Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The NDP is real. Get used to it.

Two recent news stories--Jack Layton stating openly that the NDP doesn't want to ally themselves with the Liberals and NDP MP Pat Martin stating openly that the NDP wants to "remove the Liberals from the game board"--have many Grits in a tizzy. The latest among the tizzified is Jason Townsend from the blog The Just Society. In not joining forces with the Liberals, Townsend argues, Layton is single-handedly responsible for the "disempowerment of the progressive majority of this country." And in the comments, he states that "Jack's putting us all through a lot of misery," and we would all be better off if the NDP and the Greens would join the Liberals and form "socialist and Green caucuses" from which to fight for the things they care about. [*]

Now I'm partisan, but not blindly so. As I've said before, I think the elimination of the Liberals is a misguided goal that would result in a far more unpleasant political culture than the one we have now. I'm not opposed to the NDP joining forces with the Liberals in a real government coalition--in fact, assuming the Liberals succeed in recovering from their little corruption and entitlement problems, I'd welcome it. But I have to admit, when I see arguments like this, I see red, and it's not Liberal red. By far the biggest difference between die-hard Grits and the rest of the centre-left is that most people recognize the NDP as a full-fledged political party with its own culture, its own ideals, and its own direction. To a die-hard Grit, none of that is the case--the NDP is nothing but a fly they have to swat at, a nuisance. When Liberals try to convince NDPers to vote for them, after all, they're "uniting the left," but when NDPers try to convince Liberals to vote for them, they're "responsible for the disempowerment of progressive Canada." Mr. Townsend may suggest that the NDP would be better off as a "socialist caucus" within the Liberal Party, but why wouldn't left-wing Liberals like himself swallow their pride, join the NDP, and form a temporary "pragmatist caucus"? Liberals who find themselves scoffing at the very idea of equating those situations are the real obstacle to intraparty cooperation, far more so than Jack Layton or Pat Martin.

Some free advice for Liberals: If you want NDPers to start taking your overtures seriously, you really need to learn how to can the arrogance and approach them on equal footing. Don't say "you should all become Liberals so that we'll defeat Stephen Harper's Conservatives"; say "if you help us in this way, we'll help you in this other way." Don't claim that you're all really the same underneath the party labels; recognize and respect the differences, but stress the ways in which you can work together despite them. Don't talk about how the NDP needs to compromise in order for progressive Canada to triumph; talk about how both sides need to compromise for the benefit of the whole country. You guys are so good about recognizing that Canada is best off with a real multiculturalism that allows various immigrant groups to retain their cultural identities--it's time to recognize that it's no different when it comes to our "political mosaic" than it is when it comes to our "cultural mosaic."

The die-hard Grits have to realize that they can't just swat at the fly and make it go away--not this time. If they don't realize that, the little nuisance of a fly might just end up picking at the remains of their corpse. And they can blame Jack Layton and Pat Martin all they want, but if that does happen, it won't be anyone's fault but their own.

[*] Of course, we wouldn't even be thinking about any of this if we had an electoral system that made sense. And oddly enough, that's something Mr. Townsend and I agree on. "I'm in favour of PR," he says in the comments. But rather than work from within the Liberals to convince his colleagues that proportional representation would be all-around better for Canada, he'd rather leave the dirty work of this mutual goal to the NDP and the Greens. Why? Because his party has "done very well" by the current first-past-the-post system. I think that says it all.


Art said...

excellent post.

underdog said...

Layton is an idiot and an ego maniac more concerned about his political ego than the future of this country and it's progressive values. He's a little chiwawa lap dog for Harper and it is sick and twisted. Face it, this country will never elect an NDP government so if the far lefties are so intent on destroying the Liberals they will send the country to the far right where no NDP values will be reflected in any way shape or form. It is a fight of folly and stupidity and blindness to the greater cause which is to move Canada forward with progressive ideas. I have zero respectd for the NDP today. Pathetic stupid idiots that seem to like to befriend the NEOCONS. Perhaps it makes them feel powerful. Layton is a LOSER.

Silverwinger said...

Yes good post, the NDP are in the thick of things and if they lean a little left the cons cry foul, if they lean a little right the libs cry foul. Layton, unlikeable by the libs and cons is doing what he has to do to keep his party alive and meaningful. The libs as usual are using the shotgun apporoach to damage control, blaming the NDP for their fall from grace, when in effect if they were to look inward they would find the blame.
Some libs would like to assimilate the NDP into their collective, not to join forces but to wipe them off the political map.

Anonymous said...

I liked your post, and I do agree, the liberals approach the NDP with too much ego. However, the NDP is simply not a viable national alternative. Socialism is a great idea, but in practice, it needs to be moderated, and placed along side the free market. Social programs are a neccessary part of government, but they are not it's sole responsibility. The economy must continue to grow if the country is to prosper.
And while the Liberals have disgraced themselves in Quebec, the NDP have alientated millions of voters because of bad provincial policy (BC citizens lost 2,000 from their annual income during the NDPs BC rule.)

So, the NDP must be realistic. Full-on socialism in Canada is a niche philosphy, a 25% niche sure, but a niche none the less. Now, if that 25% were given moderate influence in a larger party, we would no doubt get great social policy, tempered by economic neccessity.

If we give the entire left-of-centre area of the spectrum over to the fringes, we are, on the left, pursuing the same mistake made on the right vis a vi the 25% evangelical minority.

To sum up, I think the NDP would best serve Canadians by joining in an coalition with the Liberals (Not joining the party though), try to influence policy, but at the same time recognize that they will never be able to form a government.

No country can be ruled from the fringes, left or right.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


"Strathcona Pink," eh? Hmmm. :-)


Ah, yes, namecalling--that'll make your side look good. Keep it up.


You're missing the point. The NDP isn't looking to be a single-party "national alternative," and thank god for it. In case you hadn't noticed, the NDP is interested in changing the electoral system so that no single party would be required to rule with an iron fist in order to render Canada stable and governable. If the Liberals are open to a coalition under those circumstances, then count me in. But help make it happen first, and then we'll talk.

Anonymous said...

The only reason we have a Conservative government is that Jack Layton wasn't smart enough to realize that the only chance he will ever have to be a cabinet minister went down the road when he wasn't quick enough to make a deal with the liberals to form a coalition with the liberals 5 minutes after PM the XPM stepped down. He might have been the resident at 24 Sussex if he was real pushy. Dumb move. We could have had the 64% of this country that are progressive in power not the 36% that haven't got a clue.

NO ONE said...

Quite honestly I think this is the most refreshing blog entry I have seen in as long time. The only thing I'm confused about here is whether or not we can get electoral reform passed on our terms without forming the government.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Thanks for the compliment. As for whether electoral reform can be passed "on our terms," well, that depends on what those terms are, and at this point that's still unclear. Is the NDP going to insist on the particular kind of electoral system that they favour most, or are they willing to compromise on the details in order to get some sort of fair voting system? Me, I hope it would be the latter, but at this point we don't know for sure.

Mostly, I think electoral reformers need to make sure that they're not relying solely on the NDP to make this happen. Electoral reform isn't a partisan issue. It's looking like there's enough momentum for the issue, though, that once it passes within one of the provinces, there will be little that anyone can do to stop it. We just have to be patient, and keep fighting.

Scott Piatkowski said...

In not joining forces with the Liberals, Townsend argues, Layton is single-handedly responsible for the "disempowerment of the progressive majority of this country."

Thanks for quoting from his blog so that I could comment on it here, rather than over there.

If the country has a progressive majority, and I think it does, then it's the Liberals who are to blame for preventing the election of a progressive government. First, they do this by pretending to be progressive during election campaigns, they create confusion among people who are inclined to vote NDP (with the willing assistance of a certain former NDP member). Secondly, by governing from the right (often the hard right), they discredit the left, thereby hurting the causes that they claim to be defending. Their arrogance, patronage and corruption damage the credibility of the left as well (since they falsely claim that they are "defending progressive values").

Mike said...


"So, the NDP must be realistic. Full-on socialism in Canada is a niche philosphy, a 25% niche sure, but a niche none the less."

If you believe that, then you are arguing against a strawman NDP just like the Cons do. "Full-on socialism" - what the hell is that? Do you even know what the NDP stands for or what its policies are? Do you even know what "socialism" is (hint: its not the NDP)?

The NDP is more along the lines of the Eurpean social democrats (think Scandinavia) than anything "socialist".

Don't rally against the myth, discover what the NDP is really about.

James Bow said...

The reason we have a Conservative government is because the Liberaals were unfit to govern. Die hard Grits should stop blaming others for their own problems. So far, Stephen Harper has been no worse a prime minister than Paul Martin would have been. Indeed, I'm calling Harper as someone slightly better, because he's willing to negotiate (admittedly at gunpoint) with the opposition in order to bring policy forward. And as long as that equation remains in effect (until the Liberals elect someone better for leader, and come back to Canadians with some humility), the Conservatives strength will continue.

Jason Townsend said...

I think a major part of my argument is that without some kind of deal along the lines I suggested, PR is a non-starter; the CPC will be dead set against it as a given, and the Liberals (as I again pointed out) have done extremely well by FPTP and need a compelling reason to be against it.

When you combine these factors with the general apathy (or outright hostility) towards electoral reform, I think you're left with the conclusion that PR just isn't going to happen as long as we continue with the status quo competition. The Greens and NDP will lack the power to implement the reform that would give them the power to reform.

Another point I made which I think was significant is that once PR was in place, the "socialist and green caucuses" of the Liberal Party would be free to go their own way again, with greater success than in the past - ditto the Western Socreds and Reformers and so on. I think ultimately we'd be better off, but this isn't a reform that will happen without a faustian bargain.

Jason Townsend said...

And, Scott, I'm sorry for my intemperate remarks on Pogge, you're certainly welcome to comment on my blog as you see fit.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I really think you've misjudged the level of interest there is in reform. There's actually been shockingly little of the so-called "hostility" you mention, and the "apathy" that's been out there in the past would be more aptly called ignorance. And that's changing. There are major initiatives in several provinces, so the public is being educated about the issue. In B.C. last year, 58% voted in favour of reform, and polls found that the more people knew about it, the more likely they were to vote in favour of it. In this past federal election, questions about electoral reform were asked at local debates across the country, as well as in the English leaders' debate that was broadcast to millions of Canadians. This issue is growing in momentum, and once people are educated about what it's really about, I think the larger parties will find it difficult to resist the public outcry and try to speak in favour of the status quo.

Electoral reform will eventually come about through a multi-partisan (or even non-partisan), citizen-driven initative, not through some sort of top-down approach. We're all in this together. If you believe in reform, you shouldn't wait around and wait for the NDP to don Liberal clothing and magically make it happen.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

P.S. to Jason:

There are many, many prominent Liberals who are starting to come out in favour of electoral reform: leadership candidate Carolyn Bennett and former Deputy PM Anne McLellan, just to name two. If you do want to try to work within your party to educate people about the issue and change minds, the bandwagon is already there.

Jason Townsend said...

Consider me on the bandwagon. However, I don't believe that 'top down' is necessarily a bad approach; the rebuke PR received in the recent PEI referendum was extremely depressing.

"Grassroots citizen's intiatives" are fine and good, but an electoral alliance, a faustian bargain, anything of that nature would get us PR now, and get Harper out to boot.

This is not about 'annexing' the NDP or arrogance; I suggest the NDP and Greens into us because we're a lot bigger. If they want to call it the Liberal Democratic party or something I'm fine with that; even if it were called the NDP we'd be dealing with the same Liberal dominated party at least for one election.

Would that be worse than interminable FPTP purgatory? In which the electoral system gives millions of NDP voters fewer seats than the Bloc? That's my point.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


If you didn't like what happened in PEI, then you should be gung-ho behind the citizens'-assembly model. That's the one initiative that failed to use one, and it's the one that's been a resounding failure. This is not an accident.

"Interminable FPTP purgatory" isn't in the cards. The movement is too strong for that. And in any case, even if it were feasible, I'm far less convinced than you are that absorbing the NDP into the Liberals would "get us PR now." Of all four of the major parties, it's actually the Liberals who have been most lukewarm about the issue in terms of party policy. That tendency would only increase if their share of the vote were more secure.

Jason Townsend said...

I'm proposing that a way for the NDP and Greens to join - perhaps temporarily - into one party with the Liberals would be to make immediate PR (on some agreed formula) an immediate priority.

If you think the malevolent Liberal bulk of this L-N-G party would immediately renege on such a deal (presumably while twirling a mustachio and cackling) well... come on.

I don't think the Liberal Party would jump at such a plan - perhaps they would in fact refuse to go for it, as I suspect the NDP and Greens would. All three parties would probably have splinter factions; nothing is ever easy. And you can bet the Bloc and CPC are dead set against it; ultimately, PR is in the interests, from a pragmatic point of view, of the NDP and Greens. (From a purely party perspective. From the point of view of cementing a permanent progressive coalition of parties with just and democratic representation, PR is the right way to go.)

However, I feel it's reasonable to speculate on the shortest distance between two points if only to create useful discussion like this.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


You're not making a whole lot of sense, here. If the real point is to work together to achieve proportional representation, then why bother merging into a single party at all? It would be terribly cumbersome for such a temporary measure--in terms of party finances, structures, cultures. Why not just have each party announce the common goal of electoral reform and the intention to work toward it together, but under separate party banners? What's the point of a merger when you can do that so much more easily?

Multiple parties announcing an intention to work together--there's a precedent for that, in many places throughout the world. But I've never heard of anything like what you're suggesting being done anywhere in the world, on any issue. And I'm really not getting why you think pulling some completely untried idea out of a hat is more "pragmatic" than the goals of the existing electoral reform movement, which has grown in leaps and bounds in a surprisingly short time.

Jason Townsend said...

The point is that seperately, we lost the election, and there are reasonable odds that seperately, we will lose the next one.

I'd rather have PR and Harper back at the NCC in 2006-7 rather than be having similar discussions 4-5 years from now.

Jason Townsend said...

To be slightly more clear, if the parties were running seperately under FPTP, the NDP's vote would be, as it is now, heavily under-represented in parliament because of the electoral system - this makes it harder to get a coalition majority. We failed to achieve one in spite of getting 52% of the voting electorate to vote Green, NDP and Liberal this winter - a travesty of democracy.

As well, in order for the Liberals to actually have an incentive to bite the electoral system that feeds, it would be nice to at least have the prospect of growing to the left on a permanent basis. (EG, of making the merger or parts of it permanent.) After all, in the most narrow of party senses, the LPC would be the 'loser' in FPTP->PR reform.

And if narrow party politics don't matter, someone please get the memo to Jack, because I think he's off message.

JG said...

This is not about 'annexing' the NDP or arrogance; I suggest the NDP and Greens into us because we're a lot bigger. If they want to call it the Liberal Democratic party or something I'm fine with that; even if it were called the NDP we'd be dealing with the same Liberal dominated party at least for one election.

The Liberals are bigger in Ontario, and that's about it of significance. Not in BC, not in Sask, not in Manitoba, and the NDP has won more votes than the Conservatives in NS in each of the last two general elections.

If the goal is PR, it really makes no sense to merge - your solution seems more like a Trojan Horse.

Jason Townsend said...

It makes sense to merge because it's the only way to bring about PR; if I'm wrong, I've yet to be convinced otherwise. I don't care if we merge into the CHP for god's sake, so long as we put the New Tories in their place and get PR, things will be adequate in the long run.

JG said...

But the Tories could still form minority governments under PR - that would not change. There will never be a guarantee that the Liberals would have more seats under PR (certainly they wouldn't at the moment), and coalitions with the NDP may not always be tenable. The solution you propose is extremely radical, and would cause far more problems than it would solve. It WILL NOT HAPPEN.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I agree with Josh. And it's pointless to continue this discussion as long as you remain convinced that it's more realistic to expect the parties to merge and then put proportional representation into place than it is to expect proportional representation to be accomplished without a merger. That's not realistic, and it's not pragmatic, and it's not supported by a look at how politics tends to work throughout the world.

Jason Townsend said...

Well, I suppose as the arbiter of truth and comparative politics, you have the final say? Phew, that saves a lot of work.

JG said...

Right, Jason, that's exactly what IP said. But on the subject of comparative politics, can you point to a situation where a strategy like this has worked? I can't think of any offhand.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I'm not the arbiter of truth and comparative politics. I don't have to be; looking at the world's countries' collective experience is a mighty fine arbiter already.

If you do have information on a proposal like yours having worked somewhere in the world, though, I'm all ears.

Jason Townsend said...

I also can't think of a situation where 5 fairly successful political parties have contended in a FPTP system which strains to adequately represent 3; the regional concentration of the Bloc further skews the system. I am familiar with the course PR has taken in Britain and continental Europe and I really don't see an 'easy' route to it in Canada.

To find a bit of middle ground here, I do support the idea of an electoral coalition (one progressive candidate per riding) to accomplish the same ends - again, with an ironclad agreement to implement PR with a coalition majority. But I think, sadly, that's almost as far out of reach as a merger and with slightly less election-winning power. (Also slightly less appeal for the LPC, although that's perhaps not critical.)

The trouble is the parties (barring the BQ) are quite strongly committed to being "national contenders," running 308 candidates. If you look at my statistical note in Mahigan's POGGE post, I've laid out how brutally unfair that particular stricture is for the NDP and the Greens.

I'm sorry if I've seemed to beat you over the heads with this merger idea ad nauseum; but I'd really like to see the Liberals and NDP work on the issue of the left 50% of Canadians having so much less electoral power than the right 50%.