The Canadian general election of May 2, 2011, was perhaps the most dramatic and surprising general election in 90 years. The closest parallel is 1921, when an entirely new party, the Progressives, won 64 out of 235 seats in the House of Commons and the Conservatives, who had governed Canada for 34 of the 54 years since Confederation, emerged with only 50. But the Progressives’ impressive showing in 1921 proved to be a flash in the pan, partly because they unwisely refused to designate one of their members as Leader of the Opposition. Deeply divided and disorganized, the party lost most of its seats at the next election, and most of its remnants were eventually absorbed by Mackenzie King’s Liberals.

The New Democratic Party, despite its name, is not a new party, having celebrated its 50th anniversary three months after the election, and it is obviously a better organized and more coherent entity than the Progressives ever were. It also won a larger percentage of the seats in the House in 2011 than the Progressives did in 1921 (33 per cent as opposed to 27 per cent), and a larger percentage of the popular vote (31 per cent as opposed to 23 per cent). Most significantly, it has widespread support on both sides of the great divide between anglophone Canada and Quebec. This is something that no “third party” has ever achieved with the possible and short-lived exception of Social Credit in the 1960s, which like the NDP in 2011 won more than half its seats in Quebec in 1962 after failing to make a significant impact there in any previous election.

The question that many Canadians began to ask themselves as soon as the dust of the election campaign had settled was whether the NDP (unlike the Progressives and Social Credit) would actually succeed in consolidating its position as one of two major alternatives in a new party system. The tragic death in August of NDP leader Jack Layton, who was rightly given practically all of the credit for the party’s breakthrough in Quebec, has naturally reinforced this uncertainty, since the NDP has shallow roots in Quebec and its organization there is practically nonexistent. A second question almost automatically arises from the first: What will be the consequences for Canadian government and politics if the NDP does in fact succeed in breaking the Liberal/Conservative monopoly of power that has lasted since the achievement of responsible government in the mid-19th century?

Roots of the NDP breakthrough

If the NDP succeeds, it will be the realization of a dream with deep roots in Canadian history. Even in the 19th century, there were Canadians who argued that the differences between the two traditional parties were essentially meaningless and that a fresh alternative was needed to revitalize the political system and replace the sordid politics of brokerage and patronage with a politics of idealism and reform. The Canada First movement, which existed for almost a decade after Confederation, and the Patrons of Industry, who elected two members of Parliament from Ontario in 1896, were early expressions of this sentiment. So were the occasional Labour candidates who mounted the hustings in the years before the First World War.

Laurier’s acceptance, in practice, of Macdonald’s National Policy for most of his time in office reinforced this discontent, particularly in western Canada. But the First World War was the most important catalyst for change, for at least two reasons. First, it involved the federal state in people’s lives to a greater extent than ever before, with the War Measures Act, military conscription, income tax, wage and price controls, the internment of “enemy aliens,” the sordid manipulation of the franchise in the election of 1917 and the restriction of movement in and out of the country. Second, the coalition between the Conservatives and, outside of Quebec, most of the Liberals persuaded many Canadians that the differences between those parties had been artificial and meaningless all along.

In Britain, where a Liberal-Conservative coalition also formed during the war, the first postwar election saw the emergence of Labour as a major party and the reduction of the Liberals to the status of a minor party. This was seen as a hopeful precedent by Canadian radicals like J.S. Woodsworth, William Irvine and Abraham Heaps. Irvine and Heaps were both born in the United Kingdom, as were M.J. Coldwell, Tommy Douglas and a large proportion of the Canadian labour union activists who championed the cause of a new left-wing party over the next half century. Woodsworth had studied at Oxford, as had other enthusiasts for the idea like Frank Underhill, F.R. Scott, Eugene Forsey and David Lewis.

For such people British politics pointed the way to the future. In a modernizing society the old politics of brokerage and the pork barrel would and should be replaced by what John Porter in The Vertical Mosaic called “creative politics”: a clear choice between the democratic left and the democratic right.1 That was the objective behind the creation of the CCF in 1932, although the CCF incorporated some elements of agrarian radicalism whose roots were more clearly North American. By the 1950s it was clear that the dream of a “cooperative commonwealth” was just that – a dream. In 1958, John Diefenbaker decimated the CCF’s rural base. In 1961 the party was revived in the guise of the NDP, with closer ties to organized labour than the CCF had ever achieved. The NDP largely wrote off the agrarian vote as inevitably Conservative.

At the provincial level the left did manage to form governments: in Saskatchewan for most of the time after 1944, in Manitoba and British Columbia several times after the NDP was formed, in Ontario in 1990 and most recently in Nova Scotia. The NDP remains either the government or the official opposition in each of those provinces, apart from Ontario. Quebec developed its own style of “creative politics” with the Parti Québécois, which for a time claimed to be and really was a social democratic party. But at the federal level success eluded the left, at least until now, and the Liberals remained the dominant party. Occupying the centre of the political spectrum, the Liberals were able to shift their attention from one front to the other as circumstances required. When CCF support surged in 1943, Mackenzie King shifted to the left. When Eisenhower made conservatism respectable in the 1950s, Louis Saint-Laurent shifted to the right. Although the Liberals never actually received 50 per cent of the vote in a general election, their various opponents could never combine against them, and the Liberals usually won.

The Liberals’ success was also based on their ability to shape the public’s perception of the political landscape. Frank Underhill suggested that Mackenzie King, conscious of the fate of the British Liberals, privately regarded the left as the greatest long-term threat to his party. He kept the left at bay by publicly emphasizing the threat of a Tory government and the importance of the Liberals as a bulwark against that possibility.2 H.S. Ferns and Bernard Ostry, in their critical biography of the young Mackenzie King, argued that King always considered the class struggle between left and right as the fundamental issue in politics, but deflected attention from it by emphasizing issues of region, language and ethnicity.3 This interpretation is somewhat different from Underhill’s, but not necessarily incompatible with it, since the Liberals were pragmatic and flexible in their choice of arguments and strategies.

If region, language and ethnicity served the Liberals well for many years, it is somewhat ironic that they contributed largely to the Liberal Party’s decline and fall. Liberal strength on the prairies, where the party won a plurality of seats as late as 1953, never recovered from the impact of John Diefenbaker’s electoral campaigns in 1957 and 1958. In 1980, the year after Diefenbaker’s death, the Liberals famously failed to take a single seat west of Winnipeg, although the CBC declared them the winners with a majority government before the polls had even closed in Manitoba.

Soon after this triumph Pierre Trudeau fatally alienated Quebec, the party’s stronghold since the days of Laurier, by his rash decision to make fundamental changes in the constitution without Quebec’s consent, something that he himself had declined to do a decade earlier. Brian Mulroney won most of Quebec’s ridings for the Conservatives in the next two elections, only to see most of those ridings fall to the Bloc Québécois in six elections after his retirement. These results totally and permanently undermined the Liberal claim, which had previously had some credibility in anglophone Canada, that only a Liberal government could bridge the gap between the “two solitudes.” The Liberals were left with an electoral base consisting of official language minorities, immigrants, the Newfoundland outports and the dwindling number of people who could still be frightened into voting Liberal to keep the Tory wolf from the door.

Consecutive choices of two unappealing party leaders, first Stéphane Dion and then Michael Ignatieff, along with the emergence for the first time of an NDP leader, Jack Layton, who had a real rapport with and understanding of Quebec, finally gave the left the opportunity it had sought for the better part of a century. As in 2006 and 2008, the Liberal Party campaigned in 2011 by demonizing Stephen Harper as a threat to Canadian “values” and urging NDP supporters to cast strategic votes for the Liberals to keep him out of office. The voters ignored this advice. In May 2011 the Conservatives won but the NDP outpolled the Liberals in every province except Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island. In the three largest provinces the NDP won a total of 92 seats while the Liberals took only 20. Most dramatic of all was the outcome in Quebec, where the NDP inherited practically all of the seats formerly occupied by the Bloc Québécois and several that had formerly belonged to the Liberals or the Conservatives. In fact more than half of the victorious NDP candidates were from Quebec.

The perils of a Liberal-NDP merger

Ignatieff’s resignation after he lost his own seat and Layton’s death three and a half months later have left both of the principal opposition parties marking time under interim leaders. What happens next will largely depend on who will lead the two parties into the next election. At the time of writing the front-runners to succeed Layton are Brian Topp, who was close to Layton but is not well-known outside the party’s inner circle, and Thomas Mulcair, a former minister in Quebec’s Liberal government who was the only NDP candidate elected in Quebec in 2008. Both Topp and Mulcair grew up in Quebec and are fluently bilingual, but Mulcair’s support for closer ties or even a merger between the NDP and the Liberals would make him a questionable choice.

The idea of a possible merger between the two parties was discussed to some extent even before the election, the merger between Harper’s Canadian Alliance and Peter MacKay’s Progressive Conservatives in 2003 providing the precedent. The merger scenario appeals mainly to those who are more preoccupied with identity politics and fearful of the alleged social conservatism of Harper’s Conservatives than with the economic and class issues that have traditionally defined the difference between the business-oriented Liberals and the labour-oriented NDP. Insofar as it can be said to stand clearly for anything in particular, the post-Trudeau Liberal party represents the mantra among the affluent metropolitan new middle class: liberal on social policy and conservative on economics. The NDP, on the other hand, still claims to be a social democratic party that favours economic redistribution to counteract the effects of the market economy. Unless they are certain of which side will come out on top, those on either side who consider this distinction important should be very cautious about initiatives to merge the two parties.

But that is precisely where no certainty exists. It is easy, but misguided, to assume that because the NDP currently has more seats in the House of Commons than the Liberals it will dominate any successor party. In the aftermath of Layton’s death, that kind of reasoning may persuade many New Democrats to pursue the merger option as quickly as possible, before the Quebec ridings won under Layton’s leadership are lost. Such a decision is based on a false premise. A historical event in Quebec is worth pondering. In the Quebec election of 1935 the Conservatives led by Maurice Duplessis won 16 seats and the Action Libérale Nationale led by Paul Gouin won 26. The two parties merged to form the Union Nationale, with Gouin naively accepting a tradeoff whereby he would determine the new party’s program while Duplessis would be the leader. The Union Nationale won the next election in 1936 and became, in effect, Quebec’s conservative party. Gouin and his program were soon forgotten. Duplessis was the dominant figure in Quebec politics until his death in 1959.

The lesson is that political experience, sagacity and a certain degree of cynicism count for more in the harsh world of political bargaining than electoral arithmetic, idealism and high hopes. The NDP should be very wary lest the next Liberal leader, whoever he or she may be, attempts to follow the example of Duplessis. Like Duplessis, but unlike New Democrats, Liberals regard programs and policies as means to an end. They will promise to implement any program the NDP is likely to suggest if in return they can get their hands on the levers of power, and on the 59 Quebec ridings represented by New Democrats in Parliament.

In these circumstances, a hasty decision to unite the two principal opposition parties would be a mistake for social democrats. Supporters of unification make much of the fact that the Harper government received fewer than half the votes in the 2011 election, as though that were new in Canadian politics. In fact since the First World War only two general elections, 1958 and (by a very slim margin) 1984 have resulted in one party receiving more than half the votes, yet we have always had one-party governments since 1921 and most of them have held a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. Canada has survived them all and will no doubt survive Harper as well. In fact with ten powerful provincial governments and a hyperactive Supreme Court brandishing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there are strict limits to what any federal government can do, for better or for worse.

Supporters of unification also assume too easily that if Party A receives x votes and Party B receives y votes, a party formed by merging A and B would automatically receive x+y votes. This is not necessarily true, and in fact it did not happen when the Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives. If the Liberals and NDP merged, some Liberal voters would switch to the Conservatives or the Green Party, some NDP voters would switch to the Green Party or the Bloc Québécois, and some from both of the premerger parties might try to form new parties or would not vote at all. Almost certainly the result would be another two-and-a-half party system in which the Green Party, which is not a social democratic party by any stretch of the imagination, would replace the NDP as the perennial minor party. There would be no social-democratic alternative, and single-party governments would continue to dominate Parliament with less than half the popular vote.

A less radical option than merger would be a coalition between the two parties, which might include the Green Party as well. While superficially attractive, this idea raises a number of problems. First, most Canadians are unused to coalitions. It is almost 60 years since the provincial ones in Manitoba and British Columbia ceased to exist, and the one in Saskatchewan between 1999 and 2003 attracted little attention elsewhere. Second, Canadian voters would not be happy, nor should they be, if a coalition was formed after an election in which the coalition option had not been discussed – as was attempted in December 2008. Third, a coalition promised before the election would tend to lock the two parties into a more or less permanent alliance, like the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union in Germany or the Liberal and National parties in Australia, with the same party always being the dominant partner whose leader becomes the head of government. In our system of government the prime minister is far more than the “first among equals,” and the party whose leader holds that office will inevitably dominate the government. A coalition of this kind differs only slightly from an outright merger, and has some of the same disadvantages.

It would be wrong for the post-Layton NDP to assume that it must or should settle for its previous status as a perennial third party, winning occasional concessions from minority governments but never forming a government itself. I fear that some New Democrats secretly find this thankless role more comfortable than any effort to exercise real power and influence. Some of them are probably content with Liberal governments, having persuaded themselves that the Liberals are in some sense a party of the left, and are happy to leave the problem of accommodating Quebec nationalism to someone else. But this would be to betray the hopes that have kept the social democratic option alive, although not always vigorous, from Woodsworth to Layton and beyond.

Next steps for the NDP

Until May 2011 the NDP, like the CCF before it, was fatally handicapped by its total lack of support or influence in Quebec. This ruled it out as a serious contender at the federal level, even though it formed governments in five of the ten provinces at various times. The breakthrough in Quebec was the most important event in the history of the NDP: it finally established the party’s credentials as a serious aspirant to power in our binational and federal country. Canada’s binational nature, and the inability of the CCF and the NDP to deal with it, has been the main obstacle to the left being taken seriously at the federal level. Layton’s last campaign removed the obstacle. If the party can retain and build on the Quebec base that Layton established, it should be able to form a government at the federal level from time to time, just as it does in some of the provinces.

Admittedly, building on this achievement will not be easy, particularly with Layton no longer at the helm. It can be taken for granted that the NDP’s opponents will try to sow discord between the NDP’s Quebec and non-Quebec wings, as shown by the fuss in the media about interim leader Nycole Turmel’s alleged ties with the Bloc Québécois. It can also be assumed that most who vote NDP in Quebec are sympathetic to Quebec nationalism, while most Canadians outside Quebec, including those who vote NDP, have been influenced by years of propaganda against asymmetrical federalism and Quebec nationalism by the late Pierre Trudeau and his disciples. The party should not exacerbate this difference of opinion by overemphasizing the issue, but it should not evade it either.

The immediate goal for the NDP must be permanently to replace the Liberals, in fact and in the minds of Canadians, as the main alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and indeed the only viable one. This means reducing the Liberals to the status of a minor party, which might be the junior partner in a coalition with either of the major parties but which can never again hope to form a government on its own. This is not to demonize the Liberal Party. It deserves credit for helping to build the Canadian welfare state, albeit usually under pressure from the left, and for other major achievements like bringing Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation. But the Liberals have served their historical purpose and have little to offer Canadians today. It is time to move on.

At the same time the NDP must do some hard thinking about policy. The party no longer seems to benefit from the expertise of Canadians who could help it to develop innovative and constructive policies, as it did in the past. Too often in recent years it has sought popularity by adopting populist policies that make no sense economically or, in the long run, even politically. For example, its provincial wings in both British Columbia and Ontario opposed the harmonized sales tax, which British Columbians eventually rejected in a California-style referendum. In both the federal and Ontario election campaigns of 2011 the NDP advocated removing the sales tax on home heating fuel, an idea that is not only senseless but also harmful to the environment. In Ontario the provincial Conservatives made exactly the same proposal, which should have embarrassed the NDP but apparently did not. Social democrats in Europe (and in Quebec) recognize the necessity for broadly based consumption taxes to finance the welfare state, while the NDP’s opposition to them encourages the immature and irresponsible attitudes about taxation of which the Tea Party movement in the United States is the most extreme manifestation.

The environment is another area in which clear thinking is needed. The NDP has stirred up opposition to the development of Alberta’s tar sands (and thereby forfeited any chance of a political breakthrough in that province), but its British Columbia wing opposed the B.C. Liberal government’s carbon tax, which is a constructive and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The federal NDP failed to offer a coherent policy on the environment in 2008, when the Liberals made the environment the centrepiece of their campaign.

It is sometimes argued that social democracy has become irrelevant, that the bread and butter issues of “who gets what, when, how” will somehow take care of themselves in a market economy, or that everyone now belongs to an undifferentiated “middle class” in a postindustrial society. These ideas are not new, and in fact they tend to reemerge in each generation. The term used for them in the 1950s, shortly before the NDP was born, was “the end of ideology.”

Nonetheless, inequality in our society is increasing. Many young people cannot find the jobs for which they were trained, or any jobs at all. Antitax propaganda from the Tea Party movement and other such phenomena has spilled over the U.S.-Canada border and is given a wide audience by commercial talk radio and other media. The welfare state is becoming more costly, but also more essential, while people who could afford to contribute more to its costs resist doing so and force governments to borrow money instead of taxing. Private affluence and public squalor, a term coined long ago by John Kenneth Galbraith, aptly describes our society today. Collective bargaining in both the public and private sectors is under attack. Food banks are ubiquitous, and for the time being are essential. People begging on the streets, a sight that shocked me when I first encountered it in India almost three decades ago, are common in Canadian cities today and seem to be taken for granted as a normal part of life. The condition of our Aboriginal peoples remains a national disgrace, and it is not clear that the self-government proposals favoured by the Assembly of First Nations would improve it, particularly for the majority of Aboriginal people who no longer live on reserves. These problems will not be solved by the courts or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, nor will they be solved by traditional brokerage politics. The NDP is more necessary than ever.


1 John Porter, The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 378.

2 Frank H. Underhill, In Search of Canadian Liberalism (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1961), p. 134. The article containing this comment was originally published in 1950, soon after the death of Mackenzie King.

3 H.S. Ferns and B. Ostry, The Age of Mackenzie King: The Rise of the Leader (London: Heinemann, 1955). As the title suggests, this book was intended to have a sequel, which was never written.