In Canadian city politics, a fully-fledged party system, with a ruling party and a well-organized opposition, is a rarity. In the eyes of much of the public, parties are viewed with suspicion. Party discipline is seen as replacing common-sense problem-solving with knee-jerk disputatiousness while restricting the ability of politicians to stand up for the interests of their constituents.
From this point of view, non-partisan municipal politics is marked by the exercise of individual good judgement, intelligent compromise and responsiveness of politicians to the wishes of constituents, while partisan politics is blighted by shrill argumentation and mindless submission to party dictates. Often parties are also seen as representing special interests, while non-partisan politicians are thought to be more likely to be tuned in to the interests of the city as a whole.
And yet, politicians keep organizing themselves. In Toronto, it is normal to think of city council as comprising a left wing and a right wing. Montreal and Vancouver have for decades had ruling parties, whether or not there is a functioning opposition. In Winnipeg, formal and informal business parties and opposition parties periodically appear on the scene, only to disappear again. In a bow to public opinion, organized groups of councillors often insist that they are just good people working together, not political parties, but organize themselves they do again and again.
Why do politicians risk public displeasure in this way? The most fundamental answer is that politics is inherently an organized activity. Policies grow out of a process of coalition-building, which is central to all politics, whether democratic or not. A coalition is any group of people in the political arena who have managed to find enough common ground and forge enough compromises to be able to make common cause in pursuit of an objective they have agreed upon.
Within such a coalition there’s usually a core group that wields particularly strong influence. Often it has to find ways of offering incentives to others to come on board – things like contracts to supply goods or carry out projects, job opportunities, or the opportunity to do more business once a project is complete.
These incentives are called side payments and they are the glue that holds a coalition together. Side payments can take many forms. The politicians whose co-operation is needed may be told that a desired project will gain votes, or that there will be a nice job waiting after the inevitable defeat. In a case like that, the benefit in question may not be connected with the desired project. It can be anything a coalition member has available to give away. Union leaders may be guaranteed that their members will get a given share of the work involved in the project, or given other work. Leaders of ethnic or community groups will be offered benefits for their followers, or for themselves.
The term “side payments” could be taken to imply bribery – and it could actually be bribery – but in political systems that are not fundamentally corrupted most side payments are not bribery. They are simply any benefit that flows naturally from a project agreed upon, or that advocates of the project can make available in order to gain allies. It is this process of coalition-building, whereby a variety of different kinds of benefits are traded for support, that most fundamentally determines political outcomes.
This same process is at work behind the scenes in any legislative body, including city councils. In the case of a legislative body with a system of parties and party discipline, the process appears not to be operating, because the party leader calls the tune and party members must dance to it. This apparent unanimity, however, masks the fact that the leader, in order to survive, must maintain the support of party members. Within the party, therefore, the process of bargaining and reconciliation continues out of the public eye.
These observations go against democratic myth, and some of the more simplistic versions of democratic theory, which hold that political outcomes are determined by elections and polls. To be sure, elections and polls set limits beyond which politicians dare not venture, because they want to be re-elected. But most of the substance of policies pursued by governments is a product of coalition-building, in which both politicians, and organized groups outside the formal political arena are engaged.
If one accepts the suggestion that coalition-building – reconciliation of differences and organization in pursuit of common objectives – is the essence of politics, the question is not whether political decision-making will be a matter individual common sense or blind adherence to party dictates. It is, rather, whether all coalition-building will take place behind closed doors, or whether some of it will be out in the open, in the form of competing party platforms, available for voter scrutiny and choice.
The harsh reality of the world we live in is that some people are organized and others are not. The best organized ones are the holders of economic power, or those who benefit from the support of such bodies as professional associations, business lobbies and labour unions. Decision-makers in corporations and formal associations will make it their business to stay tuned into the political process and make sure that they have a say in its outcomes.
Jill Canuck of Ashburn Street, meanwhile, is excluded from these power centres and is, in any case, busy going to work at the Seven-Eleven and coming home, raising kids and spending time at the laundromat. She may simply not be able to find the time to concern herself with decisions that, in fact, have a great deal of influence on the future of her city, her neighbourhood and her family. Some of her interests may be represented by a grassroots group, such as a neighbourhood association, but that organization rarely if ever has the kind of access to the centres of power that corporations and formal organizations take for granted.
More typically, Ms. Canuck has no organizations speaking for her in the backrooms where coalitions are built. Her only hope of being represented may be a political party that stands for some of the things she wants from her government, and can be held accountable at the next election for delivering on its commitments. This best hope is an imperfect one, because parties, like everything else in this world, are less than perfect, but it is better than no hope at all.
When we view politics in this light, it becomes clear that municipal political parties that function openly and can be held accountable are capable of providing a benefit for ordinary people, while non-partisanship is in the interest of the holders of economic and organizational power. Small wonder that the idea of municipal non-partisanship originated with a business-dominated reform movement at about the turn of the last century and that the groups most vocally advocating partisanship in municipal politics have been labour, left-wing and left-liberal participants in city politics. But that is a story for another time.
Want to find out more? The analysis of coalition-building that I use is adapted from the regime literature. In that literature, a regime is a coalition that remains stable over a period of time and has achieved a dominant position. Among the best sources of this analysis are:
Clarence N. Stone and Heywood T. Sanders, eds. The politics of urban development. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1987. Especially chapters 1 and 14.
Clarence N. Stone. 2001. “Powerful Actors vs. Compelling Actions”. Educational Policy 15 (1), January, 153-67.
Clarence N. Stone. 1989. Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-88. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press. Especially chapter 11.
An alternate view:
David Siegel. “City Hall Doesn’t Need Parties”. Policy Options (June 1987), pp. 26-28.