Municipal political parties: do we need them?

Post by Eric Mang in

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political partiesLet’s ignore the overall silliness in this Globe and Mail article (summary: Councillor Stintz calls Mayor Miller a liar. Later it is revealed that it was Stintz who was lying. And then lied some more. With this kind of integrity, she should be a fascinating opponent for Miller if she decides to run for Mayor) the more interesting element is the concept of municipal political parties in Toronto.

Other than Vancouver and Quebec, there aren’t many other municipalities that run political parties. Not like the US where cities like Chicago engage in machine politics, and the Democrats run the show (for an interesting case study, google Harold Washington versus Richard M. Daley for the mayoral Democratic primary. Or if you have access to online journals, check out Krebs and Pelissero “Fund-raising coalitions in mayoral campaigns”).

When I lived out west, I thought municipal political parties seemed odd, and to me, foreign. I wasn’t sure if I supported the idea. Back in December, I was still toying with the idea.

But the question is: how do we encourage a more participative society? “Who governs?” as Dahl asked. How do we remove or diminish power from the hands of the elites (and I use this word properly. Not in its neo-con, corrupted definition; which means anyone who thinks critically, speaks coherently, and has more than a high school education) and put power into the hands of the people, where it should be?  Perhaps we need to veer toward a Canadian version of Jeffersonian Democracy.

Because local government is the government closest to the people, it should encourage citizen engagement and promote the people’s will. But in Canada, we have an inegalitarian, weak populist system at the local level.

Do political parties allow for a broad representation of voices (representing, for example, right, centre, and left ideologies?) or would they solidify the power of elites through machine politics? There is certainly a need to ensure that more citizens have their voices heard. And political parties can mobilize ideas and policies and gather adherents much better than some developer-backed municipal candidate who owes nothing to anyone except to the people who paid for his campaign (more on that in another post).

I guess I’m not coming up with many answers here (and I shouldn’t! After all, the request from Stintz et al was for $25,000 to study the issue. If I had the answers, I wouldn’t post them here – I’d be out getting paid $25,000).

I think Vancouver is on the right track. But political parties only make sense in a ward system. Otherwise, you get, as is the case in Vancouver, barely a whiff of representative democracy.

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