Forget big tent: unite the left is more like big top

Here’s a hint of how clownish the whole idea is: it’s being pushed by Tory stalwarts


unite the left is more like big top

Liberals tend to lose their minds when they are out of power for more than one election cycle, and one of the more enjoyable consequences of Stephen Harper’s second minority government is seeing otherwise cagey political operators give serious consideration to some seriously bad ideas.

The latest rotten egg is the notion that Canada’s political “left”—that is, the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens—need to unite into a single party. The cost of not doing so, apparently, will be a more or less permanent camp-out in the political wilderness as the Conservatives are handed as many electoral victories as elections they care to engineer.

This idea was first seriously floated almost two years ago when the former NDP strategist Jamey Heath released his book Dead Centre, which argued that the NDP needed to move toward the centre, feast on the carcass of the Liberals, and—as his book’s blurb put it—“charge forward with a progressive agenda.”

Like just about every idea that comes from an NDP strategist, Heath’s proposal got absolutely zero pickup, least of all from Liberals who, with their 103 seats to the NDPs 29, certainly didn’t feel like a party that was down for the count and ripe for a kicking. But it is amazing what losing two elections in a row can do to Liberal confidence. One defeat, especially if it results in the smallest minority government in the country’s history, can be chalked up as an aberration. But two? Perhaps that means the prevailing electoral winds really have shifted.

The eternity of “Gritlock” ushered in by Jean Chrétien’s third majority actually lasted just long enough for Paul Martin to introduce the nation to Bono. But being more poorly acclimatized to life on the east side of the House of Commons, it has taken the Liberals just shy of three years to start having nightmares about “Torylock.” Now, having given the electoral map of Canada a once-over, they can’t see an easy route back to power, and many have started musing openly about opening the flaps of the tent and inviting the NDP and even the Greens to join them in some big centre-left party, the New Liberal Greens or something like that.

Forget big tent—more like big top. Can you imagine what a three-ringed circus this new party would be? For a hint as to how clownish the whole idea is, consider that it is being sold as a good idea by a couple of long-time Tory stalwarts—Norman Spector, who was Mulroney’s chief of staff for a spell, and Rod Love, who spent a long time as Ralph Klein’s chief fixer. When you start taking free advice from your political opponents, odds are you’ll get something worth considerably less than what you paid for it.

It is surprising that so many people seem to think that it’s likely, or even necessary, for the Liberals and the left to merge. To begin with, the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance was hardly the historic accomplishment its architects seem to think it was. Given that we’re talking here about two factions of a party that had been united, in one form or another, since before Confederation, the 15 years they spent living apart counts as little more than a brief marital spat.

In contrast, the NDP and the Liberals have no known common ancestor, and if Frankenstein politics is your bag you might as well throw the Marxists and the Libertarians into the mix and watch the nuts and bolts fly. Most NDP supporters have a manic hatred for the Liberals, and—no small thanks to Jack Layton’s success in installing Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex—Liberals are starting to feel the same way about the NDP.

Of course, even people who despise one another can find common ground when the strategic vista on offer is attractive enough. And when you do some basic math, the thought of uniting three parties that combined took around 52 per cent of the vote in the past two elections appears irresistible. If the NDP and the Liberals alone came together, they’d still be harvesting somewhere around 45 per cent of voters, enough to guarantee a healthy majority under our electoral system.

But this all assumes that support for the united party will at least match the sum of its parts. And there’s absolutely no reason to think that’s true. Many, perhaps even most, Liberal voters would be more comfortable voting Tory than they would for a party that had absorbed the NDP. Meanwhile, a great many NDP voters would sooner vote Green, or even Conservative in some parts of the country, than for a party that was dominated by the old Liberal caucus.

The Liberals have won plenty of majorities with the NDP on their left. When they win, it’s by taking votes away from the centre-right, not from the far left. Meanwhile, a merger would be a disaster for the NDP, a party whose entire raison d’être—notwithstanding Jack Layton’s recent I’m-running-for-prime-minister Walter Mitty routine—is that it is a party of conscience, not of power.

A unite-the-left movement would result in a left even more shattered and demoralized than it is now, leaving the Tories to feast on the carcass for decades to come. In recent years, close to one-third of Canadian voters have willingly cast their votes for parties that have no chance of forming a government, and there is no sensible reason to deny them the opportunity to continue to do so.


Forget big tent: unite the left is more like big top

  1. I had always thought that in the current political state which Canada is in right now, the left would be able to unite and oust the Tory minority. But that is not the reality of things. One of the biggest problems with even considering that the left should unite is who is at the helm of the parties. Layton has ruined the NDP in terms of being the ‘party of conscience’ and the majority of MPs from both parties are either the same old or has-beens. All the candidates for the Liberal leadership are the same as before, one who even led Ontario down the road to deficit. People are really considering Rae? Again? We need some fresh meat in Parliament. Canadian politics have become a joke, hence the low voter turnout in the last election. We need candidates for both parties who can be pragmatic and less idealist. Jack, the NDP will not be a majority party. Sorry pal. Bring in some younger MPs for the Liberals and NDP with a new or fresher perspective and give the left more of a fighting chance of succeeding in the next election.

  2. There’s also a half-way solution: instead of Uniting, the Liberals and NDP could agree not to run against one another, figuring out an equitable allotment of easy, close-call, and never-ever ridings to split. That would easily win both parties many more seats than they have now, though it would force the Liberals to stand for something more than “we might win and we’re not Harper.” (Seems like a small price to pay for the chance to govern, potentially in coalition with the NDP.) Main advantage is that the NDP and Liberals could each keep their own flags and not have to agree on more than the shared desire for power. Thoughts, Mr. Potter?

  3. You neglected the obvious! Mr. Harper, political genius, will unite the left.

  4. It has been several years now that I have been supporting the Broad coalition urging the NDP and Greens to unite.
    Leaders said: Forget it, it ain”t going to happen, pointing their fingers at each other.
    After this election, I resolved: the only way to a good future is a Coalition. The differences of degrees in policies is minimal.
    We have former Greens and NDPers, joining the LIBs to run as candidates, because they have a better chance of gaining a seat. This caused rifts between old friends.
    This IS NOT a stupid, silly idea.
    It is practical. It will save on campaign expenses and emissions.
    Who really cares who is the Leader.? We can vote. It could be someone who has never been in the forefront.
    As for a name, well…. go with the colors… how about the Brown Party.
    or…. the Progressive Canadians.
    I am exhausted by all this puttering and stuttering about. GET ON WITH THINGS! UNITE!
    or… get a preferential voting system.
    The times they are a changing… and we are running out of time according to the Union of Concerned Scientists on Climate Change.
    Pundit all you like pundits, I want ACTION not grandstanding and fillerbusting.

  5. Andrew,
    Our Leader, Harper himself, proposed a Coalition to topple the Libs & to form the government in 2004. And his coalition also included the Bloc!
    What did you say about this at that time? …………………….
    Mr. Harper is alienating even some of his most die-hard supports by hanging on, & on & on. He didn’t show leadership when re-elected and his isn’t showing integrity or dignity now. I am sorry to see that he is losing the respect of people everywhere who would normally respect a Prime Minister, regardless of their own party beliefs. His present behaviour is a humiliation to him, to his office, and for those who support – or have supported – him. He should quietly step down with dignity and go the Governor General to ask her to make a decision about where Canada goes from here – to a coalition or to an election.

  6. The Liberal Democrats would be a good name.

    I guess it all depends on how much the NDP continues to cling to socialism. If the NDP eventually no longer believe in government control of private resources and their distribution, then all that is really left is lifestyle issues. The NDP absorbed the Liberal supporters in Saskatchewan due to abandoning socialist ideology, I don’t see why the NDP couldn’t do the same federally.

  7. Potter is right about intense political tribalism making it difficult to unite Progressive parties. NDPers — and plenty of Greens — really do hate the Liberals, and insist they are “no different than the Conservatives”. Even when long-time Green activists have joined the LPC to run for office, the Green Party has, with mind-bogglingly blind loyalty to its own brand-name rather than to common sense, chosen to run candidates in the same Ridings, choosing to see the candidate’s switch in parties as some kind of traitorous adandonment of principle and tribe, rather than as a Green infiltration of the LPC and an opportunity to get passionate Green voices into Parliament — which is why Briony Penn is not today an MP.

    Unification of the Progressive parties isn’t going to happen. Jack Layton (aka Sanctimonious Jack) and his enormous ego (the latter is so large and capable of such havoc against the national interest that it should be considered an independent entity, cohabiting Jack’s brain-mass with whatever intellect may also find a home there) are not a particular good reason why this can’t happen, but they are nonetheless a show-stopper all by themselves.

    What we need is federal electoral reform. If a party’s share of parliamentary seats corresponded to the popular vote (with a cut-off of 7% or so, below which a party would get no seats, to prevent the fractionation of Parliament into myriads of tiny parties), then there would be little incentive to constantly call elections: two percent shifts in public opinion polls wouldn’t mean much. Germany is a possible model. Or New Zealand, or Australia’s Senate. As long as we have five parties competing for votes in a polity designed for two parties, we will have ongoing parliamentary instability, since every hiccough in the polls (and every partisan nastiness that can cause such a hiccough) will tempt the party benefiting from it to pull the plug on the government and force an election. Our choice is simple: Banana republic style political instability and poor governance, or European style electoral reform, which will lead to stable coalition governance. Time to wake up and choose.

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