Why the Liberals and the NDP should not merge
Not this movie again...
Whenever the Liberals are down in the polls, pundits come out of the woodwork demanding the NDP and the Liberals merge to unite the left and save the country from a Conservative movement supported by a plurality, but not a majority. Had we listened to those calls ten years ago, Stephen Harper would probably still be the Prime Minister today.
There is a common misconception that one can simply take the NDP vote and the Liberal vote and add them together to come up with a likely United Progressive (or whatever you want to call it) vote, but I strongly disagree that this would actually be the case.
Each of Canada’s federal political parties is a discrete entity with its own culture, values, and supporters. All have a core of supporters who won’t go anywhere else under any circumstances, leaving a relatively thin segment of the population we refer to as swing voters to actually decide elections.
The trouble is that the Liberals, often referred to as a ‘big tent’ party, are not a sufficiently monolithic entity for simple mathematics to apply. Liberals generally enjoy both the greatest percentage of accessible voters in the country — that is, people who would in one circumstance or another consider voting for them — and the most volatile, as Liberal supporters are the most prone to swinging to other parties or simply staying home.
It is often said that the Liberals campaign from the left and govern from the right. It is an oversimplification, but it represents a reality that Liberals represent a broad cross-section of Canadian political opinion. For every Liberal who is sympathetic to NDP causes, there is also a Liberal who would jump to the Conservatives before they would ever be caught dead supporting the NDP.
Indeed, as much as there are people who see the Liberals and NDP as philosophically aligned, there is a significant wing of so-called ‘blue Liberals’ who largely see the Liberals and Conservatives as generally similar parties. There are quite a few Liberals who are not really comfortable with the current confidence-and-supply agreement between Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh, but accept it as it keeps the current government in power, and avoids an early election whose outcome is uncertain. Politicians are, after all, people too, and few want an election where their chances of improving their position are essentially zero.
Were the Liberals and NDP to merge, a whole cohort of these right-leaning Liberals would likely eventually jump ship to the Conservatives, in the hopes of restoring the Progressive Conservative approach to Canadian politics.
Moreover, I often observed in my decade on the Hill that I could get along with Conservatives without agreeing with them, and could agree with the NDP without getting along with them. It is not that the NDP are philosophically wrong on matters of policy, it is that they know they are right, and anyone who does not absolutely agree with them is a horrible human being not worthy of participation in the public space.
In my experience, many NDP supporters support the NDP precisely because they are the underdog in Canada’s elections and would shun the party were it ever to come to power. I experienced it among some of my own early supporters who had been NDP supporters, supported me with great pride and energy when I had little chance of winning, and became quite toxic with me once I was in a government rather than opposition caucus. Suddenly all that was wrong was my fault; I had become the Borg.
With that, I do not believe that NDP supporters would rally around a united party in the numbers pundits expect.
If you combine the Liberal and New Democratic party into a new entity, you will bleed so-called blue Liberals from the right, and you will bleed the protest vote faction from the left, leaving a united Liberal party with a slightly shifted demographic and roughly equivalent support to what it has now, a far cry from the united force that people see looking at spreadsheets. The protest vote would likely largely go Green, and we’d continue to have a split progressive wing.
In practice, uniting the left would remove the centre from Canada’s political discourse, leaving a left and a right wing party without any sense of balance, and far more significant lurches between the two in general elections. The uniting philosophy between Jack Layton and Stephen Harper was to destroy Canada’s centre, and cleave the country into clearly defined philosophical camps on the two ends of the spectrum. The objective of squeezing out the mushy middle would be better for both the left and the right, but not for balance and maintaining Canada as the somewhat tepid, moderate country we are happy more than proud to call home.
While electoral reform could address the problems that these shallow suggestions to unite the NDP and Liberal seek to solve, as I have written before, the reform solutions necessary are not palatable to the political parties whose job it would be to implement them.
Uniting the Liberals and the NDP would, ultimately, leave us with conditions similar to the status quo, with a net advantage to the Conservatives.