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Canadian Politics

Why a Liberal/NDP Merger is a Bad Idea

I know there’s Canadians who read Persephone, so let’s talk about Canadian politics! Things’ve gotten pretty interesting in the past few months.

Quick recap for those of you who aren’t Canadian or don’t follow Canadian politics at all: we had an election at the beginning of May, which resulted in the Conservatives winning a majority government, and the NDP (the democratic socialist party) winning 103 seats (up from a previous high of 43 about 20 years ago, and 38 from the previous government) and becoming the Official Opposition. The success was largely credited on the charismatic and extremely popular leader Jack Layton, who became very ill soon after the election and died of cancer in late August. So now the NDP is about to begin a leadership race to fill some very large shoes, the Liberal party is still without a permanent leader, and every now and then the idea that the NDP and the Liberals should merge crops up.

This happens primarily because under the previous minority government, the NDP and Liberal parties were ready to form a coalition supported by the Bloc Québecois, and after the Prime Minister took his ball and went home (i.e. prorogued Parliament), a few people floated the idea. I think a lot of the current spate of mutterings have to do with the fact that this configuration of government is seen as an unsustainable anomaly, and the Liberal party as a whole I think was very, very startled to find itself where it is. Most of the mutterings about mergers have come from the Liberal side of the discussion, including former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, though apparently Pat Martin is thinking of running for the NDP leadership on a merger platform. I think that the Liberals who’re advocating for a merger see it as a way to claw back to the top, where they’re used to being (i.e. not so much a merger but a takeover). I think those who support it on the NDP side see this as solidifying their shot at power, especially now that the Liberals have been trounced. But I don’t think it would play out the way either party would want it to.

While purported as a merger of the left, the Liberals are not exactly a left-wing party. They’re centrists, mostly, and lately have leaned more to the right than the left. (Note that this is Canadian left/right, not American left/right – American left is more like a Canadian centre-right.) The two parties have very different ideas, particularly when it comes to defense issues, tax management, and ideological focus. Merging a party that is supported primarily by middle and lower income citizens (the NDP) with a party that draws much of its support from business and higher-income citizens (liberals) seems like a hard merger to negotiate. That’s without considering the stance on individual issues like Afghanistan and education funding, which often don’t mesh well or at all.

I’ve heard the argument that “well it worked for the Conservatives!” but they forget that the right split up a couple of decades ago. The Bloc took the Quebec vote after Meech Lake, the Reform Party took the Western vote just before that. The Bloc went centre-left, especially after Duceppe took over, but the Progressive Conservatives and Reform had far more in common than the Liberals and NDP do. Just because it worked for them doesn’t mean it’ll work for us.

But beyond the obvious ideological differences, the math doesn’t add up voting wise; merging the two parties certainly does not mean that the amalgamated party will retain the votes of all the people who voted NDP or Liberal. Many Red Tories who find no room for themselves in the current batch of Conservatives have gone Liberal recently, but I imagine that they’d leave if the NDP joined. There’s many on the left who would not want to vote for a party that was marching ever closer to the centre, though there’s no major party further left than the NDP currently. If it were to happen, it would not be a clean merger, and I wouldn’t be surprised if groups on the left and/or right of the merged party split off. Merging is tumultuous at the best of times and so is an acrimonious split (just look at Quebec politics lately). Having both at the same time, or having a party that’s fighting itself more than the government is likely to hand the Conservatives another majority. Canadians on the whole don’t want a tumultuous government – they seem to want a government that is competent and forgettable, quietly chugging away in the background. Merging, especially with the already poor odds, is not congruent with that.

Furthermore, there is, to the best of my knowledge, little support for it from the party rank and file on either side. Alienating the people who support you by paying membership fees, volunteering during elections, and being visible supporters in their communities is not a strategy for short- or long-term success.

To top it all off, I don’t think it’d be good for the country. We now have only three major parties, since the Bloc has been decimated, and further reducing that to two opens us up to more divisive discourse like what I see in American politics. The political structures are sufficiently different that I don’t think we’d end up with the same level of discourse, but that’s not a direction I want to see this country move. We as a whole pride ourselves on being an open, tolerant nation where individual voices are heard. Having more voices, more solutions and ideas brought to the table for debate will make us a stronger nation that works for more of us, while having fewer voices puts us in danger of having the dominant political discourse come down to a yes/no argument, with whoever has more seats holding out. It’s not to say that it doesn’t already, but at least with more parties there are more opinions brought to the table to support a yes or a no. Eliminating that is not a political vision to strive for, in my book, especially when the theoretical payoff almost certainly won’t translate into reality.

I’m a bit of a politics wonk, so I’m curious – are you guys interested in me writing more about Canadian politics? If you are, is there anything in particular you’d like me to cover?

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

10 replies on “Why a Liberal/NDP Merger is a Bad Idea”

I am a dyed-in-the-wool Canadian lefty, and hold on to the massive increase in influence of the NDP as hope against the inexplicable Conservative majority currently in place. I am terrified that the Conservatives are going to muck Canada up by making it like the US. And don’t even get me started on Rob Ford. That can only be explained by poor alternatives and massive amounts of money. I often think I should move back to the Big Smoke to run for mayor because some one has to kick that turkey to the curb.

Please keep on with the Canadian politics! I need to know what’s happening (I’m currently living in Europe)!

I have a theory about Rob Ford: I think he got elected because people don’t pay attention to municipal politics, even in major cities where it theoretically is more important. So people heard the snippet of soundbites that he was stumping about “the gravy train,” and missed the fact that it was clear that his “gravy train” was made of social services, transit, and libraries (among other things). Voters heard “gravy train” and read “administration pork barreling, inefficient bureaucracy, and nepotism” and, thinking that eliminating that was a good idea, voted for him. Now that it’s abundantly clear that a) there’s not a lot of inefficiencies in how Toronto is run, and b) that’s never what Ford was talking about, everyone wants him out. But lots of people are saying they’ll vote for Hudak, who’s about the same level of fearmongering blowhard. Baffling.

Also it’s been ages since I heard anyone call someone a turkey! Love it.

Please please please continue to write about Canadian politics! There are so few feminist sites ( that I have been able to find) that  discuss Canadian issues. I understand why ( women’s rights are much more under attack in the States) but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s nice to have a place to discuss Canadian issues.

On the subject of a merger: I agree that it wouldn’t unite the Left so much as replace the current problems with new ones. Like you, I feel that the NDP and the Liberals aren’t very close ideologically these days ( if they ever were, a debate for another time), largely due to the Liberals desperately pandering to the centrist right in an effort to oust Harper. I do feel that a coalition between the NDP and the Liberals could work, and may in fact be the best possible way to manage our multi-party system. Historically, many parties generally results in coalitions; we seem to have lost this idea as time moved on but I think it’s the best solution.

I was really saddened by Jack Leyton’s death; he was a great man and a great politician. In fact,he was the most charismatic party leader Canada has seen in a decade, in my opinion.

Sorry for the novel, but provincial elections are happening here in Ontario so this stuff has been on my mind a lot. :)

I’m sort of deliberately vague about where I live now on the Internet (since the internet remembers all), but I’m from Ontario originally, and have been following the election. It’s… oy. I really don’t know what’s going on in Ontario, between voting so much for Harper, electing Ford (just Toronto, but still. The guy’s a piece of work), and now Hudak’s being taken even remotely seriously, let alone leading?! Have we/they not learned from Ford (and even Harris, going back a bit)?

I feel the same way about politics on the internet — it’s often overwhelmingly dominated by American politics, which is understandable considering for far a reach domestic American politics have, but it’s nice to find other discussions too. Glad to know I’m not alone!

I agree that a coalition (note to Stephen Harper: it’s not a swear word!) is the better option than merging.

If any two parties COULD merge it would probably be the Green Party and the NDP. Even then they might be too different, AND there’s not much point until the Green Party scores a few more seats (other than to avoid splitting the left vote I suppose).

Like many other Canadians, I miss Jack.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
– Jack Layton

On environmental platforms, the NDP and Greens could make it work. Beyond that, though, I’m not sure — the Greens have some much more centre-right business planks in their platform (or at least they did — I’m not sure how much of that is kicking around).

I was on board with a coalition when Harper was about to prorogue, because I think that’s how Parliament is meant to work: if one group can’t keep the confidence of the House, and another can, then the other should form government. It was never intended to be a permanent arrangement, it was never meant to blur the lines between Liberal and NDP — it was two parties working together with the support of a third. Not merging, not eliminating debate — working together like adults like we elected them to do.

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