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Federal Politics
Election 2015

Suck It Up, Progressives: We Need a Coalition Now

A short-term, hard-knuckle run at the Conservatives is possible, but requires sacrifice.

Ian Gill 15 Apr

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver, and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

When the starter's gun finally sounds on the 2015 federal election race proper, the smart money will be on Stephen Harper to jockey the Conservative Party to another term in power. As tragic as that might seem, what is even more galling is the utter negligence and complicity of the federal Liberal and New Democratic parties in inviting Harper to leave them -- and us -- choking on his dust once again.

In his superbly wise book, Harvest, the British writer Jim Crace writes that "only a fool would strap a saddle to a wooden bench and hope to ride it home." Well, in Canada, we have two such fools -- Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair -- who will sit out the election race on their saw horses, Justin's mane and Tom's muzzle unruffled by the breeze of electoral success, while Harper plods ahead on his draft horse, two fat arses ahead of two flat-ass fools.

What's at issue is the intransigence of the Liberals, and the half-heartedness of the NDP towards the notion of forming a coalition of some sort to defeat the Conservatives on Oct. 19.

Both parties must know that neither comes to the contest fully fit. Yes, the NDP made extraordinary gains in the last election, but the orange wave that swept Quebec, in particular, has ebbed. Tom Mulcair, good as he is, is no Jack Layton. The Liberals, meanwhile, have made respectable gains under Justin Trudeau in some areas, particularly in urban ridings. But Justin, slick as he is, is no Pierre Trudeau. As my colleague Bill Tieleman recently noted, a national Ekos poll in late March had the numbers stacked thusly: Conservatives 32 per cent; Liberals 28; New Democrats 23. "None is close to the magic 40 per cent needed for a majority government," Tieleman wrote, while at the same time opining that a progressive coalition of Grits and Dippers is unlikely.

It is entirely understandable why this view is widely held. Tieleman, among others, points out that old guard NDPers don't see anything remotely progressive in the way the Liberals view the country. That said, Mulcair and his finance critic Nathan Cullen have publicly entertained the notion of a pre-election pact with the Liberals, but it's been turned down flat by Trudeau. Mulcair's rationale: "My first priority is to get rid of Stephen Harper.... We are a progressive party. We want to get results." And evidently, he doesn't believe the result on Oct. 19 is going to vault the NDP to power, or even a share of power sufficient to spill the incumbent.

In the Globe and Mail recently, long-time NDP stalwart Gerald Caplan suggested, channeling Freud, that the antagonism between the Liberals and the NDP could be attributed to the "narcissism of small differences," but it is more likely the narcissism of large egos. Mulcair is open to a coalition, he says, but derides Trudeau as a self-centred, entry-level airhead: hardly a lubricant for the smooth joining of ambitions. Trudeau, meanwhile, insists there are substantive policy differences between the Liberals and the NDP, which of course there are.

But are the two parties more at odds with each other than they are with Harper?

Of course not, but the fact is that left to these two leaders and their party machines, no public expression of a willingness to work together seems on the cards, even though 60 per cent of Canadians favour it over the barely 40 per cent who put Harper in charge last time. Kaplan says a coalition "has no chance of buy-in from either party before election day" even though, in his view, "saving the country demands nothing less."

To underline the conundrum: a majority of Canadians favour a coalition to unseat Harper, the two parties with the most to contribute to a coalition cannot find a route to a power-sharing agreement in advance of the election, so odds are Harper will govern again, possibly with a minority, but governing nonetheless -- and then after the election, according to former NDP MP Ian Waddell, "there will be a big shakeup.... The NDP and the Liberals are going to have to look at each other and say, 'Do we join? What do we do?'" But of course they will ask that question of themselves from their accustomed seats on the wrong side of the House, and a majority of Canadians will once again have a government they don't want putting the finishing touches on a country they don't recognize. Fucking brilliant, eh?

Play dirty

So here's an idea.

How about the Liberals and the NDP decide to work together under the cover of (relative) darkness and steal the election from Harper? Then, when the seats are counted and Harper is out on his oily ass, Bairding his way onto energy company boards back in his beloved Alberta, the Libs and Dems can argue over their policy differences and decide who gets to be PM and who gets what cabinet posting and how power is shared from a position of power, rather than planning for what they might do in 2019 while Harper gets to finish his masterpiece unimpeded.

How might the parties go about this? Well, try this for size -- recognizing, please, that I have never belonged to a political party, I don't know and I frankly don't care to know the first thing about how party machines actually work, I have never run for anything other than the board of Vancity credit union, and I live in a riding where you could run an orange housebrick as the NDP's candidate and it would get elected. So this is not some carefully crafted strategy by a party fixer/pollster/pundit (but then, look where that kind of expertise got us in the last provincial election). No, I'm just a nattering naif of negativism (with apologies to Spiro Agnew/William Safire) who thinks the so-called progressives are afraid to get out of their comfort zones and play dirty.

The Liberals and the NDP can continue to tell the country with a straight face that they are running full slates of candidates from sea to shining sea. No one needs to lose face, and Mulcair and Trudeau get to keep their egos intact (if not in check) by not publicly resiling from their stated positions that they oppose each other as much as they oppose Stephen Harper and Elizabeth May. They're in it to win it, blah blah blah.

On the ground, however, the parties figure out which ridings are going to play straight into Harper's hands by splitting the progressive vote sufficiently to give the Conservatives seats they don't deserve. In the last election, the Conservatives won the country with just a few thousand votes distributed across 14 ridings. This time around, there are more ridings in total, but only some of them will be critical to the overall national outcome. A large Innovative Research Group poll in Ontario shows significant Liberal gains in Canada's largest electoral battleground, and confirms a slide in NDP fortunes there. But in the Globe's analysis of the IRG poll, "there is still potential for a lot of narrow Liberal misses" in Ontario, and where they do pick up seats, it may well come at the expense of the NDP, not the Conservatives.

How many ridings are there where this dynamic of mutually assured disappointment is at play -- and not just in Ontario, but also in B.C., and Quebec? No doubt more than 14, especially if in some places the Greens are factored in as potential spoilers. Which ridings exactly? I don't know, but you can bet your cotton socks the parties do. The question for the NDP and the Liberals is what are they actually prepared to do, when and where, riding by riding, in the event that one of them has an odds-on chance of pipping the Conservatives at the post?

Calling all martyrs

Just for argument's sake, let's say there are about 30 ridings where a coalition for the spilling, so to speak, would make the difference between Harper winning or not. What if, with the tacit but not public endorsement of the parties centrale, the Liberals and the Democrats each run candidates in those ridings, but consciously work together to get the vote out only for the candidate who can knock off a Tory. Radical as it sounds, and okay, ridiculous as it might seem, that means you have Libs and Dems getting the vote out for Liberal candidates in some of those swing ridings; ditto on behalf of NDP candidates in others. Between them, the parties pick up 30 seats they wouldn't otherwise win, and the Tories lose seats they don't deserve to win. Stalwarts for each party who simply cannot stomach the thought of voting anything but their favoured party can still do so, since they will still have a candidate on the ballot. But if, during the campaign, the grassroots rallies around one progressive candidate, not two, then maybe, just maybe, mission gets accomplished, and Harper gets the hook.

Yes, that means in each of those 30 ridings, one candidate has to agree to fall on his or her sword, but since by splitting the vote they aren't going to get elected anyway, what will they really have lost? The right to fight for second or third? How Canadian. Get over it.

In an interview with the Hill Times, Waddell echoed what the Ekos poll back in December said about a majority of Canadians wanting someone to figure out how to unseat Harper. "I believe... the public would like to see them (the Liberals and the NDP) get together, before the election (emphasis added). That would ensure the defeat of the Harper government." While Waddell wasn't talking to what I am proposing here as a way to get the parties working together, he did acknowledge that at the riding level, it's hard to disrupt people's loyalties. "It's hard for traditional NDP insiders and workers," Waddell said. "They want to fight the Liberals and the Liberals want to fight them."

For the most part, in most parts of the country, they should go ahead and do just that. But in maybe 20, maybe 30, maybe even 50 ridings, they can't if they really want Harper gone. It might seem a lot to ask -- candidates to lie doggo, campaign workers to cross the floor (or the street) and sleep with the enemy for six weeks -- and yet, as Gerald Caplan wrote in the Globe, "some kind of long-term rapprochement between the NDP and the Liberals must be pursued. Don't think, after a lifetime of deep attachment to the NDP, it doesn't kill me to write these words. But anything else is a recipe for continued Conservative rule, a fate that Canadian progressives must not inflict on our country in the name of party loyalty (emphasis added)."

All I'm saying is, don't wait till after the election to craft a "long-term rapprochement" when a short-term, hard-knuckle run at the Conservatives is possible. The leadership for this needs to come from the critical ridings, and it needs to be organized so as to add up to enough seats to tip the scales. Afterwards, with Harper gone, the parties can squabble themselves silly about who gets to play what role in a Liberal-NDP coalition. And the candidates who effectively stood down to bring this to pass? Well, instead of being just another wannabe who lost to a Tory, they can be publicly lionized as one of the selfless Dirty Thirty, or however many it turns out to be, who helped run Harper out on a rail.

It's time for progressives to handicap Harper and make election history in Canada, not doom us all to repeat it -- and Tom and Justin don't have to get off their high horses to do it. The grassroots just needs to giddy up, lest the race be lost before it starts.  [Tyee]

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