Friday, January 20, 2006

Strategic voting redux

Toronto Star

Left's missed opportunity
NDP breakthrough needs united effort

Jan. 20, 2006. 08:47 AM
CHANTAL HÉBERT


Is the New Democratic Party a flag of convenience to be waved only when nothing stands in the way of a Liberal parade? In the dying days of the campaign, it certainly seems that way.

If Jack Layton wins more seats on Monday, it will be in spite of the best efforts of a vocal section of the Canadian left. In the lead-up to the vote, many of his party's natural allies are joining their voices with that of Paul Martin to beg NDP sympathizers to abandon Layton for the Liberals for the second election in a row.

In contrast with the 2004 election, that is akin to asking progressive voters to leave a lifeboat to hop aboard the Titanic. The Liberal ship is leaking from so many holes at the close of this campaign that one can only wonder how long it would be before it sank if it ever beat long odds to sail to a narrow victory on Monday.

Still, the rationale of the activists who are rushing to Martin's rescue is that an intellectually bankrupt minority Liberal government is still better than a Conservative one.

Is the Canadian left really so weak that it needs to hide in the tattered skirts of a beleaguered Liberal party at the first hint of a right-wing wind? Those of its members who so willingly take a hand in the Liberal salvage operation can't be doing it in the expectation that the beneficiaries of progressive favours will be grateful. Not unless they ignore recent history.

The NDP would have emerged from the last election with the balance of power had not so many of its supporters answered the desperate calls for help of the Liberals. Yet, Martin's initial budget last year was anything but a token of gratitude to the left-leaning supporters who rallied to his cause. On the day of its presentation, it secured the instant support of Stephen Harper; the Tory leader knows a Conservative budget when he sees one.

It was only after Martin realized that the fate of his minority government might rest with the modest NDP caucus after all that he changed course.

Win or lose, the post-election priority of the Liberals will be to recapture the small-c conservative votes they have lost to Stephen Harper. That is hardly a prescription for a left-leaning course. On Canada-U.S. issues for instance, the top potential contenders for Martin's post are closer to Harper's views than to the current Liberal campaign rhetoric.

To this day, the federal NDP and the Canadian left are haunted by memories of the 1988 free-trade election but for different reasons. The NDP remembers it as the campaign that resulted in its best showing ever. But many left-leaning activists remember it as the time when a split in the anti-free-trade vote between the NDP and Liberals allowed Brian Mulroney to sail on to a second consecutive majority.

There are times though when looking in the rear-view mirror is the recipe for a crash.

The advent of the Bloc Québécois has changed the dynamics of the House of Commons. It may be likely to hold the balance of power in any minority Parliament but its sovereignist calling makes it an unpalatable partner for either of the major parties.

That is why the NDP, even though it did not have quite the numbers, did exert real influence in the last Parliament.

In many parts of Western Canada, the NDP is more likely to stop the Conservatives in their tracks than the Liberals, thus preventing the election of a majority government. In other parts of the country, New Democrats do pose an equal threat to both main parties. But after the election, the NDP is more likely to find common ground with the Liberals. The Conservatives for their part have no other party to turn to sustain a minority government.

A record NDP showing could have opened the door to a coalition government with what would have been left of the Liberals. That would seem, at least to this casual observer, to be the only scheme that could have resulted in the advent of a truly progressive government. But such an NDP electoral breakthrough would likely have required the sustained efforts of a united left rather than a recurrent sabotage of the Layton campaign.

When the Canadian left does its post-election soul-searching, it should ponder whether some of its leading voices allowed their fears to make them lose sight of an unprecedented opportunity to advance their values.

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