When standing in the voting booth today, a fair number of Canadians will be voting against a party, regardless of their feelings on the severity of the financial crisis, the validity of our action in Afghanistan or the plight of the environment. Supporters of Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be voting against the hard to understand (read: French) academic, the smug Communist and the woman. Voters for one of the leftist parties will be voting to “stop” the Harperites and their evil agenda, whatever it may be. This trend of anti-support has been demonstrated in some of Canada’s higher profile elections. The dramatic defeat of Kim Campbell had more to do with Canadians flipping the bird to Brian Mulroney (whom they had elected with a record majority only 5 years earlier) than an outpouring of support for the little guy from Shawinigan.
Not every part of the country acts this way. Western voters have been consistent in their strong support of rightist parties and the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and new Conservative Party have greatly benefitted from ideological clarity. It may be dismissive to suggest that this base was created by playing off the more simplistic needs of rural voters for whom taxation and patriotism seem to be the key issues, but one need only watch the line-up of Conservative election commercials to see the proof. Early in the campaign, Mr. Harper’s team successfully played off Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s inability to explain his Green Shift plan, painting it as a tax grab. This may not have convinced urban voters, but people in the West, who hate taxes almost as much as they hate the Liberals (read: French people) were sold. Within the first day of the campaign, the Conservatives solidified their base in the West—as well as their minority—and could focus on everyone else. This was not so much as strategy as a foregone conclusion and although Mr. Harper is likely to be returned to power, his inability (and the inability of his predecessors) to gain substantial ground outside of the Western fortress has to be seen as a failure.
The good news for Mr. Harper is that the Liberal Party doesn’t currently have a base upon which to build. Even electing another Quebec native as their leader has not assured them dominance with in their old fortress of Quebec. Westerners don’t get a man in the big chair very often and they are right to relish its preservation. The average Quebecer, on the other hand, would have to look a long way back to remember a time when one of their “countrymen” wasn’t the current or recent ex-Prime Minister so the promotion of a Quebecer in the Liberal party is the norm and doesn’t carry with it a boost in support. As his cultural background doesn’t necessarily score him points inside Quebec and is arguably a massive debit in the West, the Liberals have been forced to put their fortunes in the hands of the truly conflicted; Ontarians and Urbanites. Leftists used to think it was funny to watch right-wingers eat each other in the days when the Conservatives and Reformers used to split each other’s vote with extra help from the Bloc in Quebec. The contention at the time was that if “those guys” formed an Alliance we (leftists and urbanites) would all be screwed. “Those guys” not only got together, but created a new political reality where leftists that are splitting a smaller share of the vote into more pieces. The big loser is of course the Liberal Party which is being forced to fight its ideological ally for the urban vote.
In this leftist civil war, the biggest loser will be the NDP. The New Democrats share of the left-wing vote is a roadblock to a Liberal government, thus enabling a Conservative one and Jack Layton’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility of a coalition has made his oft repeated contention that removing Mr. Harper is of dire importance to Canadians seem disingenuous. Worse for the party is that their leader, arguably the best one they’ve had since the great Ed Broadbent, is still perceived to be smug or “elitist”. Rural voters rarely support an urbanite, hence Jean Chretien’s aforementioned referrals to his quaint upbringing. Mr. Layton is undeniably urban for that reason may never be able to connect with rural voters without whom he can never hope to govern.
The mere existence of the Greens on the national stage is a sign that the NDP has lost the plot, so focused on the impossibility of governing that they are no longer communicating with their “base”; students, unionists, Communists and “average working families”. This might be a small and fickle base, but after spending decades gaining supporters, abandoning them now in the quest for populism is a grave and tragic mistake that will haunt the party, possibly forever. While Jack Layton is trying to be more appealing to all Canadians, the Greens wandered onto Canada’s campuses and found a hungry and relatively untapped group of people were being underserved. As the NDP are trying to eat the Liberal’s populist lunch, the Greens find themselves gobbling up the leftovers of the NDP. Although their strategy is correct, one must become move towards the centre if one wants to fully govern. (Mr. Harper has consistently ignored this fact.) The New Democrats have moved too fast, seeing weakness in the Liberals as their chance to govern instead of what it really was, their chance to be the Opposition. This puts the NDP in the position of having to “lead, follow or get out of the way”; either uniting as a party behind the Liberals for the big win (unlikely), getting the Liberals to unite behind the NDP (really unlikely) or slowly but loudly fading into irrelevance.
If defeating the Conservatives is the goal of both the Liberals and NDP, they must unite to form a coalition. This will not be easy, but if they have the maturity to hold it together, then can reap equal rewards. The NDP will get the political legitimacy they’ve always wanted while skipping the Opposition step they seem loath to take. Stéphane Dion gets to be Prime Minister and prove that he’s more than “worth the risk”? As the Liberals will likely have the most seats in this coalition, they should form the government. However, they would be very foolish to exclude the NDP from the cabinet. There is substantial risk is forming a coalition. If the leaders cannot contain their egos and the government does not last more than 18 months, the electorate will obliterate both parties in the resultant general election.
Should the Conservatives win a larger than expected victory today, pundits will be debating the effect of negative advertising on the Liberals. This unfairly credits the Conservatives for their “clever” ads and the voting public for being rubes. The 2008 election should rather go down in history as a collision of terribly run campaigns. For their incompetence the Conservatives will be left with only their fortress, the Liberals with the scraps, the NDP with the cities and the Greens with legitimacy. If the left can’t find a way to play nice with each other you can expect to see parliament looking the same way for a long time.