How not to woo Liberals

There is no doubt that many Liberals are engaged in some (much needed) deep introspection.

But on the issue of a merger with the NDP Douglas Bell’s piece in the Globe may have been one of the worst thing proponents (on either the NDP or Liberal side) could have asked for.

Bell’s piece, which links to a West Wing clip that ends with the line “there needs to be TWO parties” is beset by all the things NDPers claim to hate about Liberals: smugness, hypocrisy, and callous insensitivity. If this is the opening move in a potential merger, it may have been on of the shortest windows of opportunity in the history of politics.

It begins with the fact that Bell – by choosing this video – suggests that Liberals have rolled over on every major policy issue and lack backbone. For a party whose members likely feel they have innumerable social justice victories under their belt this is not an effort to woo those with ideas and a desire to advance the progressive cause, it is cheap effort to insult them. While I work as a negotiation consultant, you don’t need to be an expert to know that if you are looking to create a partnership, mocking the people you seek to engage isn’t an effective a strategy.

What makes the piece more galling is that Bell himself rejected a proposition in the past. Indeed, only last year Bell noted that a merger might not work and worse, might compromise the NDP. Better, he said, for the NDP to wait until conditions were more in its favour. Of course, now that the tables have turned, Bell expects Liberals to do the very thing he himself was unwilling to do: compromise. If the terms of a merger are do as I say, not as I do, they probably aren’t that appealing. The NDP was patient and successful. Bell’s tone will – I suspect – leave Liberals thinking they’d be better off follow his advice from last year and not his dictate from this week. Plan, build and wait until conditions are more favorably. (Note to Liberals: if it should come to pass, be sure that you write a significantly kinder offer to the NDP.)

But more importantly, the longer term implications of the election are still unknown. Most federalists would agree that if you have several referendums for independence and win only the most recent one, your claim to secede is not completely firm. The same probably applies to elections. The NDP has run in elections for decades. A single “win” which sees it sitting in opposition (not government) does not a viable or sustainable alternative governing party one make. Today the NDP is much, much closer to that goal and its members have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that they can be a national political party that sustains a strong base. Many hope it can. But to simply demand Liberals fold up camp because of a single NDP success (not victory) takes the arrogance of well, the worst type of liberal.

Moreover, speaking of secession votes, there are real risks ahead. It’s worth noting that the NDP’s gains were largely made by opening up the pandora’s box of national unity. As bad as the Liberal’s “snakebite” may be in Quebec, the NDP may have just received its own, far more potent one, the type that bit Muroney. I pray, for the country, they have not. But consider this quote from the NDP’s youngest MP: “What I’ve said throughout the campaign is that sovereignty, we know, won’t happen in Ottawa. As long as Quebec hasn’t decided, why not have a [federal] government in Quebec’s image?… That’s how I campaigned: As long as we’re in Canada, why not have a government in Quebec’s image.” In short, the NDP is a pit stop on the way to sovereignty. If the choice is between defining a progressive agenda at the cost, or defining a progressive agenda within Canada – I suspect that most Liberals (and many Canadians) will choose the latter. Can Layton and the NDP make this coalition stick? And is it a coalition federalists want to be part of? These are tough questions and tradeoffs that will have to be debated. They are also debates that, historically, have ended in tears for all involved.

Does the country need two parties? Unclear. What is clear is that such an end game won’t emerge on the left if the terms of debate are defined by insults. The attitude in Bell’s article suggests that any kind of reconciliation and merger will be much, much more difficult then some people assume. Ultimately, politics is driven by those who believe in a vision they want others to share, to win them over that vision needs to feel inclusive for people, not degrading. I’m sure the post felt fun to write but it is hard to see how it advanced the cause of the NDP.


4 thoughts on “How not to woo Liberals

  1. Tim MacKay

    I agree with your judgement that NDP is not as strong in Quebec as it appears and could have some problems satisfying their new Quebec base in this coming parliament. (Clearly, the only party with a rock solid base is the Conservative Party.) You also say that the NDP may be a “parking place” prior to sovereignty which is possible, but that’s not how I interpreted the same lines. I see the connection and parallels instead between in the social policy of Quebec society and the NDP.

  2. Stephen Downes

    The fact is that the Liberals are not the NDP, they stand for different things, and there is not some opportunity to ‘merge the left’ the way some people think.

    Any sort of merger between the Liberals and the NDP would result in a substantial number of Liberals fleeing the party for the more welcoming confines of the Conservatives. We would not obtain the 60-40 split we see in the polls, but a rather more fine-tuned 50-50 split, which I don’t think is good for the long term future of the country.

    Indeed, the recent demolition of the Liberals has been the result of its own internal split right along those lines, with the relatively leftist Chretien wing being undermined by the right-win Martin faction (it was the right wing’s most recent incarnation in Ignatieff that led them in the current election).

    There are at least three poles in Canadian politics, and I think we are the stronger for it. I don’t expect the Liberals to disappear, and I don’t expect Liberals to become socialists any time soon. They may spend some time in the political wilderness, they may become a balance-of-power party, or they may come to speak for the mass of pragmatic Canadians as they have in the past. Any of these works.

    I do think Liberals need to look at what they stand for. There is merit to the criticism that the Liberals have existed mostly as a means to take power. That they have campaigned from the left, but governed from the right. But I would never say this in the smug ‘now you must compromise to join us’ sort of way. But more along the lines of “we are defined by the quality of our opponents” sort of way.

  3. Rob Cottingham

    I’ll admit, I lean more toward Tim’s read of Pierre-Luc Dusseault’s comments. But that said, I’m in complete agreement with you that “neener-neener” triumphalism isn’t going to serve anyone who’d like to see some form of collaboration or even merger between the NDP and the Liberals.

    It’s not just a question of manners, grace or good form (important as those are); it’s the fact that people have really, really good memories when it comes to pain. Taunt someone over their defeat, and chances are they’ll remember it years from now. (I still remember a few particularly cutting remarks from people during leadership campaigns more than two decades ago.)That doesn’t mean refraining from analyzing where the Liberal campaign went wrong and why it didn’t connect with more people, or from identifying and celebrating the ways the NDP succeeded. But it does mean taking pains to not be a jerk about it.Because as much as many people think politics is all about high-level strategic imperatives, a lot of it is driven by relationships – relationships that rely on trust, which is a precious commodity when you’re bringing together former rivals. And it’s a lot harder to trust someone when they’ve gone out of their way to kick you when you were down.Long story short: if you want to work with a Liberal in four years, a kind word to them right now could go a long way.


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