At the height of last week’s frenzy of speculation, argumentation, insinuation and accusation over the possibilities of a Liberal-NDP merger, I half expected to see the headline: “Opposition divided over unity.” Not only were the parties no closer to agreeing on a merger than at any time in the past: the suggestion seemed if anything more likely to divide each of the parties in two.
Those who dream of uniting the “progressive” vote under a single party should take heed. The premise that there is a natural anti-Conservative majority just waiting to be consolidated may appear to make arithmetic sense—the Conservatives having obtained just less than 40 per cent of the vote in the last election—but rests upon a misreading of politics, of history, and of human nature. Whether we are talking about the parties themselves, or their support in the electorate at large, this is a case where two and two sum to a good deal less than four.
The voters first. The assumption underlying the merger argument is that the votes of the two parties can simply be added together. This assumes, in turn, not only that the two have more in common than divides them—that their voters really do vote against the Conservatives, rather than for either party—but also that each party’s supporters could be herded obediently into the merger corral. It assumes, in other words, both that voters have no particular loyalty to either party, and that they are so loyal as to remain in the fold even after both have been extinguished.
The reality is rather different. Assuming you could cobble together a merger—more on that below—the resulting mélange would be almost certain to alienate two groups of voters: those on the NDP left, and those on the Liberal right. As the NDP are the more ideologically coherent party, and as they are more likely, as the stronger of the two, to see themselves in the merged party’s reflection, the greater bleeding of support may be expected to occur on the right.
This is the fundamental fallacy of the merger case: the assumption that the Liberals are, like the NDP, a party of the left; that their differences with the NDP are of degree, rather than of kind. But that is not true of many in the party, and it is even less true among the universe of possible Liberal voters, many of whom think of themselves as centrists, even centre-right.
The chief beneficiary of a merger between the Liberals and the NDP, then, is likely to be the Conservatives. This is one of the axioms of political science. Where three parties are consolidated into two, the result is unlikely to be a permanent imbalance in support: rather, the two remaining parties tend to converge on the median voter. So the more probable post-merger scenario would see Conservative support expand toward 50 per cent.
An instructive example is presented by the collapse of the British Liberal Party a century ago. As Liberal support imploded, support for the Labour Party, it is true, grew. But so did Conservative support: from 38 per cent in 1922 to 48 per cent in 1935. The Conservative Party won four of six elections in that period of consolidation, and four of eight through the ensuing 35 years of two-party politics.
All of this, of course, assumes that a merger could even be put into effect. But whatever the reluctance of voters to follow the logic of merger proponents, it would be double that among each party’s rank and file, and twice again as much among party officials. Leave aside the vast doctrinal differences between, say, a Frank McKenna and the NDP. Ideological conflicts are subject to mediation and compromise. Historic hatreds are not.
Political parties, it is often remarked, are like tribes, or gangs, built on blood and battle. They are the accumulated inheritance of ancient loyalties—and ancient enmities. The people who devote their lives to electing Liberals and New Democrats not only have no history of working together, they have a long history of working against each other. Corporate mergers often fail for the same reason.
But doesn’t the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives prove it can be done? Yes—if the project is to put back together a coalition that had already been in existence for 120-odd years. Whatever electoral success the merged entity has enjoyed, moreover, has come at the cost of virtually everything that either party had ever stood for.
Is there no case for a merger, then? Yes, but it’s a rather different one than its proponents intend. That is, a merger might be of some value precisely because it divided the Liberals (and perhaps the NDP) in two. The orphaned right-wing Liberals, instead of joining the Conservatives, might elect to form a new party, with some hope of attracting free-market Tories, disillusioned by their party’s new-found taste for big government and always uneasy at sharing a political bed with the social conservatives. Such an alliance of social liberals and free marketers—call it the Social Market party—might also attract many Green voters.
We should then be left with three or perhaps four parties, from unreconstructed socialists to devout theo-cons, with distinct centre-left and centre-right options in between: surely a more appetizing menu for voters than two barely coherent puddles of mush.