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Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager
Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager

Tom Flanagan

We don't need a centre party to prevent political polarization Add to ...

In his election-night speech, Michael Ignatieff spoke eloquently of the importance of the Liberal Party in Canadian history, and the need for a centre party to prevent the polarization of politics. He was right about the first point, but wrong about the second. Centre parties have largely disappeared, or continue to survive only as minor parties, in modern democracies. Canada was the big exception when the Liberals dominated our politics, but now Canadian exceptionalism is coming to an end.

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What keeps democratic politics focused on the centre? Not the existence of a centre party but the workings of the "median voter theorem" (MVT). Think of voters as points spread out along a line - on the left, on the right, in the middle. By mathematical necessity, there is a median position, with half of voters to the left and half to the right. The median voter sits at the winning position in the democratic competition of political parties.

The proof is simple and elegant. If Party A moves to the left or right of the median, it allows Party B to locate itself closer to the majority of voters. The MVT predicts that Party A and Party B will tend to converge on the median because they cannot afford to let their rivals cut them off from more than half the voters.

The MVT is a mathematical abstraction belonging to game theory, and the world is far more complicated than that. Nonetheless, the theorem correctly predicts the general pattern of politics in modern democracies: two large parties, or coalitions of parties, one slightly to the right, the other slightly to the left, both tending to borrow ideas from each other as they converge on the centre. Think of Republicans versus Democrats in the United States; Conservatives versus Labour in Britain, the Liberal-National coalition versus Labor in Australia, Christian Democrats versus Social Democrats in Germany. Small centre parties still exist in Britain and Germany, and they sometimes exercise leverage in coalitions, but they do not govern by themselves.

My left-wing friends fear Stephen Harper's "hidden agenda" of extreme conservatism. My right-wing friends fear Jack Layton's reckless socialism. All my friends should relax and enjoy the prospect of four years without another election. The pressures of political competition will continue to force both the Conservatives and the NDP toward the centre, eating away the ground that the Liberals have traditionally occupied.

Don't look for big surprises from a Conservative majority government. With control of both the Commons and the Senate, the Conservatives will pass legislation in areas where they tried previously but were frustrated by their lack of a majority - criminal justice, the long-gun registry, the Wheat Board, Senate reform, subsidies for political parties. They will gradually move the budget toward balance, perhaps eliminating a few programs here and there but leaving the broad contours of the welfare state in place. There will be some further tax cuts toward the end of their four years in power - not a bad launch for the October, 2015, election campaign.

The New Democrats and Liberals will loudly condemn all of this, as indeed they should. Since there is no Truth in politics (the MVT is a Truth about politics), we need an adversarial democratic process to present voters with alternatives. But to borrow a football metaphor, all the conflict will take place around the midfield stripe. The Conservatives will not privatize health care, and the New Democrats will not nationalize key industries. Maybe they should, but they won't, because both initiatives would take their proponents too far from the median and leave their opponents room to move in and cut them off from a majority of voters. So thank you, MVT.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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