Sunday, September 27, 2015

An NDP and Liberal merger is now inevitable

By Fraser Needham

The NDP and Liberals will merge and it will happen sooner rather than later.

This may seem like a strange thing to say. After all, both parties have a long history in Canadian politics. The Liberals have been around since before Confederation and the NDP’s forerunner, the CCF, got its start in the Dirty 1930’s of the Great Depression.

Furthermore, both parties continue to be relatively vibrant within today’s political spectrum as can be seen in the current Canadian federal election where both the NDP and Liberals are polling at about 30 per cent. Both parties also have very committed partisans with a long history of disliking each other.

So why would they merge?

In order to understand why this will happen, it is necessary to look at Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

Since the Reform Party arose on the Canadian political scene in the early 1990’s, Harper and his neoconservative colleagues have succeeded in moving a significant proportion of the electorate to the hard right over the past two decades. Many political observers initially viewed the neocons as little more than another Western protest party but they were wrong. This movement continued to gain steam through its various iterations – first the Reform Party, then the Canadian Alliance and finally the takeover of the Progressive Conservatives and the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada in late 2003.

Along the way, the neoconservatives have never strayed from their core values and have now moved about 30 per cent of the population to their way of thinking. This includes support for a militaristic state in foreign affairs, tough on crime policies, reduced civil liberties in favour of unnecessary anti-terrorism legislation, distrust of any sort of arms length independent agencies such as the judiciary and dislike of what are perceived elites including the media, the arts and academia.

At the same time, Harper has taken the country further down the neoliberal economic path, started by the previous Liberal governments, of corporate, income and consumer tax cuts combined with a reduced role for the state. And along the way, the Conservatives have won two minorities and one majority government and are well positioned to win another minority in this election.

As has also been seen during this election, Harper’s bloc of support will stick with the Conservatives through thick and thin. Whether it is the various Senate scandals including the Mike Duffy trial, poor treatment of war veterans, successive budget deficits, abusing the rules of parliament or Canada’s reduced role in the United Nations, this bloc of support appears to be immovable.

In fact, at various Conservative media scrums in this campaign, Harper supporters have gone so far as to verbally abuse reporters for asking the “wrong types” of questions.

Although the Liberals were elected on a moderately progressive platform in 1993, they then proceeded to move Canada far down the path of economic neoliberalism while remaining a relatively socially liberal party. The 13 years of Chretien/Martin governments are known for eliminating deficits, offloading services on provinces and cutting taxes rather than innovation in or even maintenance of social programs.

During this time, the Liberals relied on a very shaky base of winning almost every seat in Ontario and enough seats in Quebec to maintain power. However, Conservative inroads in Ontario, reduced fortunes in Quebec because of the sponsorship scandal and continued leadership infighting marked the end of the Liberal reign in 2006.

After spending most of the 1990’s and the early part of the millennium in the political wilderness, the NDP began to reemerge at the same time the political fortunes of the Liberals began to fall. Under new leader Jack Layton, the NDP picked up seats in the 2004, 2006, and 2008 elections. And in the 2011 election, the party made a major breakthrough winning enough seats to form official opposition for the first time.

The NDP surge over the past decade is the result of a few things. A lot of it had to do with the personal charisma and organizational skills of the late Jack Layton. Not only did Layton’s high energy style bring a new media savvy to the party, these organizational skills brought a lot of money into NDP coffers and put the party back on stable financial footing. And because of Layton’s popularity in Quebec, the NDP was able to capitalize in this province when the Bloc Quebecois collapsed in 2011.

But a lot of the NDP’s surge has been as a result of the sheer dysfunction of the Liberal Party during the same period. In Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the party experienced perhaps the two worst leaders in its history. Neither the party nor the Liberals’ traditional electoral base ever really united behind either of them and the party simply was not a factor in the 2008 or 2011 campaigns.

So by default, in provinces such as Ontario, B.C. and the Maritimes, the NDP began to pick up seats at the Liberals’ expense. Some traditional Liberal voters were indeed peeled away by the Conservatives in these provinces but at the same time soft progressives who had almost always voted Liberal began to vote NDP.

As the NDP began to rise the party also started to move to the right in its 2006, 2008 and 2011 election platforms. Clearly the thinking by those running the party is that by jettisoning most of its social democratic values and embracing free market fundamentals, the NDP has made itself much more credible to the right wing press and center-right voters – the area where they believe there is true room for growth.

Many of these key NDP advisors would argue the gains made in these elections are as much a result of what they would call a more “modern” or “realistic” approach to 21st century policy (translate: more right wing) as they were due to Jack Layton and Liberal dysfunction. Hence, they believe that they can continue to make gains and even form government under a new leader as long as they continue down the path of a rightward shift.

And there is some evidence that appears to validate this theory. After sitting at around 20 per cent in the polls during most of Thomas Mulcair’s first three years as leader, the NDP rebounded strongly this spring as a result of its principled stance against Bill C-51 and the Liberals’ gaffe in supporting the Harper government’s flawed anti-terrorism legislation. Also, the party’s numbers in Quebec have held well since the 2011 breakthrough and these numbers continue to hold during this election campaign. Further, hovering at around 30 per cent in the polls so far and in a virtual tie with both the Conservatives and Liberals, the NDP still has a good shot at forming government or at least improving the party’s seat count.

So, although NDP strategists are likely somewhat disappointed with how the campaign has gone thus far and would prefer to at least be building a bit of a larger lead over the Liberals, there is no doubt they see no reason to alter the course of the party’s rightward shift with the ultimate goal of replacing the Liberals as the only serious alternative to the Harper Conservatives.

However, there is substantial reason to believe that the NDP’s rightward shift was the wrong way to go and will now lead to the party’s ultimate demise – sooner rather than later.

If those leading the NDP had been able to think more clearly about what would be the best strategy to maintain itself as a social democratic party and position it as the party to replace the Liberals in the near future, they would not have started the rightward shift that began in 2006. With the Harper Conservatives moving to polarize one part of the political spectrum on the right, the NDP would have been far wiser to try to polarize the other part by moving left.

In fact, there are good reasons to believe soft progressives who had steadfastly supported the Liberals through three elections were starting to tire of the party by 2004 after ten years of neoliberalism and austerity. Where the Liberals had once relied on the convenient excuse of not being able to deliver on their social promises because of the harsh recession of the early 1990’s, this was no longer the case at the beginning of the new millennium.

When Jack Layton and the NDP chose to prop up the minority Liberal government in 2005 in exchange for reversing some tax cuts and further protection against privatization of Medicare, it was a very smart move to do so. Further, when the NDP voted down the government and helped force an election after the Liberals failed to deliver on their health care promises, they were also right to do so.

However, by moving the party steadily to the right over the past ten years since then, there is no end game. Had the NDP started to shift left and created a more polarized political atmosphere, it would have really put the Liberals in trouble and perhaps put the party into the final political wilderness from which it would have never returned – similar to what happened to British Liberal Party in the 1930’s. Because of the Liberals’ dysfunction, the NDP would have still gained the same progressive voters they picked up during the last decade but would have done it on a left platform. And, by sticking to their core social democratic principles, the NDP could have been successful in moving a portion of the electorate left and more in tune with the party’s traditional beliefs.

Further, the NDP would have by no means needed to shift radically left but could have done so on a gradual basis. Essentially, all the NDP would have needed to do is call for reasonable measures that would have begun to rebuild the Canadian welfare state back up to what it used to be. Measures such as more progressive income taxes, a steady stream of corporate tax increases with the goal of returning to rates similar to those of other G7 countries, increased funding and a federal role in provincial social programs, greater funding of post-secondary education and a call for a cross-Canada tuition freeze, a willingness to open up the free trade agreement and examine and potentially change the parts that are not working, less dependence on trade with the U.S. and greater trade relations with Europe,  a plan to help institute public auto insurance in all provinces, a plan to work with the provinces to set a living wage, getting the country’s climate change program back on track and other policy moves along these lines.

Sadly this did not happen and the NDP has now shifted so far right that the party is virtually identical to the Liberals. It is so obvious that only the most hardcore and committed partisans within each of the parties can see any difference between the two anymore.

Take for instance the platforms the NDP and Liberals are running on in this election campaign. The NDP wants to institute a meaningless two per cent corporate tax increase but refuses to increase taxes on the very wealthy. The Liberals are willing to raise taxes on the very wealthy by a meaningless one per cent but refuse to increase the corporate tax rate.

The Liberals are willing to run deficits to invest in infrastructure and job creation but it appears highly unlikely they would be able to do this based on the numbers they are presenting. Does anyone remember the great Liberal Red Book promise of a job creation infrastructure-spending program in 1993? It never happened and neither is it likely the 2015 version will happen either. The NDP also plans to spend money on infrastructure and create jobs too but at the same time while balancing every single budget. Their infrastructure plan is even less likely to happen than the Liberal plan.

The NDP says it will raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. The only problem is that this would affect almost no minimum wage workers across the country as most minimum wage workers are under the provincial minimum wage. It would not be much of a stretch for the Liberals to get behind this plan as it costs virtually nothing and will help virtually no one.

The NDP also says it will institute a $15 per day national childcare plan. However, with the numbers the party has put forward it is clear they would never get there. The Liberals once had plans for a national childcare program too but were unwilling to put in place the money to see it come to fruition either when they were in government.

The NDP has stood against the Harper government’s flawed Bill C-51 anti-terrorism legislation and the Liberals voted in favour. However, because of the bill’s unpopularity amongst many Canadians it is likely that if push came to shove, the Liberals would be willing to reverse their support.

Both parties are in favour of small business tax cuts even though it has been shown that this does little to stimulate the economy. Both the NDP and Liberals now fully support free trade and the free and unhindered movement of capital. Both parties have no interest in increasing federal transfers to the provinces for social programs or in creating any sort of uniformity in the accessibility of these social programs across the country. The NDP and Liberals will also continue to abdicate the federal government’s role in properly funding post-secondary education and have no problem with tuition rates continuing to increase rapidly every year, thereby further decreasing accessibility.

Both parties are interested in talking about fighting climate change but have no real interest in reducing Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels. The NDP and Liberals are more hesitant to give unquestioning support to the oilsands and pipeline projects than the Conservatives but are not willing to really do anything that would hinder their expansion or progress. Both parties are also fully committed to NATO.

So, a few things have become clear during this election campaign. There is an anti-Harper voting bloc in the electorate of about 60 per cent. This bloc has become tired of the Harper government’s neoconservative policies including making Canada a warmongering state, continued disrespect for the judiciary, information control, disrespect for independent and arms-length agencies and manipulation of the rules of parliament to name a few. At the same time, as we have seen, the Conservatives have a very committed voting bloc of about 30 per cent of the public.

It also appears that the Liberals have managed to survive their worst years in the party’s history and are on the upswing under new leader Justin Trudeau. There is no doubt that Trudeau has stumbled from time to time but over the course of this campaign he has demonstrated himself as a capable leader, particularly when compared to his two predecessors. It is almost certain Trudeau will improve the Liberal seat count come election day and the party still has a decent shot at winning a minority government. Justin Trudeau will be around as Liberal leader for some time to come.

So, this is where we sit – in a virtual deadlock with a three-way party tie. And, there is no reason to believe that the deadlock that currently exists between the NDP and Liberals is going to change anytime between now and election day. The anti-Harper bloc simply can see no difference between the two parties and nor should they. In fact, a number of voters have taken to displaying both Liberal and NDP lawn signs during this campaign and not as a joke. Many are waiting until October 19 before deciding which party they will support but it is unlikely either the Liberals or NDP will give them any help in terms of making up their minds. It is quite likely a number of voters will simply have to flip a coin in terms of deciding which party to vote for.

If an election were held today, it could likely be a Conservative minority while either NDP or Liberal minorities remain distinct possibilities. Regardless of which party wins a minority on October 19, it makes little difference to the overall larger picture.

It is now clear that neither the NDP nor Liberals have the ability to score the knockout punch both would like to deliver to take out the other. So, regardless of which party wins the election, the public pressure for an NDP/Liberal coalition as a means of stopping the Conservatives will be huge. But when you have two parties that are virtually now identical in all of their core beliefs, the next question will be why not a merger, instead of just a coalition, as a long-term solution to stopping Harper?

After the election those leading both the NDP and Liberals will also likely find out that the anti-Harper public will be far less patient than the partisans in each of the parties in terms of delaying a merger. This sector of the public will not look kindly upon either party that insists on what are now fictitious differences in order to prevent a merger and all the while create the distinct possibility of more Conservative minorities and even majorities down the road.

In theory, the merger should be much easier for the Liberals than the NDP. After all, regardless of what the new party is called, it would essentially be an expanded Liberal Party as the NDP has now adopted all of the Liberals’ core values.

Such a merger would certainly be more difficult for NDP partisans but will they really have much of a choice in the matter? After virtually becoming a Liberal party on their own, they can either choose to continue contesting elections against another political party who is different in name only or join forces with the Liberals and severely limit a possible Conservative return to power. It is assured the anti-Conservative public will not look kindly upon the former option.

Those leading the NDP will, no doubt, be mystified at the corner they have now painted themselves into after the 2015 election. Then again, they should have thought far more clearly about this before pursuing a path that has made the NDP virtually a Liberal clone.

Fraser Needham is a freelance journalist living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He has been working and writing in Saskatchewan for the past 15 years. Aside from the Saskatchewan CCF/NDP, he follows Aboriginal issues and politics closely.

See also: Liberals release fiscal plan that seeks to avoid austerity with unicorns and fairy dust

See also: NDP spending document creates more questions than answers

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  1. I agree...a merger...of those two and then we on the left can form a national party and nip at the bastard's the good old days...though hopefully in a PR system....

  2. The Liberals are still middle of the road & NDP are regarded as socialist but with another leader than Mulcair.How come no one has used the British experience After WW1 it was said the Liberals in Britain won the war but lost the peace .The labour Party replace the Liberals as the 2nd party & has ever since.The liberals in Canada lost he west in the 50's, lost Quebec in the 80's.Chretien did no expand the base.they may be on the verge of losing fortress Toronto making hem possibly a rump party in the maritimes.In order to form a majority you must have an alliance of 3-Quebec/West;Ontario/Quebec; or the West/Ontario.the Liberal have no base.Is Canada now around 1921-24 just before Ramsey McDonald? I know some say conroversily that in 1926 the British Empire was dismantling.

  3. I might suggest subheadings... I only really needed to read the last five graphs.