The NDP surge, and what’s at stake in this election

We shouldn't let poorly founded fears let us take risks with our prosperity

The real story in the last week of the federal election campaign may not be Jack Layton so much as it is the professionalization of his New Democratic party. So often Canadian voters have flirted with scrappy well-intentioned New Democratic underdogs; equally often, they have decided in the end that men like T.C. Douglas and Ed Broadbent were better fitted for the bridesmaid’s gown than the bride’s. From the polling evidence, however, it appears we are taking an unusually close look at the goods this time.

But please don’t say it’s because Jack Layton is a “fighter” or a “happy warrior.” NDP leaders have been peddling this sort of self-mythologizing since the ink was moist on the Regina Manifesto. None of it ever managed to get any of them inside the gates of the federal Opposition leader’s residence.

Layton has an outside chance of making it. And there are two interrelated reasons: he has been fortunate in the Liberals’ choice of leader, and his team is excellent at staging, advertising and using new technology to reach voters. Gone, mostly, is the patina of amateurishness that was once a trademark of NDP-made media. One senses that we are witnessing the consequence of a deep seismic shift; Liberal internal fractiousness seems to have driven off the best young political professionals, as it drove off potential Liberal prime ministers such as Frank McKenna and John Manley.

Despite these advantages, it is by no means certain that Layton will seal the deal. In the last week of campaigning, voters will have time to re-examine the New Democratic platform and decide whether they are really so keen on a dramatic increase in payroll taxes; on the expensive construction of an apparatus for cap and trade carbon credits without an advance guarantee of U.S. participation; on a corporate tax hike that gives nine-tenths of economists a migraine; and on just plain twerpish stuff like the reintroduction of the federal minimum wage and supports for locally grown and organic food. (It would be hard to find a better definition of stupidity than for a national party to have any position at all on “local” and “organic.”)

And then, of course, voters will have to take a careful look at what’s not in the platform. In front of eastern audiences, Layton is full of barbs and warnings directed at the “dirty” oil sands—a business in which, for better or worse, a whole nation of workers, taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners now has a stake. He no longers talks of a moratorium on new oil sands development; that part of his spiel has been bagged and shoved into the crawl space, along with the party’s traditional support for marijuana decriminalization.

The official NDP platform is also silent on the Constitution, yet it turns out that Mr. Layton has quite a lot to say about it. He said in Quebec on April 26 that “we have a quarter of our population who have never signed the Constitution,” calling this a “significant gap” that “has to be addressed someday”—and maybe soon, should there exist “some reasonable chance of success.” It must have been startling for long-time NDP supporters in English Canada to hear their leader espouse the Bloc Québécois view of the Constitution as unfinished business. Was it for this, rather than for social-democratic public policy, that New Democrats in Burnaby, B.C., and Kenora, Ont., and Baie-Verte, Nfld., have been toiling all along?

It won’t mean much unless someone can manage to suppress the Conservative vote share, which has remained fairly intractable throughout the campaign; Stephen Harper’s supporters won’t abandon him, by and large, but he’s failing to add to them in any discernible number. The Tories have adopted a strategy of “microtargeting,” going for a majority more or less by making their existing vote more efficient. Up to a point, Canada’s flirtation with Laytonmania makes this goal easier, dividing the “progressive” opposition as evenly as possible. Which is fine. The evidence for a Harper “hidden agenda” of social-conservative reaction is meagre; meanwhile, the shared Layton-Ignatieff agenda of old-school protectionism and corporate taxation squats in plain sight.

This difference is important, though increasingly neglected. Purists of the fiscal right like to make despairing criticisms of the Conservatives for their occasional sins against economic orthodoxy. But Canada is emerging in pretty good shape from a recession that has threatened the integrity of the European Union, left the British welfare state in a shambles, and cast ugly shadows on the solvency of the U.S.A. Harper has held the line laid by Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, preserving the relatively open and competitive nature of Canada’s economy. Despite some polite participation in the worldwide orgy of anti-recessionary “stimulus,” he has not come close to expanding government to its former size relative to GDP.

Much of the resistance to a Conservative majority is based on the perception that it’s something to be feared. But it would be foolish to let ephemeral, poorly founded fears stampede us into an embrace with positive risks to our prosperity.

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