Forget big tent: unite the left is more like big top

Here’s a hint of how clownish the whole idea is: it’s being pushed by Tory stalwarts

unite the left is more like big top

Liberals tend to lose their minds when they are out of power for more than one election cycle, and one of the more enjoyable consequences of Stephen Harper’s second minority government is seeing otherwise cagey political operators give serious consideration to some seriously bad ideas.

The latest rotten egg is the notion that Canada’s political “left”—that is, the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens—need to unite into a single party. The cost of not doing so, apparently, will be a more or less permanent camp-out in the political wilderness as the Conservatives are handed as many electoral victories as elections they care to engineer.

This idea was first seriously floated almost two years ago when the former NDP strategist Jamey Heath released his book Dead Centre, which argued that the NDP needed to move toward the centre, feast on the carcass of the Liberals, and—as his book’s blurb put it—“charge forward with a progressive agenda.”

Like just about every idea that comes from an NDP strategist, Heath’s proposal got absolutely zero pickup, least of all from Liberals who, with their 103 seats to the NDPs 29, certainly didn’t feel like a party that was down for the count and ripe for a kicking. But it is amazing what losing two elections in a row can do to Liberal confidence. One defeat, especially if it results in the smallest minority government in the country’s history, can be chalked up as an aberration. But two? Perhaps that means the prevailing electoral winds really have shifted.

The eternity of “Gritlock” ushered in by Jean Chrétien’s third majority actually lasted just long enough for Paul Martin to introduce the nation to Bono. But being more poorly acclimatized to life on the east side of the House of Commons, it has taken the Liberals just shy of three years to start having nightmares about “Torylock.” Now, having given the electoral map of Canada a once-over, they can’t see an easy route back to power, and many have started musing openly about opening the flaps of the tent and inviting the NDP and even the Greens to join them in some big centre-left party, the New Liberal Greens or something like that.

Forget big tent—more like big top. Can you imagine what a three-ringed circus this new party would be? For a hint as to how clownish the whole idea is, consider that it is being sold as a good idea by a couple of long-time Tory stalwarts—Norman Spector, who was Mulroney’s chief of staff for a spell, and Rod Love, who spent a long time as Ralph Klein’s chief fixer. When you start taking free advice from your political opponents, odds are you’ll get something worth considerably less than what you paid for it.

It is surprising that so many people seem to think that it’s likely, or even necessary, for the Liberals and the left to merge. To begin with, the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance was hardly the historic accomplishment its architects seem to think it was. Given that we’re talking here about two factions of a party that had been united, in one form or another, since before Confederation, the 15 years they spent living apart counts as little more than a brief marital spat.

In contrast, the NDP and the Liberals have no known common ancestor, and if Frankenstein politics is your bag you might as well throw the Marxists and the Libertarians into the mix and watch the nuts and bolts fly. Most NDP supporters have a manic hatred for the Liberals, and—no small thanks to Jack Layton’s success in installing Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex—Liberals are starting to feel the same way about the NDP.

Of course, even people who despise one another can find common ground when the strategic vista on offer is attractive enough. And when you do some basic math, the thought of uniting three parties that combined took around 52 per cent of the vote in the past two elections appears irresistible. If the NDP and the Liberals alone came together, they’d still be harvesting somewhere around 45 per cent of voters, enough to guarantee a healthy majority under our electoral system.

But this all assumes that support for the united party will at least match the sum of its parts. And there’s absolutely no reason to think that’s true. Many, perhaps even most, Liberal voters would be more comfortable voting Tory than they would for a party that had absorbed the NDP. Meanwhile, a great many NDP voters would sooner vote Green, or even Conservative in some parts of the country, than for a party that was dominated by the old Liberal caucus.

The Liberals have won plenty of majorities with the NDP on their left. When they win, it’s by taking votes away from the centre-right, not from the far left. Meanwhile, a merger would be a disaster for the NDP, a party whose entire raison d’être—notwithstanding Jack Layton’s recent I’m-running-for-prime-minister Walter Mitty routine—is that it is a party of conscience, not of power.

A unite-the-left movement would result in a left even more shattered and demoralized than it is now, leaving the Tories to feast on the carcass for decades to come. In recent years, close to one-third of Canadian voters have willingly cast their votes for parties that have no chance of forming a government, and there is no sensible reason to deny them the opportunity to continue to do so.