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.