Election 2006: The Great Divide

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 02, 2006

It was interesting to see the Liberals shut out of Hamilton in the recent Federal Election. The older urban areas went solidly NDP and the newer suburban areas went solidly Conservative.

Granted, most constituencies were close three-way splits (Hamilton Centre is an exception, with more than half the votes going to David Christopherson).

However, the downtown ridings leaned one way, whereas the suburban ridings leaned the other. This reflects the differing priorities of urban and suburban voters.

Now, I'm about to generalize in my analysis of why that is: why the Conservatives failed to secure any major urban centres. I realize there's a danger in abstracting from the grainy particulars of myriad individual decisions, but public consciousness does seem to cluster around ideas, and those clusters are on clear display in Canada's turbulent politics.

Some people will surely disagree with me, and I welcome counterarguments and different approaches. Please share your ideas in the comments form below.

Urban Voters

Urban voters want a government that recognizes the importance of cities, both as engines of economic growth and as producers of culture ("civilization", after all, literally means city building).

They tend to be more connected to others in neighbourhoods and more social. Their physical environment brings them into daily contact with others, and some of those contacts grow into acquaintanceships, friendships, and shared interests. In the aggregate, those contacts produce an identification with, and connection to, the social fabric of the city.

Urban voters understand the benefits that can come from pooling resources and acting collectively; for example, to enjoy the high efficiency and cost effectiveness of public transit. That is, they recognize that government can do good work, under the right circumstances.

Further, they can see close up what happens when government abandons an area to its fate. They live in, or travel through, ghettoes, run-down areas, dilapidating housing projects, shuttered storefronts, crumbling infrastructure.

They see hollowed-out faces carved with despair every day on the street, so they have a harder time ignoring those faces, and the lives and stories behind them, when it comes time to elect a government.

All of this tends to encourage urban voters to think of themselves as part of something larger than the individual, something composed of individuals but comprising a total greater than the sum of its parts.

There weren't many Conservative lawn signs in downtown Hamilton, and the few I did see tended overwhelmingly to be on corner houses and on houses with wrought-iron fences around the property line. That is, the urban voters who supported the Conservatives seemed eager to keep the rest of the world out.

Suburban Voters

This eagerness for privacy, for withdrawal from the public realm, has a more natural home in suburbia. Suburban residents have made a conscious choice to keep others at arms' length, to leave dense urban cores and live a more private life with fewer intrusions of others.

They want a government that will ease the financial pressure of single home mortgages, leased cars, and furniture and consumer electronics bought on credit. They don't need social interlocks and public infrastructure (aside from roads and highways), and they're not willing to pay for it with their taxes.

They want cuts to consumption taxes (GST), cuts to capital gains taxes (homes and investments), and a little extra cash in the hand ("child care" and amateur sports tax cuts).

They also want a government willing to gather up scary, dangerous people and lock them away in prisons. Having little personal contact with others in the public realm, they learn about the poor by reading sensational newspaper crime reports and watching TV news.

This tends to reinforce the worst stereotypes about poverty, city centres, and the public realm in general, further confirming their decision to withdraw from it all. They don't know anyone living in poverty, so they can't observe its devastating effects on childhood development.

All they see are the products of those devastating effects - unruly youths joining gangs and committing acts of violence - and they want to protect their families and their properties from the outpouring of that violence.

To the extent that they want government to intervene on their behalf, they want it to focus on protecting their private property, not on producing public amenities they won't use anyway.

Crossing the Divide

The split across Hamilton was reflected, to a greater or lesser extent, across the entire Country. Outside of its cultural stronghold in Alberta, the Conservative party made almost no inroads into urban constituencies. This is a major reason why they did not win a majority government.

Now it remains to be seen whether the Conservative minority government makes the effort to understand what urban voters value and want from government. To do so will force them to re-evaluate some of their assumptions about the value of public amenities and public services.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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