Conservatives always win in downtown Calgary. It sounds rigid, but for the riding of Calgary Centre, that’s been the truth since it was established in 1968. Be it a Conservative, Progressive Conservative or Reformer, voters here consistently send a right-of-centre candidate to Parliament.
With the resignation of MP Lee Richardson resulting in a byelection set for November 26, one grassroots organization is working to make sure the next Calgary Centre MP is from the left.
1CalgaryCentre says left-leaning voters splitting their support among multiple candidates ensures no single progressive candidate will receive enough support to beat the Tory, even if the Tory doesn’t garner a majority of the votes.
The group has worked since September to build a community of voters who examine each of the three progressive candidates from a non-partisan perspective, ultimately choosing one by consensus for the entire group to throw its support, and votes, behind. The three candidates are the Green Party’s Chris Turner, the Liberal Party’s Harvey Locke, and Dan Meades of the NDP.
“Our process says we’d rather see two [of the progressive candidates] lose, rather than three. And everybody’s inspired to get one over the line,” says 1CalgaryCentre co-founder Brian Singh.
Singh says the idea took form immediately after Joan Crockatt won the Conservative nomination.
“I do not see the potential election of Joan Crockatt as a reflection of the Calgary my friends, neighbours, colleagues and I see or want,” says Singh.
Primarily through its website and Facebook page, 1CalgaryCentre has polled voters and candidates on values, policy ideas and potential challenges in representing the riding. 1CalgaryCentre team member Jody MacPherson asked all candidates, including Crockatt, how, if elected, they would protect Calgary’s water supply, whether food safety protocols need to be changed, their opinion of the current first-past-the-post electoral system, if they support a national energy strategy and how they would preserve Canada’s economic integrity in the face of mounting debt. All but Crockatt responded and their answers are posted on the 1CalgaryCentre website.
Singh says momentum behind the scheme is building, with unexpected media attention and increasing talk of it actually working.
“Everybody believes that this is a true-blue Conservative riding, and why show up? But people are showing up,” he says. “If we try to resolve vote-splitting, something magical could happen.”
It may take magic, because in addition to winning the past 13 consecutive elections, conservative candidates have obtained an average of 50 per cent of the vote in Calgary Centre. In nine of those elections, even if one progressive candidate had received all the other votes from the left, it wouldn’t have made a difference; the conservatives won a clear majority. While most polls since September have had Crockatt with a commanding lead, the most recent poll by Forum Research shows her support has dwindled. The Forum poll puts her support at 32 per cent, Locke at 30 per cent and Turner surging to 23 per cent. Meades trails the pack at 12 per cent.
Even the progressive candidates 1CalgaryCentre is sifting through aren’t unanimously in favour of the plan.
“Vote splitting is one of those things, it’s a talking point that has no real depth to it,” says Turner. He believes if a candidate is good enough, they can win real support. He does, however, admit the group has value.
“One thing I really thought that 1CalgaryCentre has done, they made a really good effort and very sincere non-partisan effort to bring a non-party platform to voters who are post-partisan, as they say, who don’t subscribe to a party brand.”
Turner can’t deny vote splitting is on campaigners’ minds. Green Party volunteers and staff have clashed with those from the Liberal Party during this campaign, because both are fighting for the same progressive voters.
“When Harvey Locke’s people say we’re splitting the vote, which is what they say to us every single time we run into them, it presumes that they’re the natural choice for the people who aren’t going to vote Conservative. I object to that presumption. Voters split the vote if they don’t see a single candidate worth putting all their efforts behind,” says Turner.
For Locke’s part, his campaign team has not been particularly supportive of 1CalgaryCentre, but he does say he believes in the effort to move left-leaning voters beyond identifying with a single party and instead voting for the candidate whose personality and platform seems to most reflect the voter’s values.
“Vote splitting always favours the group that can get its act together most,” says Locke. “I’m trying to open [voter opinion] up to, ‘I’m from Calgary and therefore I’m going to vote for whoever I think is most in line with my values,’” rather than the party they historically support.
This is Singh’s first attempt to get progressive voters to throw their support behind a single candidate through consensus. MacPherson has tried it before. She worked with the Alberta Party and Alberta Liberals to reach consensus support among left-wing voters in the last provincial election, but uniting the left continues to be difficult because everyone wants their own team to win. Her fear is that not only will the right-wingers try to undermine attempts to unite the progressive vote, but so will the left.
“There are people who are actively working against it,” she says, and adds that includes friends of hers. “A lot of people say that [consensus voting] is undemocratic because it limits choices. Well, if you look at what parties do, they limit choice all the time. They have nomination processes and they force one person to the top of their nomination…. If more choice really is the big problem, then why don’t they let as many people run as they want for their own parties?... They say this is the one person who’s going to represent us, so we’re talking about that on a higher level. We’re saying maybe having three parties all forcing one person to the top and leaving three to go against one, just do the math, you can figure out what’s going to happen there.”
After weeks of questioning voters and candidates, and posting every scrap of news they can find about the campaign, on November 22, 1CalgaryCentre will announce which candidate is the most likely to beat Crockatt. The group will then encourage anyone who wants a progressive win in the riding to vote for that candidate, regardless of old party loyalties.
Singh points out that success feels more likely after Naheed Nenshi rose from obscurity to the mayor’s office in 2010. MacPherson is optimistic too, but says even if it doesn’t work she won’t give up.
“It’s always bad when one party has been representing an area for too long, because they start to take that area for granted,” she says. “When you think of anything exceptional that happens, the reason that makes it exceptional is until it happened, people thought it was never going to happen…. I will keep trying.”