Greens, Democrats, and Multiparty Democracy in a Winner Take All system

[Note: the bulk of this essay was written before Dave’s posting below.]

First of all, a bit of political trivia: both Canada and the United Kingdom have an electoral system that is more or less similar to ours – candidates for national, regional and local office (with some newly created exceptions in Britain) run for office under a winner take all system.

What’s the trivia here? Citizens of the United States may be surprised to learn (given the alleged anti-third party bias of a system like ours) that both Canada and Britain, for many many years, have sustained significant third parties (i.e. ones that regularly win seats in Parliament, and that have controlled legislative bodies and governed at the regional level).

In fact, there has not been a single election in the last hundred years in which no “non-major” party failed to receive a seat in the British Parliament, and since 1983, the “third party” (the Liberal Democrats or their predecessor coalition) has received over 15% of the vote every time.

Canada, in 1997 and 2001, had no less than *four* national parties (plus a 5th regional/nationalist party receiving seats in Parliament) – and in no election since 1930, has the “third” (or “fourth” in many cases) party failed to receive a seat in Parliament. Since 1984, the third parties have consistently received between 15 and ~40% of the vote (more in recent elections).

In Britain, there are currently three major parties with a reasonable hope of becoming the governing party of the entire nation – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats (historically a “third party”). Beyond them, there are a HOST of regional parties and other third parties with members elected to major offices (such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, which has 17 members in the European Parliament after the most recent election to that body). In a recent “by-election” no less than FOUR parties (including a anti-war protest party, “Respect”) obtained more than 10% of the vote for their candidate. In a second such election, the fourth candidate obtained 6% (pushing, with other candidates, the total “minor party” vote to over 10%), within striking distance of the lowest “major party” candidate’s 17%.

In Canada, there are three major parties (one of which is a combination of a former major party that collapsed, and it’s replacement), a very strong regional/nationalist party in Quebec, and a host of smaller parties that have at one point or another obtained and or controlled regional office or have prospects of doing so. Including the Green Party, which is the only party other than the “big three” to qualify for federal funding of $1.75 (Canadian) per vote received in the most recent election (the threshold for this, by the way, was set at 2%, the Greens got 4%… and this was the first election under which a party could quality for federal funding, so they did it without funding).

On a side note: the success of third parties in Britain has lead to the establishment of regional legislatures for Scotland and Wales which use “proportional representation”, a system under which the number of seats in parliament is more or less equivalent to the percentage of the vote received by a party – win 8% of the vote, you win 8% of the seats up for grabs. In Canada, several regional governments are seriously considering such systems as well.

So, Dave – here’s my answer to your claim that “There is simply no way that the Green party – or any third party – can make a positive contribution within the confines of our political system. The country is designed around a two-party system.”

Look North, Dave. Look North. 🙂

Green since 1990. Green till 2090 (or later), yours truly…

Thomas Leavitt