The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What Is the Cost of NDP Losing Canada?

Canadian Flag

The Maple Leaf

Many voters were in “Anyone but Harper” mode, but an NDP victory would have restructured Canadian politics for a generation, and very likely more. The NDP collapse to third place was a disaster for the majority of Canadians.

Canada has been ruled by either the Conservatives (in different incarnations) or the Liberals, since Confederation. The Liberals ran the lion’s share of that, but the Conservatives had their runs, as well.

The Liberal party would campaign left and “govern center,” which, since the 90s, meant embracing the neoliberal consensus.

In every election, the NDP would show worse numbers than those of its natural support base because of strategic voting; left-wingers would run to the Liberal Party to “Stop the Conservatives.” Often, this wasn’t even necessary. In many ridings, the competition was between a Liberal and a NDPer.

As a result of this dynamic, Canada has been run as a much more conservative-centrist country than is justified by the beliefs of the population.

Additionally, the First Past the Post electoral systems reward a geographic clustering of the vote, leading to parties being rewarded for serving regional interests and inflaming regional prejudices. A clustered body of support (as with the Conservatives in Alberta and the West in general, or the Bloc Quebecois) would reap a disproportionate number of MPs.

In this election, what was at stake was a chance to change this dynamic.

The “run to the party which can beat the Conservatives” dynamic could have been transferred to the NDP–and almost was (remember, they had the lead going in to the campaign). Once that had been the case for a few elections, it would be as natural to people as the old “run to the Liberals” dynamic.

But transferring that dynamic is not what the NDP wanted. What they wanted was electoral reform so that people didn’t need to vote strategically to stop the Conservatives.

Just one elected NDP government managing to implement electoral reform would change the entire nature of Canadian politics. These would make another Harper impossible for a generation or two. They would mean that most governments would be coalition governments, with the natural coalition being Liberal-NDP, and with Conservative coalitions being much milder because they must rule with a more left-wing party on their flank.

Canada’s population is center-left. Sixty percent of the voting population would never vote Conservative. Electoral change would help Canada’s governments to reflect that, rather than being about the committed plurality, leaving us with eight to ten years of Conservative rule every 25 years or so.

This is what was at stake in the last election. It was a Big Deal.

The worry now is that we’re back to status quo. The Liberals and Conservatives swap being in government, the Liberals run to the left and govern to the center and Canada continues its nasty rightward trend (of which the Liberal governments of the 90s and 00s were a part) with some jogs leftward, primarily on social issues (which are important, but don’t trump the damage of neoliberal economics).

This election mattered, and it should have been about much more than “Get Harper Out.” Conservatives were not destroyed by this election. They did fine, they just took a normal loss. The party that was devastated was the NDP.

The price of that is likely to be severe, and this is true even if Justin Trudeau keeps the majority of his promises.

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Consequences of the Canadian Liberal Majority


What Type of Electoral “Reform” Might Canada’s Liberal Party Enact?


  1. Dan Lynch

    “The party which was devastated was the NDP.”

    I’m not a Canadian and don’t understand all the issues but as Warren Mosler likes to say, you should never vote for anyone who wants to reduce the budget deficit. Anyone who calls for a balanced national budget, as the NDP did, is not fit to hold public office.

    It’s not enough for progressives to have good intentions, they must also be competent. Most aren’t. Canada does not need a Syriza.

    So where do we go from here? Probably not the ballot box. 🙁

  2. LC

    Out of curiosity, do you have a preferred electoral reform? (I find that while many people agree FPtP doesn’t work, they can split quite strongly on what to replace it with.)

  3. Ian Welsh

    One term of balanced budgets with increased taxes on the rich and corporations would not have been a disaster.

    LC: Half geographic, half party list would be reasonable for Canada.

  4. marku52

    A balanced budget is a disaster or not, depending on the status of the current account (mainly the trade balance in most cases). If the CA is in deficit (like it has been in the US for nigh on 30 years), then the government MUST run a deficit at least that large to prevent the private sector being starved. Likewise, if the private sector is scared and saving, the government must again be in deficit or the private sector starves again. Government dis-saving (or a CA suplus) is the only place private savings can come from.

  5. Ian Welsh


    Canadian firms, like American firms, are holding record amounts of cash and not spending it.

    You want shit done, you just take it away from them and spend it. Simply increasing the “private” side of the equation is not particularly meaningful. What corporations and people are doing with money is far more important than how much they have.

    Simple accounting identities do not match up to actual economic activity.

    I do not wish this posts comments to turn into a discussion of MMT.

    I may deal with MMT at longer length at some point in the future, but for now, I’d appreciate it if it were dropped. Even if you are 100% right, I’ll take 4 years of no deficits in exchange for electoral reforms which could be expect to last for decades and reshape the nature of Canadian governments for generations.

  6. EmilianoZ

    Let us note that Justin is a Gen X-er, maybe the first of his kind to attain a position of significant power. As such, his arrival may signal the beginning of a seismic generational shift that will at last phase out the disastrous reign of the Boomers.

    Gen X-ers had to grow up in difficult times (not as bad as the Millennials, but nothing like the postwar economic bonanza of the Boomers) marked by severe recessions. Early on, the Gen X-ers had to come to terms with the fact that they would never match the economic achievements and living standards of their parents. The archetype of the Gen X-er is the underachieving but good-natured slacker as portrayed by Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s movies.

    Gen X-ers know that hard work and good intentions are often not enough. Surely Gen X-ers will usher in a era of governance based on compassion and solidarity. That may not be enough to undo the mess left by the Boomers, but they are more than welcome to try.

  7. Theo Nelson

    I wonder…

    I wonder how the NDP would have done if they had adopted the following as strong party planks:
    – promised to institute proportional voting
    – promised to institute infrastructure rebuilding (and incur debt to do it)
    – promised to totally fund Daycare
    – promised to rebuild the Coast Guard
    – promised to actually re-equip our military (including procuring an actual interceptor to replace the F-18)
    – promised to start funding Medicare at proper levels
    – promised to fund pure research in our federal laboratories
    – promised to break up media cartels
    – promised to legalize (and therefore tax) marijuana
    – promised to end NAFTA and similar agreements
    – promised to legalize the sex trade

    Would they have been wiped out in the Maritimes?
    Would they have added the total seats they had at the end of the last Parliament?

    Please note that election promises are not always followed through. However, they can differentiate between Parties. The NDP brain trust totally failed in this, having moved the Party so far to the right. The Liberals, through the charisma of Trudeau, simply by being optimistic and hopeful captured the vote by differentiating themselves from the NDP in this way. There was not a huge difference in the Parties’ platforms. The Liberals won a massive majority with just 40% of the vote.

    I still would have voted strategically in my riding (Liberal) because the dominating underlying thought that drove this election was: Get rid of harper and the Cons. A federal NDP candidate in Calgary has the same chance as a Richardson’s Ground Squirrel crossing the Deerfoot at rush hour. To all the Dippers in my riding and a couple of others that voted NDP – you must be so proud to have helped elect a Con.

    I think the above platform would have worked, but then, I am a dreamer.

  8. tatere

    do any of the electoral reform plans include changes to the number of seats?

  9. rblaa

    I am not that convinced how bad the consequences seem. We shall see, of course, but consider:

    – we had no guarantee that NDP would actually and successfully achieve election reform

    – it is not at all clear to me the the NDP would actually avoid neoliberal approaches in the end

    – the goal was not to crush the conservatives as such, they are needed for balance after all

    – the goal was to stop Harper, he really is a special case

    – anything less than a concerted effort to “Heave Steve” ran the risk of him winning due to a split Liberal/NDP vote

    Hopefully the conservatives can get back to being “normally Canadian”, being concerned with sound economic management without being so mean about it.

    I suspect though that neoliberalism runs through all of the mainstream parties in one form or another. The whole “balanced budget” thing pushed by the NDP often means a forced austerity, after all.

  10. The issue, the subtext is the invincible core of the ideological right-wing vote. It’s very durability and catastrophic behaviour when in power is precisely what drives the dynamic that cost the NDP so many seats.

  11. Inverness

    Imagine if the NDP actually ran with a left-wing platform. Why didn’t they? I like the term, “Blairism.” Wasn’t he starting to sound like Blair? Mulcair was winning because he was a fine parliamentarian, and perceived as the left-wing candidate. Getting cold feet, and then campaigning on a balanced budget? Not wise.

  12. Declan

    Maybe what you say is true. Or maybe a Federal (plus Alberta) NDP would have been Bob Raed with the Bank of Canada raising rates, crashing the housing market and giving the whole country another generation of ‘don’t vote NDP they will ruin the economy’ nonsense like we still have to deal with in Ontario.

    Again, I mostly agree with what you say but think you underestimate the power of the forces you contend with, both in the corporate tendencies of the electorate* and the ability and willingness of the status quo defenders to be as ruthless as they need to be to protect it

    * When you say, ” Canada continues a nasty rightward trend (which the Liberal governments of the 90s and 00s were part of) with some jogs leftward, primarily on social issues” you are reinforcing the corporate framing that divides could-be anti-corporate allies of the left and right by pretending that a pure corporate policy line is a mix of ‘left’ and ‘right’ policies.

    What you might say is, “Canada continues a trend towards being run by and for corporations, opposed only by the left on economic issues and opposed only by the right on social issues, thus carrying the day on all issues with the help of the ‘centre’ and the corporate media on all issues, aided by using the left to push the social issues to beat the right, and using the right to push the economic issues to beat the left.

  13. Tony Wikrent

    Mandos – Please expound on your observation “The issue, the subtext is the invincible core of the ideological right-wing vote.” I think I know what you are implying with the next sentence, “It’s very durability and catastrophic behaviour when in power is precisely what drives the dynamic that cost the NDP so many seats.” But I think it is a crucial insight, and should be fully explored and discussed.

    My sense of it at this point is that it’s the “durability” of the one third of people who comprise “the invincible core of the ideological right-wing vote” that lead political leaders of liberal parties to perceive (incorrectly, I believe) that they can win elections by tacking right (or at least to the center). Then, the conservatives’ “catastrophic behaviour when in power” leads to an opportunity for liberals and the left when the voters react against that “catastrophic behaviour.” Is that what you mean, Mandos? That part that is missing, as far as I see right now, is why the liberals and the left always fail to take full advantage of that reaction against conservative misrule.

    I am, of course, writing of these political phenomena as they occur in other countries, not just Canada. Especially in the United States, where I believe Obama completely squandered the historic opportunity given him in 2008 to lead a restructuring of the USA economy away from Wall Street, and a realignment of USA politics for the next half century, in his ill-advised and ill-fated quest for “bipartisanship.”

    I’m not that knowledgeable about other countries, but I think we’ve seen that phenomena in Greece, in Egypt, and elsewhere.

    Why is the left so susceptible to this problem? I can think of three reasons. 1) The smashing success of the Mont Pelerin Society and other instruments of the oligarchs to develop, promote, and popularize neo-liberalism as a market theology that argues greed and selfishness, through the “magic of the invisible hand” results in the best allocation of “scarce” resources in society. What the left does not seem yet to understand is that this success of Mont Pelerin destroys the political results of the Enlightenment as encapsulated in the U.S. Constitution’s mandate to promote the general welfare.

    2) USA and UK covert operations have repeatedly fostered coups and even assassinations to eliminate leftist governments around the world.

    3) The right is the party of the rich, and has deep financial support, resulting in hundreds of think tanks and other institutions that serve to identify and develop a constant stream of new conservative leadership. By contrast, the left pretty much fails to provide a livelihood for most people interested in becoming leaders. Ian summarized this in one beautiful sentence or paragraph a couple years ago, so I hope this serves to prompt him to repeat it or something like it.

  14. It was not squander – Obama knew what he was doing.

  15. Tony Wikrent

    Stirling – Obama may have known what he was doing; I may even be inclined to agree with you, though I find it difficult to impute ill will to him, and this in itself is certainly a good topic to discuss. I.e., was it intent on Obama’s part; if so, how malevolent was it; or, was it the result of Obama having been thoroughly indoctrinated in neo-liberalism? Because, what else gets taught in USA economics departments, and law and business schools?

    But, to respond to your observation in a way that prompts an answer to my query: Why did the left and the Democratic Party (and which levels and groups in the Democratic Party are we talking about?) accept Obama so enthusiastically and not see that he was a neo-liberal through and through?

    I read Obama’s two books, and it was clear to me that he was a neo-liberal when it came to economic policies. And much else, as we have learned, unhappily. I distinctly remember you labeling Obama a Reganite even before he was elected. Why did so few others discern that which you saw?

  16. Les Smith

    I’ve left this same comment elsewhere, but it fits better here.

    Unless he’s politically obtuse, he must realize that one of the main things that kept the Liberals from finishing second is that people who would normally vote for their NDP candidate held their noses and voted for the liberal, to try to forestall the catastrophe of another Conservative government. These voters did so knowing that he has promised to address the flaws in our voting system.

    Accordingly, one of his first priorities should be to get rid of the FPTP system.

    “Ah”, you must be thinking, “you foolish child”.

    Of course, as is always the case, he is the immediate beneficiary of precisely that system.

    Sadly, I believe that there has never been any reason to believe that what he has said about this need be taken seriously. If we get anything on the voting system from the Liberal government, it will be another designed-to-fail piece of window dressing, such as those that have previously been presented to the electorate by other, previous beneficiaries of the current system.

    In the fantasy world I would love to be naive enough to believe in, I think that the most sensible alternative is a ranked ballot, rather than an explicitly proportional system. There are many reasons for this, among them:

    – It’s the smallest change to the current system that would adequately address the issue. Keep it simple, stupid.

    – It preserves the relationship between a member of parliament and his/her/its constituents. The citizens actually vote for a person who in theory, they might even be able to speak to. Constituency work has been considerably debased as a component of an MP’s agenda, and representing the people to the Government, rather than the other way around, is considered a quaint notion, but the value of these things is not absolutely zero.

    – It avoids transferring power into the unaccountable hands of back-room party operatives.

    Although my sympathies, over the years, have often been with the NDP, I am not in any deep sense partisan, and I am deeply suspicious of partisanship.

    It’s good to keep in mind that the fundamental relationship between a Parliamentary system and a Party is that of host and parasite. It is not the confidence of Parties that must be maintained, but the confidence of the House – its individual members, who it is expected (remember, this is a fantasy) will conduct themselves in good faith toward their best understanding of the informed will of their constituents.

    Parties are inevitable, but they are secondary to the basic idea of a Parliamentary system.

    Finally, the authority of Government derives from the consent of those governed. The delegation of that consent needs to be respected.

    For a political party to prepare a list of people, some number of whom will be appointed to Parliament based on a proportioning of votes, severs this inheritance of consent from the governed.
    People appointed in this manner will all but inevitably act in the interest of the party, the people be damned.

  17. NicS

    I thought your article was well informed, yet missing one important aspect of political campaigning that the Liberals capitalized on and the Conservatives had been successful with in the past. It was that campaigning by conservatives (Republicans, Harper’s cons & our Liberals) has been extremely successful over the last 45 years because conservatives invested heavily in whatever it took to win. Which has been a marketers political wet dream of tactics and strategy that sells what the NDP thinks citizens should understand before they buy. People don’t care how, what they buy, works.

    In every provincial or federal campaign I have worked on for the NDP, the focus internally was always on convincing the electorate that we had the most logical and rational policies and platform. While the conservative parties would focus on whatever it took to get their voters to the polls, prevent our voters from voting or if they did vote, that their vote was either split or they were somehow convinced to vote against their better interests.

    In a nutshell, it has been argued that modern advertising and marketing is what wins campaigns and that progressives are stuck in the rational discourse model of the last 3,500 years, refusing to believe that we can honestly win without that rational discourse. Its has also been said that the Niqab debate was lost by the NDP, because we tried to explain our way out of it, instead of avoiding the bait, as Trudeau did, Mulcair attacked it with all the rational discourse that his profession had taught all those before him.

    If progressives want to win more than they lose, they must learn how to sell their political/moral values as conservatives have done. After all, what could be easier than selling what one believes in so passionately.

  18. Tony Wikrent:
    Democrats went for the new. There really was very little policy difference between the two in ’08. Both are owned by the big corporations.

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