In the 2018 provincial election, the Green Party of Ontario’s goal was to get our leader elected. Mike Schreiner handily won his seat in Guelph, earning 45% of the vote — more than double the votes of his closest rival.
It’s a historic moment for Greens in Ontario, and we should be proud of that accomplishment.
But on average, Green support doesn’t seem to have shifted much between 2014 and 2018. Across the province, our vote total has stayed stuck below 5%.
I feel like that’s the logical result of funnelling all of our resources into Guelph. Hundreds of volunteers knocked on over 60,000 doors and we ended up with our first seat in the Legislature. But most other ridings were still campaigning on a shoestring.
If we’re going to keep up this momentum by electing more Greens, we need to at least double the province-wide popular vote. In British Columbia, for example, Greens had to earn 17% of the vote to elect 3 members.
Here in Waterloo Region, we have a relatively well-organized team compared to most riding associations. The five local campaigns (Waterloo, Kitchener Centre, Kitchener—Conestoga, Kitchener South—Hespeler, and Cambridge) pooled our finances and volunteers to create a central campaign office. We knocked on over a thousand doors, and put out hundreds of lawn signs.
Despite the improved coordination, we got about the same share of votes as in the last election. Would we have achieved those numbers without a concerted local campaign? Does local organizing make a difference?
A closer look at Kitchener Centre
Stacey Danckert, running in Kitchener Centre, got 6.8% of the vote. We had a core team of about 10 volunteers.
At the beginning of the campaign, we pinpointed areas within the riding that were more likely to vote Green, and mostly focused our efforts in those neighbourhoods. Our goal was to convert “soft supporters” into actual votes. With limited resources, that seemed like a better strategy than converting skeptics.
While we did the majority of our campaigning in these “friendly” areas, we also did door-to-door canvassing and literature drops in “hostile” areas.
So how did this strategy play out on election day? I mapped out the detailed voting results to see how specific campaigning efforts affected our vote share.
- Average vote share: 6.8%
- “Friendly” areas
- Canvassing only: 0% to +4%
- Canvassing & lit drop: +1% to +2%
- Nothing: -5% to 0%
- “Hostile” areas
- Canvassing only: -1% to +3%
- Lit drop only: -2% to +2%
- Nothing: -4% to +4%
Canvassing in “friendly” areas increased our vote share by up to 4 percentage points. In hostile areas, it had a similar effect, but we were starting from a lower level of baseline support.
In a few neighbourhoods, we only did literature drops (leaving pamphlets in mailboxes, but not knocking on the door). It didn’t make a noticeable impact for us on voting day.
For both “friendly” and “hostile” areas, doing nothing was the worst thing we could do. We got some good results in a few neighbourhoods without trying, but those gains were cancelled out by all the areas where we got a below-average vote share.
On average, the areas where we did nothing gave us 6% of the vote. Where we did something, we got 8% of the vote.
The moral of this story is that local campaigning does make a difference. When you talk to people in person, they are more likely to vote for you. Of course, the big swings in public perception will happen at the national or provincial level –- but even a small local campaign like ours can move the needle a few percentage points.
What makes a local campaign successful?
Kitchener Centre was identified as a Target to Build riding by Green Party HQ, and as a result got extra funding for personalized signs, pamphlets and swag. (The Target to Build designated was self-selected by ridings that were motivated enough to put in a little more effort. It wasn’t a completely top-down exercise.) We also got some insights from local opinion polls that allowed us to identify those “friendly” and “hostile” areas. Our campaign was nowhere near fully-funded, but certainly had access to more resources than most ridings.
Looking at other Target to Build and Target to Succeed ridings, they all succeeded in getting above-average vote counts:
Target to Succeed
- 20.02% Parry Sound—Muskoka
- 12.53% Dufferin—Caledon
Target to Build
- 6.80% Kitchener Centre
- 5.37% University—Rosedale
- 5.33% Kanata—Carleton
- 4.60% Provincial average
But among our Waterloo Region Greens, Kitchener Centre did not achieve the best result. That distinction goes to Kitchener South—Hespeler, where David Weber earned 7.53% of the vote. That achievement is evidence of David’s strength as a candidate: he has an extremely charismatic personality, he’s a tireless campaigner, he’s a respected former police officer, and his last name happens to be Weber. Despite a very small campaign team and no Target to Build perks, his was the 6th-most successful Green campaign in Ontario.
Greens also had quite successful campaigns in a few other ridings that did not get the Target to Build advantages. Keenan Aylwin started campaigning in February in Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte, and earned 11.72% of the vote. Dave Rodgers in Wellington—Halton Hills earned 8.64%.
It’s clear that a local candidate’s existing reputation and networks make a huge difference to an election campaign. Of course, if you have a strong candidate plus additional resources, that’s even better.
Protect the leader at all costs?
The Guelph campaign won by pouring all of the Party’s resources into a fully staffed, fully funded campaign. It also helped that the incumbent MPP had retired, and that there was a widespread collapse in Liberal support — the conditions were right for a Green victory.
We can’t be sure of the same favourable conditions next time around, but that shouldn’t scare us into limiting our ambition.
The Green Party of Canada got our leader elected in 2011, and then stagnated. 7 years on, the Party still mainly functions as Elizabeth May’s support team. In opinion polls, our popular support has flatlined.
I find that environmental movements in general struggle with passing the torch, and the Green Party is not immune to this trend. David Suzuki is 80 years old. Jane Goodall is 84. They are still tireless in their activism, but where are the household names from this generation?
I don’t want to see the Green Party of Ontario fall into that same pattern. It took all of our resources to get Mike elected in Guelph, but we need to expand our focus now.
Getting 5 or 10 percent of the vote is encouraging, but it’s not enough to win. We’re a political party operating in a flawed First-Past-the-Post system, and our job is to elect Greens.
I’d like to see us choose two or three winnable ridings, and get those future candidates into the media spotlight early and often. We should build our capacity to run several fully-funded campaigns next time around.
Building a movement
To win more seats, we need more members. It really is that simple. Our slogan during the election was “People Powered Change”, and there’s only so much one person can do.
Mike built a following and became Guelph’s MPP by consistently fighting for his community’s interests. Specifically, he built a movement around local issues (water extraction) that overlap with Provincial decision-making power.
Can this model be expanded to other issues? What about championing a universal basic income in Waterloo Region? We could partner with university researchers, Basic Income Waterloo Region, the area’s tech sector, and maybe even connect it somehow to the Region’s affordable housing shortlist.
Another thought: could we form a YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) coalition to support needed development in our urban areas? A campaign like this could connect anti-sprawl activists with those concerned about affordable housing.
One big thing that the Greens have going for us is that people like us. Even if they don’t like our policies, they like our honesty and approach to collaboration. That gives us a good footing for building bridges and networks of support.
But there’s something missing: a sense of urgency. In order to be effective, we need to elevate these local issues to the provincial decision-making level. And we need to make sure we can find some tangible wins.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs says this about local organizing: “They have to fight it out with each other, and with officials, on the plane where the effective decisions are made.” If a movement gets caught up in committees and incremental solutions, “This becomes play at self-government, not the real thing.”
From incrementalism to ideological battles
So is there room for cooperation in an ever-more combative political scene?
Sometimes I fear that the Green Party might be too nice for our own good. We’ve just seen Doug Ford elected with a promise to upset the applecart of social progress. Will Mike Schreiner really be able to influence him?
It’s naïve to engage in good-faith conversations with Doug Ford’s conservatives, even though some of our policies might share common ground (like allowing private cannabis retailing).
The Green Party has been pushing various issues for a long time: pipelines, universal pharmacare and dental care, student debt, Indigenous sovereignty, climate change, poverty. Previous governments made token advances in these issues. Now, we’re faced with active resistance. Push has come to shove.
To be honest, if we’re going to be in an ideological war, I’d rather win battles than try to appeal to our opponents. I’m done with soft awareness and education efforts. I’m tired of pouting that the system’s not fair. I want action.
Some might look at this landscape and decide that the left needs to close ranks around the NDP. But I’m not about to play the strategic horse-race game. In both BC and Alberta, NDP governments are worryingly supportive of large industrial fossil fuel projects. Andrea Horwath doesn’t have much enthusiasm for a universal basic income, and would rather keep subsidising expensive nuclear power than transition to low-cost renewables.
There’s a lot that we have in common with the NDP and Liberals, but there’s still enough difference for the Greens to chart our own path. Instead of closing ranks, progressive parties can tackle the same issues from multiple different angles.
Greens will need to set the tone and show leadership on a handful of issues if we want to carve out a reputation for ourselves. That effort will translate to more members, and we’ll elect more MPPs.
I’m happy to see Keenan Aylwin doing this in Barrie. He’s keeping up the pressure on police violence and appearing on TVO to represent the Green perspective in panel discussions.
Greens tend to do well when there is high turnout — we gain support by attracting new voters, people who were turned off by the traditional political system. We don’t siphon votes from other parties. Instead, we earn the trust of folks that distrust politics.
We’ll need to bring that same mindset to the table as we build our base between elections. It may be an uphill battle, but it’s not impossibly steep.Sam Nabi