The case for the New Democrats

Well, as they say, turnaround is fair play. The Liberals, after spending years telling Canadians that the only credible alternative to voting Conservative is to support themselves.

Well, as they say, turnaround is fair play.

The Liberals, after spending years telling Canadians that the only credible alternative to voting Conservative is to support themselves, now find themselves at the receiving end of this same argument.

“There’s only one strategic vote – and that’s the NDP,” declared Melissa Atkinson, the New Democrats’ newly picked candidate for the Yukon, earlier this week.

With nearly three months until voters are expected to head to the polls, this assertion may be a bit premature. And if New Democratic public support does slip, you can count on the party falling back on its old arguments in favour of voting your conscience, strategy be damned. But let’s consider the case for making Atkinson, who is, after all, a former Crown lawyer, Yukon’s lead prosecutor of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives this election.

Not long ago, it seemed a stretch to imagine the NDP forming a national government. To such doubts, New Democrats now have a one-word response: Alberta. The victory of Rachel Notley’s provincial party makes it that much more difficult to scoff at the idea of a Canada led by the NDP, and Notley’s win may have given her federal counterparts a popularity boost, with the NDP now leading both the Conservatives and Liberals in the polls.

Of course, the last federal election did see an “orange wave” of NDP victories across Canadian ridings. Who’s to say it can’t happen again?

The NDP also benefit from having a national leader who, while lacking the fabulous hair and dynastic roots of Justin Trudeau, has the credibility of having served as a cabinet minister for the Quebec Liberals.

As some wags have noted, recent efforts by the Conservatives to tarnish Tom Mulcair’s reputation by dishing about how he was once in talks with their party to serve as an advisor may actually burnish it. Conservatives say Mulcair walked away over pay, which he has denied. In any event, as the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders pithily remarked on Twitter, “It shows normal voters he’s a) badly wanted by Tories b) too good for them c) ideologically flexible d) a real capitalist” – exactly the kind of reassurance that some may be seeking.

Atkinson’s own background as a past prosecutor and present legal-aid lawyer could serve her well as an MP. And the fact she’s a First Nation woman helps her stand out against the white men she is competing against, especially with the many hot-button political issues that touch on aboriginal concerns, such as Bill S-6 and calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

New Democrats may respond to the Liberals’ current rally cry of “real change” with a raised eyebrow, a pregnant pause and, “Really? Real change? Larry Bagnell?” It is, after all, a fairly incongruous slogan for a candidate who previously served as Yukon’s MP for a decade.

The biggest challenge to the NDP’s case probably involves some simple arithmetic.

By the time Bagnell received his party’s nomination back in October, his party reported it had more than 2,100 card-carrying members in the Yukon. The NDP, meanwhile, now have about 600 members. This suggests that the Liberals have an enormous base to work from, when you consider that it took fewer than 5,500 votes for Ryan Leef to win in 2011, and their number of secured votes has surely grown since the autumn. This all points toward the Liberals remaining the strategically safe anti-Conservative vote.

Of course, New Democrats are likely to interpret these numbers in a more forgiving way, as nothing more than an indication of some already-decided votes. The real action, they would contend, has to do with undecided votes still up for grabs – namely, residents who supported the Green Party last election, but won’t do so again this time, for lack of a high-profile candidate like John Streicker and for fear of vote splitting leading to another Conservative victory. The Greens garnered about 3,000 votes last time, and if a big chunk of these voters defect to either the Liberals or NDP, that could prove decisive.

For what it’s worth, the Globe recently launched a fancy online federal election forecast, underpinned by the polls conducted to date and some fancy math we won’t pretend to fully understand. You push a button, it runs the numbers and offers up a possible result. Sometimes the NDP narrowly form government, sometimes the Conservatives do. But the Yukon seat remains red every time.

Of course, any number of things could happen between now and voting day to give one party a decided advantage in coalescing the anti-Conservative vote. Trudeau could say any number of dumb things that could be held against him – after all, the falling fortunes of the Liberal party during the final days of the last federal election could be another explanation for why Bagnell came up short. Or maybe Notley’s government, which already has the bad fortunes of inheriting a big slump in oil prices, may end up being faulted for economic woes, and this blame may rub off in her federal counterparts.

Or perhaps support for the NDP and Liberals ends up being pretty much equal in the territory – which could help ensure that the Conservatives win another term in power.