Reaction to the twinned announcements from Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott that they would run as independents in the next election ranged from curiosity to incredulity to outright hostility.
Independents, after all, even running as incumbents, rarely win in Canadian elections. Research shows that voters tend overwhelmingly to vote for the party first, the local candidate second. Without a party label, and the machinery that goes with it, independent candidates have a hard time getting heard, and would have even were the campaign finance rules not so heavily stacked in the parties’ favour: parties can raise funds, on which local candidates can draw, long before the writ is dropped, whereas indies cannot issue tax receipts for donations until after the election has been called.
If they do somehow squeak through — the last to do so were former Conservative MPs Bill Casey and André Arthur, in 2008 — they typically find themselves isolated and powerless. Without official party status, they have few opportunities to speak, move legislation or ask questions in the House; lacking staff or a research budget, that is probably just as well. They are free, to be sure: free to speak their mind and to represent their constituents without fear of the party whips. But it is the freedom of the damned.
Still, there is reason to think the two former Liberal cabinet ministers may have a better shot at winning than most, and if elected to wield more power than independent MPs usually do. Partly it is the times: the public is clearly less moored to established parties and historic voting patterns, more willing to toss out governments and take a flier on new faces. The capacity to mobilize support via social media has handed outsiders a power to match that of traditional party machines or the mainstream media.
Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, moreover, are no ordinary incumbents, having carved out reputations in their time in government as fearless advocates for principle and/or competent managers. That they were so palpably mistreated by their former party and leader helps — people love to root for the underdog. And — the ace card — they can make a plausible case to their electorates that they will have more power as independents in the next Parliament than they might otherwise: more, even, than as members of any party.
If, after all, the election results in a narrowly divided Parliament — as the polls suggest it might — with the choice of government hanging on a vote or two either way, then the power of every individual MP would obviously be greatly enhanced: normally obliged to vote as the party whips demand, they would suddenly be in a position to dictate terms.
Parties are like the Holiday Inn: maybe not ideal, but at least you know what you’re getting
But as independents, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott would be especially strongly situated, free to wheel and deal with all of the parties simultaneously, without themselves having to answer to any party. Add it up — the newly volatile politics of the internet age, their own star power, and the horse-trading possibilities in a hung Parliament — and the odds of these particular independents succeeding are considerably better than usual. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even lead a movement.
Yes, but … would that be a good thing? Aren’t parties, and the order and stability they bring, essential to the smooth functioning of a democratic polity? Isn’t that why they are a feature of virtually every known system of government? As reluctant exiles from party politics, tossed for exposing serious wrongdoing by those at the top, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott can speak to the excesses of partisanship. But shouldn’t a House full of independents — or even one in which they held the balance of power — mean … anarchy?
Relax. Parties aren’t about to disappear from Canadian politics, nor should they. Anyone who has voted in a municipal election, where parties are commonly absent, knows how difficult it can be. I’m paid to follow politics for a living and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what most of the candidates stand for, without a party brand to signal their broad ideological affinity. Parties are like the Holiday Inn you spot looking for a hotel in an unfamiliar town: maybe not ideal, but at least you know what you’re getting.
But nothing says that parties have to be the kind of monolithic, fanatically disciplined leadership cults they have become in Canada. The problem is not partisanship, as such: it’s healthy for parties to differ, and serious differences are often vigorously expressed. The problem is excessive leadership dominance — though that often manifests in a peculiarly warped form of partisanship, where policy differences are suppressed (the policy is whatever the leader says it is!) in favour of mindless gangism.
In truth there’s no need for votes in Parliament to be whipped at all. Yes, MPs who have won election on a particular platform ought to vote in line with what they promised — but there’s no reason candidates could not advise voters ahead of time that they differed with the party on this or that policy. They presumably share the party’s broad philosophy, or they would not be running for them. But that broad sympathy need not extend to every last detail of policy. Are some votes, like budgets, matters of confidence? Of course. But MPs can perfectly well judge the consequences of defeating a government for themselves, without the whips’ counsel.
Between the unseemly chaos of politics without parties, and the rigid lockstep of Parliament as we know it, there is surely room for a different kind of party politics — one in which parties are seen as loose associations of the like-minded, and MPs as fully sentient beings, rather than identical voting machines useful only for delivering majorities to their leaders.