how many liberal parties does canada need

The Globe and Mail reports this week that Canada's federal New Democrats are tied with the governing Conservatives in voter support.

The Globe and Mail reports this week that Canada’s federal New Democrats are tied with the governing Conservatives in voter support. Citing an Environics poll, the article points out that the NDP hasn’t actually risen in popularity, it has merely retained its overall numbers since the last election, while Conservative support has plummeted. But since the NDP has sagged significantly in Quebec, we must assume that it’s stronger elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile in B.C., the next province to hold a general election, a Forum Research poll suggests that if the vote were held today the NDP would win by such a handy majority that vote-splitting between the two right-wing parties would be irrelevant – they’d be trounced even if they merged. Add these facts to the party’s resounding victory in the Danforth byelection and things have never looked more promising for social democrats in Canada. So why are they on the verge of capitulating?

Thomas Mulcair, the frontrunner in the race to lead the New Democrats, is a liberal, formerly with a capital L. By taking the party to the mushy middle of Canadian politics, he might very well lead them to power. Dark horse Nathan Cullen has always come across as a real social democrat, and yet he believes in merging with the two liberal parties, the Liberals and the Greens, not after an election, but before. Again, this tactic might succeed in getting rid of Harper’s Conservatives, but at what cost?

Throughout the Chretien/Martin years of Liberal ascendancy in Canada, the NDP was adamant that there was little to choose between Liberals and Conservatives. At the time it was true. Jean Chretien was neither more nor less conservative than Brian Mulroney. Paul Martin gouged social programs to pay for corporate tax cuts, let interest rates push the deficit up and then did untold damage to the health-care system to get it back down again.

Under Chretien and Martin, university tuition rose out of reach of most children of the working class. Martin cut EI benefits, slashed transfers to the provinces, more than doubled Canada Pension Plan premiums, and in a move of questionable legality, helped himself to the government employees’ pension plan surplus.

According to a 2005 report by Centre for Policy Alternatives, Martin conquered the federal deficit by downloading it onto the provinces, and onto private citizens in the form of “soaring household debt” and “a very sharp decline in the personal saving rate.” Martin’s policies reduced the unemployment rate but increased the number of part-time and precarious jobs and increased youth unemployment. Spending on public education and health dropped below U.S. levels and the gap between the rich and poor began to grow.

Since achieving a majority government, the Harper Conservatives have managed to blow some large holes in the theory that there is no difference between his party and the Liberals. He dumped the Liberals’ gun registry and is in the process of creating an antediluvian prison system, which, going by the American experience, will increase crime and cost billions more than predicted.

It’s true that Harper is running a very bad show. But if you believe that social democracy is the best response to decades of bad Liberal/Conservative policy, why back off on that belief just when the only social democratic party in the country is on the ascendancy?

During the 2008 election, the Liberals and the Greens, realizing that their platforms were more or less interchangeable, co-operated in certain ridings in a failed attempt to defeat the Conservatives and Cullen is suggesting the NDP use the same tactic next time.

It might work, and it might not. It might be a way to get more liberals elected. Or it might simply mean that New Democrats, just when things are going well, drop the ball and hand power back to the Liberals.

The federal Liberals might revive with a new leader, or they might continue to demonstrate the Coriolis effect and be flushed from the political bowl forever. In the latter case Canadians would be faced with a much clearer choice on voting day – unless the NDP decides to ooze into that middle ground.

Rather than choose a liberal leader, or a leader who wants to play footsie with both liberal parties, New Democrats would be well advised to heed Ed Broadbent’s advice, and retain their social democratic principles. They might gain more seats by stealing the Big Red Tent, but in the end, what would be the point?

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.