Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It could happen here

If you've been watching events in Copenhagen, maybe you're asking yourself "How do we get from protests to power?" It's a particularly poignant question in one-party Massachusetts.

Steven Hill's new book Europe's Promise discusses the way Europe practices democracy, and the twenty-something Green legislator Ingrid Nestle provides one noteworthy example of the difference.

When the people of Brunsbuettel, Germany, learned that energy giant GDF Suez was planning to build a coal-burning power station in their town they made their opposition felt in at least two ways: through demonstrations and through the ballot box. They voted Green in sufficient numbers to send the party's Ingrid Nestle to the Bundestag (Germany's national legislature).

Climate-change activists in Massachusetts can demonstrate, but can they vote for the party that truly represents them? Most of the time the answer is no, because in Massachusetts usually only one party -- the Democratic party -- fields candidates. Germany, in contrast, has learned that democracy is a game for more than one player.

Germany, like most European countries, encourages multi-party democracy by using proportional representation (PR). This ensures that the number of legislative seats a political party gets reflects the proportion of the votes it won in the election. So if a party wins 10% of the votes it gets 10% of the seats. Earlier this year the German Greens won 10% of the votes nationwide and ended up with 68 seats in the 622-member Bundestag.

Is the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature likely to do the Greens (and the voters) the lemming-like favor of switching to PR? Let's not devote too much time and mental energy to pondering that one; not when we have better things to do, like tackling climate change, the recession, and the healthcare crisis.

No, the plurality system -- in all its debate-suffocating, supermajority-perpetuating glory -- is with us for the foreseeable future. The Democratic leadership is not going to change the voting system just because PR is fairer, any more than it's going to enact single-payer healthcare just because it's in the Democratic party platform. By the way, there's a reason they call it a platform: A platform is useful for getting on a train, but when the train leaves the station, bound for Beacon Hill, the platform stays where it is.

Returning to the Greens, could they win seats in the Massachusetts Legislature without PR? Based on the experience of some so-called third parties in other places with the same winner-take-all, single-member-district plurality voting system that we have, I think so.

For example, let's look at Britain's Liberal Democrats. Working within an electoral system like ours, a system biased in favor of the two big-tent parties (Labour and Conservative), the Liberal Democrats have boosted their presence in the UK's House of Commons from a mere six seats in 1951 to today's total of 62. In the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (similar to state legislatures in the US) the Liberal Democrats have become natural coalition partners, sharing government portfolios and helping shape policy.

How did the they do it? Partly by luck, of course, like so much else in politics. But also as a result of planning and foresight: by campaigning around issues their grassroots supporters were passionate about about, from the apparently mundane to the almost esoteric; by building up their base in diverse communities, from blighted inner cities to middle-class suburbs and far-flung Scottish islands; by targeting their resources on winnable seats; by forging electoral non-compete agreements with allied parties; and, above all, by taking the long view.

In the immediate post-War years the Liberals had almost vanished. Back then the standing joke was that the parliamentary Liberal party could caucus in a telephone booth. But they clung on, and in 1964, with the charismatic Jo Grimond at the helm, their share of the nationwide vote climbed to 11% and their number of seats in Britain 635-member House of Commons to nine. In 1974 they won 19% of the votes, which (due to the vagaries of the plurality voting, single-member-district system) translated to just 14 seats.

But by 1997 the Liberal Democrats had 46 seats, and after next year's general election they may well hold the balance of power.

Britain's Greens have yet to win a foothold in the House of Commons, but that looks set to change next year. Thanks to PR, the Green party of the UK already has one member of the European Parliament, Caroline Lucas, and she is on track to make history by winning the party's first seat in the House of Commons.

How did the Greens in Britain get to this point? With a few variations, in a similar way to the route the Liberal Democrats took. Click here for one of the party's election videos, by the way.

Closer to home we have the Vermont Progressive Party, which has eight seats in the state legislature. Like the Massachusetts Greens, the Vermont Progressives are fighting for farmers. In 2006, for example, their bill on GMO (genetically modified organisms) which aimed to protect small farmers from the agri-giants, passed both houses before succumbing to the governor's veto.

What kind of voting system does Vermont have? The same as ours: plurality voting in single-member districts. If the Vermont Progressive Party can win seats without PR, so can our state's truly progressive party, the Greens.

Yes, it could happen here.

No comments: