‘If it’s doable, let’s do it.” So says former Canadian prime minister Old Bareknuckles Jean Chretien. He was speaking, of course, about the much-ballyhooed possibility of a merger between the Liberal Party and its left-wing nemesis, the NDP. Just as he did so many times when in office, the old warrior has Canadians scratching our heads and asking, can this man be serious?
Party spokespersons on both sides deny there is the slightest truth to any such rumours, while journalists with inner-party connections insist that the backrooms of both parties are a-buzz with the idea that if a merger can defeat the Conservatives, it’s worth a shot.
From a Liberal point of view, there’s some merit in the idea. If by swallowing the NDP they can gain that extra 12, or 18, or whatever percentage of the popular vote that ever-struggling party happens to hold at the time of assimilation, voila! – new large party on the centre-left.
For doubters, there is always the Conservative example. For years, the Progressive Conservatives were distinguishable from the Liberals only at election time, when Tories talked financial restraint while Grits talked social spending. Afterwards, whichever of the two was elected always turned out to represent socialism for billionaires and tough restraint for the rest of us.
The PCs split off into three regional parties, the Bloq Quebecois in Quebec, Reform in the West, and PC elsewhere. When the upstart Reform swallowed the PCs, the Right was suddenly united, and suddenly a lot more Right, and for the first time in living memory it was possible to tell the difference between the two major parties. Conservatives are now conservative: anti-abortion, pro-war, anti-feminist, and utterly, utterly, pro-business. Liberals are still just liberals.
Now, some seem to believe, if they follow the example of the Right the Liberal Party of Canada will once again be a force to be reckoned with. But just a second. When the Right united, the Progressive Conservatives ceased to exist. What we got was not a merger, but a hostile takeover. Reform, the little Western protest party, ate the big umbrella PCs. The new party, despite the new name, is Reform, only bigger. Is this what Liberals want? To be eaten by the NDP?
No. What Liberals want, if they have any sense at all, is to lose Michael Ignatieff at the earliest possible opportunity. Polls indicate that should a Liberal-New Democrat merger occur, the party would beat the Conservatives at the polls, but only if Jack Layton, and not Iggy, was the leader. Liberals would naturally like to avoid another expensive, divisive, leadership race, but do they really want to be subsumed into the socialist party?
If Liberals wanted to be socialists, why don’t they vote NDP? Some don’t because they don’t agree with the party’s leftist ideas, others because they want to place their vote with a left-promising party that has a chance of winning, even if they never live up to those promises. Most probably vote Liberal because they hope they will be less right-wing than the Conservatives – which nowadays they might actually be.
So the biggest potential gain in such a merger would be for the New Democrats, but so would the biggest risk. Would Layton and his backroom people have the ruthless cunning of Harper and Co.? Is there a Liberal bottom-feeder so low as to take the role of Peter MacKay, who infamously made a deal with PC leadership rival David Orchard never to merge with Reform, and then broke that promise at the first opportunity?
Perhaps. Among all the decent well-meaning people who go into politics, there are always the MacKays, the self-serving, the ambitious, the mendacious, the treacherous. But in a game of mergers, one false move can mean disaster, and disaster for the NDP would mean oblivion. The socialist project that has done so much to make Canada what it is today, from health care to unemployment insurance, would die, and the national debate would be between one centre-right party and one extreme-right party.
Layton won’t do it. Nor should he. The time to talk coalition is after an election, not before. That’s when New Democrats have the best chance of influencing national affairs. A Liberal minority government that relied on NDP support would not get away with tucking its socially responsible election promises under the table as so often before.
As to a pre-election merger, Liberals are looking in the wrong place. Their natural bedfellows are the Greens. The Green Party of Canada is neither left nor right nor centre, it sways in the wind from leader to leader. Their former leader, Jim Harris, was as conservative as Harper, and last election Elizabeth May couldn’t make up her mind who she admired more, the loathsome Mulroney or what-was-his-name, the Liberal Green-Shift guy.
Greens have almost as much popular support as the NDP, and it’s among a far less educated public. If May tells them voting Liberal is good for the environment, they just might be fooled. Socialist voters have heard Layton and his predecessors slagging the Grits for years, they’re not going to buy a sudden turnaround.
So go, Michael, go. Grab that Green support, get them off the political map, where they do more harm than good, and let the Left be the Left. The NDP may never win a federal election, but if they gain enough seats to make Liberals live up to their promises, we’ll have a better country in the long run.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.