When Elizabeth May announced her intention to resign as leader of the Greens, the reaction was universally laudatory.
Being the first Green to win a seat in the House of Commons, Ms. May has put her party on the political map. She made an immediate impression with her fierce intellect, relentless work ethic and gifted way with words.
Even ideological enemies such as Jason Kenney, the former Conservative cabinet minister and now Alberta Premier, praised the Vancouver Island MP for the passion she demonstrated for public service and for having the courage of her convictions.
Big boots to fill, for sure.
But as much as Ms. May helped build the Green brand nationally, she leaves the leadership of a party at a crossroads. While Ms. May elevated the Green’s profile, there was not the commensurate growth in support at the polls. In Ms. May’s first federal election as leader in 2008, the Greens got 6.78 per cent of the popular vote. In 2019, it was 6.5 per cent.
In an election where concern for the environment and climate change was at a historic high among voters, the Green Party failed to take advantage. Yes, they are sending one more MP to Ottawa than they had in the last Parliament to make a caucus of three, but it should have been more. Far more.
There were, of course, campaign blunders that account for some of the disappointment – with Ms. May responsible for a couple of the biggest ones. Saying that she wouldn’t stifle a Green MP who wanted to reopen the abortion debate was deeply problematic. And party supporters blanched when she said she’d work with a minority Conservative government.
She later tried to walk back both statements, but the damage was done. When the NDP took advantage of these mistakes by questioning her values in a pamphlet it distributed in crucial Vancouver Island ridings, Ms. May was outraged. “Find me those words,” she implored. The NDP quickly obliged.
Ms. May has suggested the Greens didn’t do better because they didn’t fight back against the NDP pamphlet tactic. It’s an excuse, which, I’m sorry, is absurd. How were they going to fight back anyway? Ms. May had said what she said. The NDP’s choice to aggressively capitalize on her gaffes showed just how serious they considered the Green challenge. It should have been considered a badge of honour.
It’s spilled milk anyway. The Greens now need to find a new leader and a new strategy. Their problem wasn’t just poor candidate vetting and ill-advised remarks by its leader. Their problem was their signature issues – the environment and climate – were usurped by the Liberals and the NDP. The average person couldn’t have distinguished the climate platforms of the New Democrats and Greens if they tried.
This is a dilemma. The Greens are getting pushed out of the small corner of the market that they used to own exclusively. Many of their ideas have been adapted by the more established political parties. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh can talk about climate policy in a serious, convincing way.
The Greens have two options now.
They can stay the course and try and build a broader, more serious platform that is palatable to a greater cross-section of Canadians. Go from the party of tree-huggers and ecosocialists to one that would be attractive to centrist voters.
This is how the Greens in Germany reinvented themselves. It took decades, but the transformation has paid off. (The party was helped by not having a rival on the left akin to the NDP in Canada.) The party is now a major player in both German (the Greens rival Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in support) and European Union politics.
The other option is more controversial: a merger with the NDP.
It would instantly give such a party a far greater pool of voters from which to fish. The ideology that underpins each isn’t radically different. If the Greens and NDP merged and started to map out a credible, centrist approach to economic matters, while having a strong environmental manifesto, a merged party might grow into a force that could become a threat to the Liberals.
There would be challenges, undoubtedly. Both parties include constituents who might be uncomfortable in each others’ company. Greens include libertarians and free marketers. The NDP’s working-class base might feel more comfortable with the Conservatives than the Greens.
There’s no suggestion that this is even a thought right now. But perhaps it should be. For the Greens, all ideas should be on the table.
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