On the surface, the disconnect makes sense. Groups of people who want to advocate on a specific issue but refuse to take part directly in partisan politics often have one of two reasons (or sometimes a combination of the two). Some feel our political systems are broken or illegitimate (often anarchists) and often believe mass popular movements should be used to influence the partisans in our parliaments. Others feel if they stay neutral, they can have influence over elected officials from every party.
Let's start with the first argument, and I'll use an issue of foreign policy because they are the strongest argument against it. Let's assume for a minute that our political systems are broken or illegitimate (I may even agree with the former but not the latter not so much). It's this time of year in 2003, and a US invasion of Iraq is imminent. Only there is one difference in this version of history: Stephen Harper (or Michael Ignatieff; take your pick) is the Prime Minister of Canada. He has announced, as they both did, that we should participate in the invasion. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Canadians across the country have decided to take to the streets in protest of the government's decision. According to polling, only 13 percent of all Canadians want our country to go to war. What happens? Prime Minister Ignarper (yep, just made that up) doesn't blink. Canada joins the invasion.
Would that have happened if Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff had been our Prime Minister at the time instead of Jean Chretien? Both were unequivocal in their support for the war. For both of them, it seemed the justification was "if the US is doing it, we need to do it too." This scenario is exactly what played out in Spain, where only 13 percent of the people supported the war, but the elected Prime Minister decided to join the invasion anyway.
Does that mean popular protest doesn't matter? Of course not. If hundreds of thousands of Canadians hadn't taken to the street immediately prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Chretien may well have hopped on the bandwagon too. However, the point is this: different leaders are influenced to varying extents by popular pressure. No matter how large, there can never be a guarantee it will change the minds of our leaders. Granted, that leader is likely to be tossed out of office in the next election, as happened in Spain, but the damage will already have been done.
Now let's take the second argument: if groups stay "neutral", they can influence elected officials from all parties. This one to me is much more clear. It blows my mind that members of organizations who advocate quite strongly on polarizing issues (in the sense that conservatives clearly stand on the opposite side as progressives) such as the issue of Palestine or greenhouse gas emissions attempt to stay neutral. Sure, there are some issues like health care or post-secondary education where conservative governments may make concessions given enough public pressure. However, on other issues we cannot expect the same. No matter how much talking, how many e-mails you send, how many banners you drop, or how many letters you write, your local Conservative MP is never going to call for peace and justice in Palestine. Your local Conservative MP is never going to call for implementation of an effective greenhouse gas reduction plan. Your Conservative MP is never going to speak out against our country joining a US-led war.
Assuming what I've said so far is true and it DOES matter a great deal which party (or ideology) our elected leaders come from, those who advocate strongly on issues where there is a clear divide between conservatives and progressives should draw a strong conclusion: they must do what they can to ensure we elect progressives, not conservatives. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will focus on creating green jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we want to do everything we can to ensure that Linda Duncan gets re-elected in Edmonton-Strathcona instead of her anti-environment opponent, Ryan Hastman. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will work towards peace and justice in the Middle East instead of unquestioning support for Israel, we want to put our best efforts into making sure Ray Martin gets elected instead of Peter Goldring in Edmonton East. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will stand up ensure our country does not join the US in unjust wars, we will do all we can to elect Lewis Cardinal instead of that warmonger, Laurie Hawn, in Edmonton Centre.
Lastly, the work does not stop at electing these progressive individuals (and hopefully even more than these three). Advocacy on progressive issues can be VERY effective when you're advocating to progressive politicians. And believe me, the advocacy should not stop. In fact, our progressive politicians need to hear our progressive views much more than our conservative politicians. I implied before that a New Democrat would take a stand for peace and justice for Palestine, but that is not always the case. On issues like Palestine, our New Democrat MPs need to hear from people EVERY DAY. That is when advocacy is effective. When a new development comes up in Israel-Palestine, our progressive MPs need to know the way progressives are seeing the issue. Some would say, "Well, progressive MPs should be out with us on the streets!" But if the people on the streets don't vote and don't participate in getting progressives elected, it is much more likely that your MP will find somewhere else to be where they can find people more engaged in the system. That's just how it works.
The overall message? Progressives need to put all the effort they can into electing progressive officials. Between elections, we need to be keeping the pressure particularly on our progressive elected officials to make sure they're staying true to their progressive principles.