In the by-election last week in Brandon-Souris, the Liberals lost by 391 votes. The Green Party, with no hope of winning, entered a candidate. He received only 1,354 votes, but they were meaningful. Those votes had the effect, as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May acknowledges, of giving the Conservative candidate the victory in the riding. Likely, enough of the Green support would have gone to the Liberals to make them the winner.
Brandon-Souris is an example of how the Green Party is dragging down the fortunes of the main progressive parties hoping to defeat the governing Conservatives. Ms. May wants nothing more than to oust Stephen Harper. But the vote-splitting tendencies of her party generally serve the opposite purpose.
It’s a big reason, among many, why the Greens should take a hard look at realities – such as having only one seat after 30 years of existence – and fold their tent.
In the four by-elections, the Greens’ vote varied between just 2 per cent and 5 per cent. The last two national polls have them at 6 and 3 per cent. In the last federal election, the one that elected Ms. May, the party got 3.9 per cent of the vote, a drop of about 3 percentage points from the 2008 election. At the provincial level, the Green parties score as poorly, if not worse, than federally.
Federally, it was expected that the low priority that the Conservatives give the environment would increase enthusiasm for the Greens. It hasn’t happened. It was expected that Ms. May’s presence in the Commons, which generates more visibility for the party, would increase support. It hasn’t happened.
The Greens’ main appeal has been to the younger generation, but Justin Trudeau now threatens to dominate that demographic. The Greens are losing, courtesy of Conservative legislation, their per-vote subsidy. That will hit their bank account hard.
For a fringe party to make a breakthrough, it is necessary for its vote to be heavily concentrated – as with the Bloc Québécois or the old Reform Party – in one region. The Greens’ support, while somewhat stronger in British Columbia, is spread thinly across the land.
Though the Greens have a wide-ranging policy platform, they are viewed chiefly as a one-issue party. While a top-drawer issue, the environment does not get nearly enough traction to forge a major political party.
Ms. May is a leading proponent of co-operation among the progressive parties. She says she offered the Liberals a deal not to run a candidate in Brandon-Souris, but they weren’t interested. There is no appreciable movement toward co-operation and coalition from the Liberals and NDP. The Greens do not have enough to offer the others to make a deal happen.
Ms. May, who has a nuanced knowledge of issues and is a first-rate MP, counters all arguments. She says some polls show her party to be doing quite well. She points to past by-elections where the party did much better than it did last week. She says despite the loss of the subsidy, the party is doing very well on fundraising. She says the other opposition parties are weak on the environment and the Greens have to be there.
Do they? Instead of as a forever-stalled peripheral party, would the Greens not be more effective, as B.C. academic Stewart Prest suggested recently, as a high-powered, single-issue pressure group backing the greenest of electoral candidates. They could do that or they could cut a merger deal with the Grits or NDP wherein those parties commit to major Green planks.
Neither is likely, but the Greens have to do something. The odds are stacked against them improving their lot. The odds are they will get about 5 or 6 per cent of the vote in the next election while costing progressive parties seats via vote-splitting.
That will help the Conservatives, which is exactly what the Greens do not want. After three decades of trying but failing to move beyond fringe party status, better they call it a day and try to achieve their goals via another course.