A rainbow that’s anything but a coalition

November 26th, 2007
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From the editorial page of the Calgary Herald, November 18, 2007 (original, slightly longer version):

How disunity among Canada’s left-leaning parties is helping Harper govern like he has a majority

It was a portentous moment in Canadian politics. Basil Eldon “Buzz” Hargrove, the bombastic but influential president of the Canadian Auto Workers, was being kicked out of the NDP. It was February 2006, soon after the Conservatives had won the federal election, and was the culmination of many insults to the decades-old and formerly profitable relationship between Big Labour and Canada’s main social-democratic party.

Hargrove’s ejection was another example of the fragmentation of Canada’s left. This had been both reflected and advanced by Hargrove’s increasingly lurid departures from the unwritten code of the Big Labour-NDP relationship. He’d complained that its policies weren’t left-wing enough and were failing to protect workers’ interests. He’d suggested union members engage in “strategic” voting – i.e., not always vote NDP. Finally, in seeking to stop the Conservatives he had effectively endorsed the hated, scandal-ridden Liberals and had even urged Quebeckers to vote for the Bloc Quebecois.

NDP leader Jack Layton’s rage was as intense as his payback was pitifully symbolic. The bottom line was that Canada, a country that even an avowed conservative must admit is a majority left-leaning society, elected a Conservative government with just over one-third of the popular vote. And there were now four – four – federal parties purporting to speak for left-leaning voters.

This has helped what many foresaw as a tottering, unstable minority to govern almost like a majority. The four parties not only compete, they have wildly differing priorities. How hard should they vie for the political centre? How far dare they trail prime minister Stephen Harper to the right before being outflanked on the left?

Though overused by the Conservatives’ negative TV ads, Stephane Dion’s anguished cry – “Do you think it is easy to make priorities?” – was revelatory. Nowadays, so many policies that appeal to one interest group or demographic repel two or more others. The left is a collection of splinters that can’t seem to be assembled into an appealing platform, let alone glued into a winning coalition. In that setting, how do you make priorities?

There’s been a breathtaking reversal of fortune in Canadian politics. Vote-splitting afflicting the right was a key feature of politics throughout the 90s. The endless war between the battered Progressive Conservatives and the stronger but clearly limited Reform Party – and later the Alliance Party – prevented a right-of-centre comeback. The need to “unite the right” was recognized, but the left would benefit as long as it remained unfulfilled. The Liberals co-opted just enough of their conservative opponents’ policies that many concluded they had become Canada’s natural governing party.

Today the right’s wandering in the wilderness is a memory. It’s the left that’s split. The disarray has been remarked upon, but far less so than the previous phenomenon. Sociologists, historians and social critics will argue over for decades over why one half of Canada’s political spectrum became so cluttered.

For sure, the demographics of the left have changed profoundly, starting nearly half a century ago and accelerating in the last 15 or so years. Historically, the left drew its support from two main groups: the poor and near-poor – the “proletariat” in Marxist lingo – and a much smaller group of intellectuals, pontificators and activists who saw themselves as the vanguard of the revolution. Tensions existed, but a single party could reconcile them. Numerous movements worldwide self-consciously styled themselves “Labour” parties.

Nowadays, the post-modern left is a ratatouille of demographics, interests, agendas. From young hard-core anti-everything rock-throwing dirtbags to environmental obsessives, vocal denizens of the entertainment industry, unionized public-sector workers heavy on wage-inflating self-interest, hate-ridden paranoids who believe Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan is about “blood profits”, and multiculturalist advocates, just to name a few species. Canada’s left today is certainly a rainbow – but it’s anything but a coalition. If anything, ordinary wage-earners are more likely to be Conservative supporters.

Meanwhile, former stalwarts of the left wander off on personal journeys. Hargrove himself has undertaken a reinvention from street-fightin’ tribune of the workingman into a courtier to Liberal prime ministers and hobnobber with Magna über-capitalists. To illustrate how complicated things have become, recent evidence suggests the richest cohorts in the U.S. now support mainly the Democrats, a party that lately has moved sharply to the left.

Even the language is changing. The campaign ads of Lorne Calvert, Saskatchewan’s hugely successful NDP premier who’d been canny enough to adopt decidedly non-traditional policies, still talked about protecting “average” people. Voters didn’t enjoy this combination of class struggle and condescension. Nowadays, whimsically eclectic is the new average. Two weeks ago, Saskatchewan’s NDP were thrown out.

Things are changing in Quebec as well. The Bloc is a social-democratic party that functioned as a big tent when sovereignty or separatism was the main issue, attracting a large part of “Les Bleus” or politically conservative Quebeckers. The waning of the sovereigntist impulse caused Bleus to drift to the Conservatives, making the Bloc a more nakedly socialist party – and a smaller one.

The left’s atomization creates daily challenges for the left-leaning federal parties.

The Liberals claim to support tax cuts – and did cut taxes while in office. On this issue, they’ve seemed eager to outflank the Conservatives from the right. Yet in virtually the next breath, Dion launched a “War on Poverty”. He not only regurgitated shopworn 60s lingo, his timing was bizarre, coming amid low unemployment and soaring incomes.

Scoffs one Conservative official: “What’s Dion thinking? Is he trying to mine the ‘voting armies’ of the homeless? The Liberals could be going out and claiming credit for the spectacular economic gains in the 90s and the dramatic reductions in poverty.”

The recent motion by Conservative Senator Hugh Segal for a referendum to abolish or reform the Senate might have died a political footnote, crushed by the Liberals’ Senate majority. Instead it’s become a major headache for two opposition parties. The NDP simply loved the idea and endorsed it in the House of Commons, raising it from anachronism to major initiative.

Dion has railed against it, hurling adjectives unmoored to facts and making it clear that, had the idea been his own, it would have made perfect sense. It’s problematic for the Bloc as well. On the one hand, the Bloc insists on a Quebec veto for any constitutional change. On the other, it’s drawn to the notion of getting rid of the Senate, whose existence suggests that all provinces matter, not just Quebec. But for the Conservatives, the Senate issue is win-win.

More messily and at greater risk, the Conservatives played the opposition to a draw on climate change, apparently persuading much of the populace that Kyoto is yesterday’s news and that de-industrializing Canada for nothing is not the way to go.

Then there was Dion’s infamous deal to allow Green Party leader Elizabeth May to run unopposed in Peter MacKay’s riding in Nova Scotia. Was this a stepping stone to a real alliance, or mere opportunism to chisel votes from the NDP? Either way, it caused further anger and division within Liberal ranks.

News media commentary often focuses on Harper as strategic genius – some even say “evil genius”. In fact, Harper draws much of his strength from his opponents’ weakness. He tends to shape policies and legislation to be just palatable to one or two opposition parties while driving the rest crazy. Many of his moves win broad appeal – often thanks to the fact one opposition party and its voters also like them. Harper has managed to push so much through that outsiders could be forgiven for assuming Canada has an ordinary majority government.

That the Conservatives are now, at long last, taking hits over the Schreiber-Mulroney scandal merely underscores the left’s disarray on substantive policy issues. Even here, the opposition parties can’t quite get past their mutual hatred. During Question Period last week, the NDP’s Pat Martin spent nearly as much time reminding everyone of the Liberals’ scandal-ridden past as he did trying to get some dirt to stick to Harper.

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By George Koch
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