How do you explain the rise of the NDP?

Something has gone awry in the Conservative push for a majority over the last two weeks. That the NDP have made it a game is not news anymore. Why this is happening is another question.

Blame the media, sort of

The Canadian media have been a big part of this story. Everyone in Canada knows that the mainstream media – with the CBC leading the charge – are, shall we say, just a bit biased towards the left of the spectrum. But IMHO even more important is their lack of detailed reporting and analytical depth.

I am certainly not what you would consider a CBC hater. The Toronto CBC station is my default, and has been ever since I remember my dad listening to “Voice of the Pioneer” Sunday mornings back in the 60s.

In the last few years I’ve become more critical of the way “serious” journalism on both CBC radio and TV has become concentrated in the hands of very few on air personnel. The predominance and omnipresence of Peter Mansbridge is the best example.

Or consider their “At Issue” panel that regularly comments on Canadian politics. The same 4 people present the same point of view week after week. Isn’t there anybody else in Canada with something a bit different to say on these issues?

The focus is on strategy, not policy

Most of the political discussions we hear at the national level are not about policies or actual issues. They are about strategy. In their attempt to appear more or less neutral between political viewpoints our national media do not do a very good job when it comes to substance. At least not directly.

For example, the whole run up to this election was about the motives of the various parties for wanting an election, or how Harper can manipulate things to achieve a majority.

As far as I can tell, the majority of the coverage during the election has not been about alternative policy proposals. It has been about polls, and most lately about the surge of NDP support. But you will have to look very hard for a critical analysis of actual policy proposals in the Canadian media. How about those thousands of doctors Layton is going to hire? How about the real cost of those jets Harper is buying? How about the real story behind the deficits of the last couple of years?

The resurging NDP

So how do we explain the renewed supprot for the NDP? First, there’s no doubt there is a large contingent of Canadians who believe increased government involvement in our daily lives would be a good thing. At the same time one gets the impression that most of us – apparently including many party strategists – have no idea of the complexity and delicately balanced nature of the economy.

The NDP and Liberal proposals regarding the corporate tax rate are a case in point. According to Jack Layton raising the corporate tax rate will bring in an easily calculated amount of revenue for the new doctors and other goodies Layton is going to give us. Sure Jack.

It is hard to believe most Canadians actually believe these “promises”. What they must see in Layton is a relatively fresh character with a more positive, sunny, less desperate attitude – the privilege of never having to seriously contemplate winning.

But what has really happened is that Quebec has shucked off the tired appeals of the BQ and gone for the only left-leaning federalist party that has not embarrassed itself over the last couple of decades. It is not hard to see why the Liberals have fallen out of favour in Quebec. And it is not difficult to see why the Conservatives do not appeal to left-leaning Quebecers.

And since voter trends in Quebec tend to influence how people in Ontario vote we are seeing a relatively important rise in NDP support in Ontario as well. Odd, but true.

Likely scenarios

The increase in NDP representation in Parliament will likely have two important effects. I think Harper is right about the effect this will have in another minority government. Layton will push hard for increased spending and higher taxes. Harper will either have to agree, or go down to defeat, thus opening the door to the much reviled “coalition” and the potentially reckless economic policies that will involve.

Second, Layton will have to pander more seriously to Quebec interests because much of his new base will be from there. In a majority situation this may relieve Harper of the need to do his own Quebec pandering. He can just let Jack do it, and do his best to ignore him.

In a minority situation things will be different. He will actually have to pay attention to Layton’s Quebec representatives – much as he has had to pay attention to the BQ. From the Quebec point of view this is a good thing, so it makes sense for them to vote NDP this time around. For whatever reason(s) this seems to be the conclusion many Quebecers have arrived at.

What will Liberals do?

The wild card in all of this is the reaction of traditional Liberal party supporters in tomorrow’s election. While it is true that Liberal support seems to have been significantly reduced, it is not obvous that traditional Liberals will end up voting for the NDP.

Many pundits assume that the natural home of disaffected Liberals is on the left, and the polls seem to support this. But come election day things may be different. Many traditional Liberals are centrists and a significant number of them are quite conservative.

Nor is it obvious that Liberals in parliament will be more inclined to vote with the NDP than with the Conservatives. In a minority parliament with the NDP as official Opposition many Liberals will be concerned with maintaining their own identity rather than enhancing the status of the NDP. The motivation for pretending to be a hard left party will be gone. Ignatieff can go back to being himself.

While a few Liberals have openly talked of a Liberal-NDP merger, many more will not support such a move – especially when they are at their weakest. In such a merger the once proud Liberal party will be reduced to an NDP splinter group – very much like what happened to the Progressive Conservative party when they merged with the Reform/Alliance a few years ago.

For Liberals it is not a good time to vote NDP. They would be better off to let Harper get his majority, and attempt a rebuilding process as the “big tent” centrist party they have always been.


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