What would happen if . . . party politics came to municipalities?

David Siegel and Eugene Plawiuk
The Next City
September 21, 1997

The Next City asked David Siegel, associate professor of politics, and Eugene Plawiuk, the NDP’s co-chair of strategy and communications in Alberta’s recent provincial election, to comment


David Siegel

Local politicians would be less directly accountable. Currently, local politicians must answer directly to their constituents without the defence of “I had to do it for party discipline.” Party labels just get in the way of local government’s relationship with the people. Although party discipline can be a useful organizing tool at federal or provincial levels, where issues are larger and more complex, they are overrated as accountability tools. Remember the axiom about the federal Liberals running on the left and governing on the right.

Party politics would complicate relationships between municipalities and provincial and federal governments. The relationships are already tense, but a strong dose of partisanship would complicate matters even more. Although many local politicians do have political party affiliations, a municipal position from an entire council, which usually has politicians of many stripes, is rarely viewed as partisan.

Political campaigns would become more costly, ruling out people who don’t have access to large amounts of money. Currently, local politicians fight local campaigns on shoe leather and stamina. Thank heavens no one has enough money to hire “spin doctors” or produce slick advertising. Since candidates for local office can’t afford expensive opinion polls, they have no choice but to spend time standing on a lot of front porches talking to real people instead of pollsters. Sophisticated political parties with large budgets would soon obliterate this aspect of local campaigns, and further distance local politicians from their constituents.

Municipal government would lose its diversity. Since only politicians with the financial backing of parties could run, voters would be restricted to voting for party platforms rather than for candidates with diverse and independent viewpoints. This might suit career politicians working their way up the party ladder but not true municipal reformers who want to bring about meaningful change.

Eugene Plawiuk

We would be acknowledging history and reality. Party politics have traditionally been part of municipal elections. Labor candidates in Edmonton elections ran as members of a Labour/CCF slate in the 1930s, gaining control of the mayor’s seat and the majority of city council. Only in the latter half of the ’50s and early ’60s, when progressives feared being labelled “red,” did party politics disappear from municipal elections. But the need to show solidarity soon gave birth to municipal coalitions such as the Urban Reform Group of Edmonton (URGE), Vancouver’s Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE), and the Montreal Citizens’ Movement (MCM). Whether coalitions of the right or left, they were merely party politics by another name.

Even without a party label, municipal politics are partisan. Local elections, whether for school boards, hospital boards, or city councils, provide candidates with a stepping stone — they later use their “name recognition” to advantage when running for a higher-level office. However, whatever the name of the candidate, his politics are no secret to everyone in the know. When politicians bill themselves as the “voice of business,” as a “progressive,” or as a “labor activist,” voters can often predict what “party” they represent.

Voters would know exactly what they were getting. While municipal politicians are less bound by party discipline than their provincial or federal counterparts, they still have a political agenda. By acknowledging their party affiliation, candidates would give voters the opportunity to set a clear political direction for city hall.

Municipal politics would become more transparent and accountable. Only politicians with hidden agendas benefit from hiding their politics, and they nearly always come from a right-wing, pro-developer, pro-privatization perspective. Let’s be honest about party politics at the civic level.

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