Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“Dion syndrome” is revisionist history masking self-interest

Leadership races are always places for amusing and nonsensical spin, and the current NDP race is no exception with some participants warning against a supposedly deadly, but entirely fictional, new malady: Dion syndrome.

Named for former Liberal leader Stephane Dion, it’s meant to describe the horror of a candidate that finished third on the first ballot going on to win because of their strong second-choice support. Or in other words, winning because more members like them than like the other choices.

Here it is in common ussage:

* An NDP MP is warning party members to be wary of the “Stéphane Dion Syndrome.” .. “I’m behind Thomas Mulcair,” he said. “However, I’d prefer if the winner were Brian Topp instead of everyone’s second choice.”

* Last week party officials were warning about "Stephane Dion syndrome," referencing the third place Liberal contender who won his party's leadership because of divisions between Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae supporters.

First of all, it’s amusing to see the notion of preferential balloting degraded by supporters of a party that has made electoral reform and the evils of first past the post a key policy plank for years. Preferential balloting is fairer; I won’t bother repeating the argument as they've already made them ad nauseum.

But a look at who is pushing this narrative (primarily Mulcair supporters) reveals why they’re tossing-out past arguments of fairness: self-interest. It’s in the interests of the two media-anointed front-runners (Mulcair and Brian Topp) to do everything to frame this as a two-way race, and force members to make a polarized choice. While they may like one of the supposed second-tier candidates better, if there are only two “real choices” they’re forced to choose between them.

Ironically, it’s the same strategy the Liberals and NDP have ran against each other at the riding level for years. Only we can stop the Conservatives, so vote for us or you’re electing the Conservatives/throwing your vote away. Just hold your nose and pick the lesser evil…

However, they can’t just come out and say “we’re the only real candidates and those other guys suck” because, besides not being true, they do actually need the support of people that like those other candidates. Hence the invention of “the Dion Syndrome” to frighten people about the evils of electing a third-place candidate. While I would take many lessons from Stephane’s leadership, this isn’t one of them.

Let’s look back and look at the numbers. Going into Montreal in 2006 much of the media had framed it as a two-way race: Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. This offered a compelling media narrative for a number of reasons. For one, a two-way race is easier to cover. Also, their personal history made it compelling: former roommates who went off and made good in the world, now battling for the leadership. And like it is for Topp and Mulcair, it was in Ignatieff and Rae’s interests to promote this narrative. One was right of centre, one left, and both were polarizing figures. And neither had strong second-place support. So make it a two-way race and let the chips fall.

Except, once the members began to vote it was clear this was anything but a two-way race. Going into the first round of voting, Ignatieff campaign members told me they’d be in the high 30s. Rae would be within striking distance, was the word.

Instead, we got Ignatieff 29.3%, Rae 20.3%, Dion 17.8%, Kennedy 17.7% on the first ballot. Ignatieff’s results were nowhere near his campaign’s over-spin, and just a few per cent separated supposed also-rans Dion and Kennedy from the supposed front-runners.

Now, to follow the logic of those diagnosing “Dion Syndrome” everyone but Rae and Ignatieff should have dropped-out because of a difference of 121 votes out of 4,815. Of course, they didn’t, and with Ignatieff and Rae’s support stalled Dion would take the lead on the third ballot and win on the fourth.

Now, there are lessons to learn from Dion’s leadership. He won with the support of the delegates (not the wider membership, which is why we went to WOMOV a few years later) but little support from caucus, which would prove a problem. And some supporters of other candidates declined to down tools, preferring to wait him out. But to think picking one of the supposed front-runners would have changed that is incorrect; first past the post would have elected a candidate with less support from the membership, not more.

The lesson is the same as it is from any leadership race: respect the will of the membership and work together to support the new leader or we won’t get anywhere. I’d actually call that Liberal Syndrome, and its one non-fictional malady that, speaking from experience, the NDP would do well to avoid.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers

3 comments:

sharonapple88 said...

Named for former Liberal leader Stephane Dion, it’s meant to describe the horror of a candidate that finished third on the first ballot going on to win because of their strong second-choice support. Or in other words, winning because more members like them than like the other choices.

Hey, "Dion Syndrome" seemed to have worked out for Dalton McGuinty. He was fourth on the first two ballots.

doconnor said...

The real problem is that one data point isn't enough to judge all leaders elected under similar circumstances.

Way Way Up said...

Perhaps the next leader will have the NDP candidate for my riding actually come here. Since he didn't have the common courtesy to even visit the city during the last election campaign we all returned the favored by ensuring he was subsequently slaughtered in the polls by the Conservative candidate.