Cold water on the merger talk

It seems to me that every time someone gets Jean Chrétien in front of a camera these days, they get him to talk about a Liberal-NDP merger, and then they run clips about it for a week or so, and get partisans to wail and gnash their teeth – at least until something else shiny comes along. And once again, that particular pot is being stirred, this time with Chrétien looking back and saying that he should have “united the left” back when he was Prime Minister, and that somehow such a merger would “stabilise” our political landscape, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

I am forced to wonder about Chrétien’s recollection of his time as Prime Minister with relation to the NDP – they had a very small handful of seats, and had a couple of leaders who were unable to find traction with the electorate. Chrétien had his successive majorities, and there would have been little tangible benefit for either party, with the NDP acting as the conscience of Parliament – a role they would have been unable to pursue in a Liberal government. Not that there wasn’t a great deal of debate within the Liberal ranks over some of their own policy issues.

This having been said, I go back to the usual questions about the “merger” narrative. Despite the received wisdom that the “left” is divided in Canada, I find it a pretty specious argument insofar as the Liberals are not really a leftist party, nor did they come from common beginnings as the old PC and Reform parties did. While yes, both Liberals and New Democrats have a generally liberal set of values, the Liberals are also a party that believes in things like the free market economy, which is not generally a leftist value. In fact, it’s a belief that remains one of the key sticking points as to why a merger between the Liberals and NDP could never actually work out because it is such a fundamental value when it comes to governance. Let’s not forget that there is still a very active socialist wing within the NDP that would never go for such a merger.

Just because the NDP has been typified as “Liberals in a hurry” it doesn’t mean that their goals don’t have irreconcilable differences. This goes beyond the bitter acrimony that NDP partisans feel toward the Liberals, where they often spend more energy attacking the Liberals than they do the Conservatives. Like Harper, they too won’t be satisfied until the Liberals are in the dustbin of history – that’s not exactly friendly turf to begin merger talks on. And just because the goals of a more just society may look the same, it doesn’t mean that the ends will justify the means, with the Liberals looking toward market-oriented solutions of greater prosperity instead of more redistributive means that the NDP espouse with higher taxes for the rich, and handouts for all.

(As an aside, one could also argue that the left-right divide in Canada has become doubly confused because our rightish Conservatives have dumped a lot of their right-wing values in favour of populist measures, as have the left-ish NDP, while the Liberals have largely been a rather amorphous “big tent” trying to be all things to all people. But I digress).

But then come the plaintive cries of the “progressive” voice of the electorate – how do they defeat Harper if they can’t combine their votes? Well, before we take that train of thought much further, let’s remember that the math there doesn’t actually add up. It seems to assume that Liberals would necessarily vote for the NDP if they didn’t have a Liberal option on the ballot, or vice versa. That’s the thing with a more centrist party like the Liberals is that they have a membership that straddles both sides of that divide, and a not unsubstantial number of them have a severe allergy to NDP economic theory and would much rather vote Conservative, and if not vote Conservative, then not vote at all. Likewise with New Democrats, and if they won’t vote Liberal, then there are socialist or Marxist-Leninist fringe parties that would more suitably fit their views on how to manage the economy.

And if we’re agreed that there is no easy solution, then what is the solution for those parties to defeat Harper and his Conservatives? The same as any other party has had to do since before Confederation – find a compelling enough narrative to convince the electorate. Let’s face it – the Liberals haven’t been able to find one in years. And once you have that narrative, you have to sell it. Harper has learned how to do that, and the Liberal hope that people will wake up and realise that their way makes more sense hasn’t proved effective. The NDP got much better at selling their message in the last election.

Add to narrative is the needs to engage the grassroots. The Liberals still haven’t rebuilt their grassroots that they not only let go to waste, but actively subverted with parachute candidates and centralised power games for years. Similarly, the NDP has to actually build their grassroots in places like Quebec, where they didn’t even have active riding associations in a variety of places. (Conversely, the Conservatives continually marginalising their own grassroots ridings will eventually come back to bite them). Building support on the ground is as much a part of an election campaign as the air war.

We also can’t forget that governments in this country tend to defeat themselves, and the Conservatives certainly have made a number of blunders and assaults on our institutions. It remains up to parties to be able to make those failures stick to the government, rather than jumping from shiny issue to shiny issue, before the next election comes around.