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Voting NDP Just Got Harder

Dion will make his party more progressive, and can turf Tories.

Terry Glavin 7 Dec

Terry Glavin writes his column 'Dissent' for The Tyee twice a month. Find the previous ones here.

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Stephane Dion: embraceable

After having just come through its most traumatic soul-searching exercise in 20 years, Canada's Liberal party is now far stronger, younger and smarter than it's been in a generation. It's got a courageous and progressive Quebec federalist, Stephane Dion, at the helm, and Dion's got a stellar slate of centre-left colleagues to draw from for his cabinet appointments.

Everyone on the left in this country has a government to defeat -- it's quite possibly the most reactionary federal government in Canadian history. So, could somebody please remind me: why are we supposed to vote NDP again?

It wasn't so long ago that the New Democratic Party could make a convincing case -- as long as you didn't think about it for very long -- that there was no real difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Nowadays, you can just as easily say the same thing about the Liberals and the NDP.

Here again, though, if you think about it for just a bit you'll soon enough notice a rather big difference: the NDP doesn't actually have a chance of winning a majority in Parliament. It's never even come close and it's certainly not likely to now.

The Layton – Martin legacy

This is apostasy, I realize.

But Stephane Dion hasn't been the Liberal leader for even a week yet and he's already put his party ahead of the ruling Conservatives in the polls. He's gone out of his way to call Harper's Conservatives by their proper name (far-right, neoconservative ideologues), and you really can't get better odds that Dion will lead his party to victory. The Liberals have run the country for most of the past century. There hasn't been a Liberal leader since 1896 who didn't get to be prime minister, at least once.

This is not really fair to the NDP, though. Although we may be in the throes of a federal election campaign within months, it's still theoretically possible that some bizarre combination of completely unforeseen events could produce an alternative-reality NDP caucus with quadruple its current seat-share in the House of Commons, all, magically, at the expense of the Liberals.

And that scenario could easily put the NDP in sight of a minority government beholden only to the dregs of a theoretically vanquished Liberal Party. But when you think about that for very long, you realize that it's a scenario not unlike Paul Martin's NDP-backed minority government. Which NDP leader Jack Layton snuffed, putting Parliament, last January, in the hands of Stephen Harper, the most right-wing Conservative leader this country has ever seen.

Which brings us back to the question: why are we supposed to vote NDP again?

Right moment, wrong results

Think about all the issues of central concern to progressives in this country -- social justice, a bold agenda to cope with climate change, ecological collapse, the looming energy crisis, affordable housing, health care, the status of women, global multilateralism, reconciliation with aboriginal communities, national unity. For starters.

What is it, exactly, that makes Jack Layton's NDP so much better on these issues, so much more progressive, so much more capable, than the Liberals?

Credit where credit's due: when he arrived on the scene in 2003, fresh from Toronto city hall, Layton was feted as the shiny, happy sophisticate who was going to lead the NDP out of its grubby, class-warfare, church-basement wilderness. And in the 2004 election, Layton did manage to lead the party to its highest share of the popular vote in 16 years -- 15.7 per cent -- and 19 seats.

In last January's election, the caprice of our first-past-the-post voting system presented Layton with 10 more MPs who materialized out of a popular-vote growth of less than two per cent. But that was still 14 seats shy of the NDP's 1988, 43-seat zenith -- yes, 43 seats is the NDP's high-water mark -- and the election Layton triggered put Stephen Harper's Conservatives in power.

It was an election contested by a Liberal party that happened to be scandal-rocked, in disrepute, decay and complete disarray. It was deeply divided, and utterly dysfunctional. The Liberals were left leaderless and in worse shape than they'd been since the Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wiped the floor with them in the free trade election of 1988.

And still, the Liberals had managed to send more than three times as many MPs to Ottawa as the NDP did. The NDP had been in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, with all the right politics, and all the right optics, to cash in on the Liberal collapse. And this was the best the NDP could do, right when the Liberals were at their very worst, and their weakest.

Why are we supposed to vote for them again?

I'm not saying that progressives in Canada shouldn't vote NDP. I'm not saying I'm not going to vote NDP. I'm just asking why any of us should, given the implications of vote-splitting to the point that Stephen Harper could return at a troop strength sufficient to form a clear majority.

It's not a frivolous question. Another federal election could be upon us before next summer.

Jack's base?

I'm also wondering what, exactly, the New Democrats still stand for, as a party of the left, that sufficiently distinguishes them from the Liberals. And what's wrong with people who consider themselves on the left voting Liberal? Most British Columbians who call themselves left wing have been voting Liberal, federally, for years.

Long before Layton, the NDP had already begun its inexorable drift to the centre, or at least away from its working-class roots. Now, with federal political-party subsidies and the diminishing relevance of the NDP's organized-labour ties (the unions never could get their members to vote NDP, anyway), the NDP is no longer a party uniquely the function of a broad membership base.

It's not a working-class party anymore. It's pretty well tapped out the identity politics racket. Its tenuous claim on a distinctive "environmental" voice disappeared as soon as the Greens revved back up, and now the Liberals are taking even that. Even Canada's aboriginal leadership is now just as likely to be fervently Liberal, and the Liberals are rejuvenated, rebuilding, and back in trim.

So where are the New Democrats' votes going to come from now, exactly? Disaffected Tories? An epic struggle for the disheartened remnants of the Joe Volpe campaign? Trench warfare with the Greens' Elizabeth May for the vast, uncommitted sections of the hippie vote?

New Democrats would do us all a big favour by admitting that their party is not the only one available to Canada's centre-left voters, and the NDP is not automatically entitled to the votes of progressive Canadians, and the NDP actually doesn't possess any greater claim to the mantle of progressive politics in Canada than the Liberal party does.

Booting Buzz

It's a dangerous thing to admit, true enough. Just look what happened to Buzz Hargrove.

Hargrove is the head of the Canadian Auto Workers (the country's largest private-sector union) who decided to follow the orders of his own union members during last January's election. Hargrove publicly counselled against blindly voting NDP in ridings the party had no hope of winning, where a vote for a Liberal candidate could keep a Conservative out of power. For having that temerity, Hargrove was drummed out of the NDP

Just once, it would be helpful to hear New Democrats admit that in fact they're not the sole heirs and successors of the Tollpuddle martyrs or the brave Depression-era On-To-Ottawa trekkers. Just once, it would be nice to hear Layton admit what everyone else on the left knows only too well, which is that Harper's Conservatives are actually not the heirs and successors of John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, or Joe Clark. They're completely different from any "Conservative" party we've ever seen, and they're also different from the Liberals by several orders of magnitude.

The world is a very different place than it was in 1988, when Ed Broadbent pulled off that staggering electoral victory of 43 seats (yes, staggering). But back then, the NDP failed to sufficiently and convincingly distinguish itself as a viable alternative to the Liberals where it matters most -- in chucking out Conservatives. In the following election, in 1993, the NDP was reduced to nine seats. And it lost its official party status.

That's pretty well the juncture the NDP is approaching now, and it's the Jack Layton show.

Here's where the Liberals are.

They are quite ready to fight and win on the issues that even the most diehard NDP partisans would have to agree are the gravest questions of our time. It's also true that what will specifically emerge as Liberal party policy, from the various leadership candidates' positions, is still a bit of an unknown.

But this is definitely not going to be the Stephane Dion show.

Dion and his team

Dion is possessed of impeccable credentials as a thoughtful and brave intellectual. He may well be the favourite whipping boy of Quebec's narcissistic and isolationist elites, but he also commands the affectionate loyalty of Quebec's federalists. That's something no other federal party leader can claim, least of all Jack Layton. Not even close.

Dion came quite honestly to his choice of emphasis on "environmental" issues. By telling environmentalists exactly what they wanted to hear, he managed to avoid too much attention to the fact that it wasn't long ago that his familiarity with those issues was even less intimate than his familiarity with the English language.

Dion was appointed Environment minister only in 2004. He held the job for only 17 months. His performance, nonetheless, has made the Greens absolutely green with envy.

Dion is also a committed team player. He was drafted into politics, remember -- Jean Chrétien recruited him to revive the federalist front in Quebec at one of its darkest hours -- and Dion regards political collegiality as one of the primary virtues. Dion should be expected to take counsel from a broad array of advisors, and his caucus, and perhaps most importantly, his recent rivals for the job of prime-minister-in-waiting.

Dion is not given to hyperbole, and he wasn't exaggerating after his fourth-ballot win last weekend when he referred to his "dream team." Just between him and the other two top leadership contenders -- Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae -- there is a George Orwell prize winner, a Rhodes-scholar labour lawyer who worked for squatters in London, and a sociology professor from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. There's a Booker short-listed novelist, a former senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the only NDP premier that Canada's largest province, Ontario, ever elected.

So why am I supposed to vote NDP again?

It would be refreshing to hear a convincing, reasoned, NDP response, and not the kind of answer Hargrove got, which was, more or less, shut up and vote the way you're told.

I'm just asking, is all.

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