Increasingly, unions in Canada have embraced strategic voting as a preferred strategy to defeating Conservative politicians.
But does it really work?
While the specific calculus for strategic voting changes with each election, and the results are mixed at best, evidence suggests the strategy offers very little to the labour movement over the long term.
Union-led strategic voting campaigns are designed to prevent vote splitting among non-Conservative parties. These “Anything-but-Conservative” campaigns are often misunderstood as a prompt to “Vote Liberal””, especially when that party appears best-positioned to win an election.
Support for strategic voting has always been highly contested within unions given the labour movement’s longstanding ties to the NDP. Some reject the strategy outright while others defend it as a form of electoral harm reduction — the only way to prevent the election of Conservatives bent on dismantling workers’ rights and public services.
The findings in the academic literature are mixed, but do point to a lack of evidence that union-led strategic voting campaigns have been successful. My own research on the subject summarizes the literature and can be found here and here.
To illustrate this point, consider the strategic voting campaigns backed by the Canadian Autoworkers union in 2008 and 2011. Both were unmitigated failures insofar as they failed to block the Conservatives from taking power, but more importantly, in some cases, the union’s strategy completely backed-fired.
For example, in 2011, in the riding of Esquimalt-Juan De Fuca the Canadian Auto Workers endorsed the Liberal who finished 3rd with 10% of the vote. The NDP, on the other hand, managed to win by just a few hundred votes over the Conservatives. In this case, the union’s “strategic” voting campaign nearly helped hand the seat to the Conservatives.
In the riding of Bramelea-Gore-Malton, the CAW’s endorsement of a Liberal incumbent over an up-and-coming NDP candidate named Jagmeet Singh helped split the vote and allow the Conservatives to take the seat. Singh finished second, losing by just a few hundred votes.
By strategically backing Liberals, unions are primarily attempting to block the election of Conservatives, but they also take the gamble that future Liberal governments will be more likely to pass pro-labour laws. However, there’s little evidence that a closer relationship to the Liberals has yielded many positive results for unions. Despite years of strategically backing Liberal governments in Ontario, for example, unions could not convince them to reinstate an anti-scab law or meaningful collective bargaining rights for agricultural workers.
Not only does strategic voting overestimate difference between parties, but when a union spends time and resources on a strategic voting campaign, there is an expectation the union will also refrain from criticizing the parties it seeks to elect. This leads unions to overlook anti-union candidates and policy positions (like support for restrictions on workers’ rights, opposition to anti-scab laws and minimum wage increases, and support for back-to-work legislation) which might otherwise not sit well with the labour movement.
But if unions are willing to jettison key social and economic demands as part of a shot-gun strategic voting strategy designed to keep Conservatives from taking power, how does labour’s vision for an alternative society ever gain a toehold in the minds of union members, let alone society more generally?
The bottom line is that the Canadian labour movement incrementally loses the capacity and the imagination to act as a truly transformative force every time unions embrace the uneasy cross-class alliances that underpin the politics of strategic voting.
More importantly, tactical shifts have an educative effect on union members and help validate ideological shifts over time. This trend has been most clear in the CAW and now Unifor, where electoral alliances with the Liberal Party, even in ridings where the NDP is competitive, have become increasingly common.
Overall, union-sponsored strategic voting campaigns – whether motivated by fear, instrumentalism, or a combination of both – ultimately threaten to compromise the labour movement’s ability to press its own political agenda. In the short-term, the tactic is likely to fail, and in the long-term, unions dangerously become accustomed to settling for bad over worse at the ballot box.