builder. And it’s hard to see how a party that brands itself as the “real conservative party” is ever going to attract support from the centre. I know federal Liberals who would much rather vote for the provincial NDP than ever cast a ballot for a provincial party led by John Cummins.
Perhaps his agenda is simply to establish a conservative party as a permanent electoral force on the provincial electoral landscape. Goodness knows, we could always use a wider range of interesting and thoughtful ideas in BC politics. But history, if it tells us anything about BC politics, says that not only is this a faint hope, it’s a misguided quest. Whenever someone has come close to success in building a third party on the centre-right, the result is that the NDP wins. So again, Mr. Cummins, what do you really want?