Why the Grits and NDP will merge

TheWhig.com – news/article
May 25, 2011.   By Michael Warren

Jack Layton, buoyed by his new role as Leader of the Opposition, says he is not interested in a merger. He claims that the NDP are now the only” true alternative” to the Tories. Alfred Apps, Liberal Party President, maintains that the humbled Grits must remain “a resolutely centralist political party.”

It is understandable that a merger is not currently top of mind with any of the opposition parties. But it will be. It is inevitable.

Fast forward a couple of years.

Conservative Throne Speeches and budgets yield few surprises. Harper continues to implement his election platform — reducing the deficit and the size of government while still maintaining Canada’s social safety nets. The economy and the security of Canadians are priorities. Subsidies for political parties are gone, as is the long gun registry. Criminal justice legislation abounds. Family and corporate tax cuts and credits continue. Senate reform is next.

The NDP argue passionately against most of this. But by now they are acutely aware of the limits of opposition. The checks and balances of a minority Parliament are long gone.

Layton has lost his lustre. Managing his unruly Quebec caucus is a constant — often public — struggle. Some of his 57 rookie Quebec members are major embarrassments. Others are pushing Layton to articulate his better deal for Quebec, including constitutional reform.

Quebec member loyalties prove tenuous and seats are in jeopardy. Layton realizes that he lacks a stable base from which to unseat the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the Liberals, with a new leader, reach the limits of their search for relevance. Their initial commitment to remaining a centralist party — one that would prevent the polarization of Canadian politics — is not gaining traction.

They try to re-establish themselves on the political spectrum. But they find that much of their traditional policy ground is already occupied by the movement of the Conservatives and NDP towards the center. The Liberals have become victims of their own success.

Party strategists now realize that former Liberal leader Jean Chretien was right in 2010 when he urged Michael Ignatieff to start merger talks with the NDP as the way forward. The arrogance and sense of entitlement that surrounded Ignatieff at that time prevailed. The opportunity was lost.

Elizabeth May strives for attention, but she fails to push the environment or Green Party values any higher on the national agenda. For most Canadians, economic recovery continues to trump the fight against climate change.

The arithmetic of federal politics begins to weigh heavily on both the NDP and Liberals. By late 2013 the Conservatives have governed for nearly nine years with less than 40% of the popular vote. And they show no interest in replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system. It favours the Conservatives and marginalizes the 60% of the electorate who rejected them.

Without proportional representation it is unlikely that a divided left can defeat a united right — particularity one that avoids extreme conservatism. Winning a majority government was not Stephen Harper’s greatest achievement. That took four trips to the polls. It was uniting the Alliance and Progressive Conservative Parties and then moving them toward the center. That achievement has made everything else possible.

As long as the Liberal brain trust was convinced that they were the country’s natural governing party there was no real appetite for courting the NDP. But with the tables turned, and the NDP claiming equality, if not supremacy, the conditions for a merger have improved. Both parties now bring comparable credentials to the merger table.

Money is the life blood of politics. A few years from now the Conservatives are still raising more money from their membership base than the NDP and Liberals combined. And they will have removed the publically financed per-vote subsidy — a significant source of money for the opposition parties in the past. They find themselves fighting each other for membership and funds. Another reason to consider a merger.

The Conservative majority benefited from Liberal-NDP vote-splitting on a large scale, particularity in Ontario. Dozens of ridings were won by the Tories with little more than a third of the vote. Well before the 2015 election looms, both center-left parties conclude that the only way to avoid a recurrence is for one of them to surge ahead of the Tories (which seems unlikely), or to unite against them.

At first, the policy differences between the parties seem irreconcilable. The NDP are not as comfortable with the free market system as the Liberals. They are more anti-American, have close ties to the trade union movement, and are against involvement in any foreign wars.

But as the merger discussions proceed it becomes clear that there are far more similarities than differences when it comes to major issues. A distinctive and broadly appealing center-left policy platform begins to emerge. It focuses on health care, education, equality of opportunity, the environment, and accountability: all cast in a fiscally responsible frame work.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper is enjoying his majority. And with the Liberals sidelined, he hopes for his cherished two-party system — the conservatives against the socialists. He believes that is the recipe for the Conservatives to become Canada’s natural governing party. And, he is probably right.

The message for the center-left becomes clear. Unite or lose!

R. Michael Warren is the CEO of the Warren Group. He is a corporate director and former Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager, and CEO of Canada Post.

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