The possibility of a merger between the federal Liberals and the NDP has been much in the news since Jack Layton’s death. Jean Chrétien and Ed Broadbent are said to be amenable. Bob Rae and Stephen Lewis, as well as the Globe and Mail’s editorial board, have dismissed merger out of hand. What no one seems to be talking about – out loud – is some form of cooperation other than merger.

The NDP has already been through a merger of sorts. Its founding in 1961 is often described a merger between the CCF and the union movement.

A CCF convention had voted, on the recommendation of its national council and executive, to participate in the formation of a new political party. It was entitled to send delegates to the founding convention, along with affiliated unions of the Canadian Labour Congress. Once the founding convention adopted a constitution, policies and principles and chose officers and an executive – and Tommy Douglas as leader – the federal CCF passed into history. This was followed by similar processes in the provinces. The whole effort was carried on with a high degree of grassroots participation and was managed in a way that headed off the establishment of other successors to the CCF by those who opposed the change.

The change was, however, not a formal merger, but rather the reorganization of an existing party. Properly understood, merger is the legal amalgamation of two (or more) organizations into one of the existing organizations or into a new organization. This is precisely what happened when, in 2003, the Canadian Alliance (previously the Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservatives merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Reform Party elected its first MP in 1989. In the 1993 federal election, Reform elected 52 MPs, and in 1997 it formed the official opposition. But if that was good news for Reform/Alliance, it was better news for the Liberals: with conservatives split in two, the Liberals won three consecutive majority governments. In 2003, the Alliance and the PCs merged. In the election one year later, the Liberals were reduced to minority government status. Since then the new party, the Conservative Party of Canada, has won three elections in a row, the most recent with a majority government.

The conservatives learned their lesson. Is there a similar lesson for the Liberals and the NDP?

There seem to be two. The first is: “Why wait? Merge now.” The second is: It takes a long time and many defeats for the parties to a proposed merger to abandon hope of individual success. Liberals, humiliated by defeat, are unlikely to swallow the further humiliation merger implies, and will continue to believe that resurrection of “the natural governing party” is imminent. For their part, NDPers, ecstatic at their breakthrough, will believe that momentum will carry them just a little further, not just to government but to their natural place as the party of the centre-left, like the Labour Party in Britain. (This is the position of Garth Stevenson in this issue of Inroads.)

Our conclusion is that no merger is on the horizon. But even if it were, we have a preferred option – a temporary, strategic coalition (TSC). The TSC would have two objectives: the defeat of the Conservative Party and the preservation – rather than dissolution – of the Liberals and NDP.

This second is of particular concern. In the September 2 issue of Maclean’s, John Geddes wrote that, at McGill University, Jack Layton “came under the thrall of philosophy professor Charles Taylor, whose argument that productive clashes could result from ideological polarization strongly influenced Layton’s view of politics. ‘Back in the day, they used to talk about brokerage politics – smooth over all the differences all the time,’ Layton said. ‘ concept was that you want to bring out the different perspectives and have them stand in stark relief. Then what will emerge are the real solutions.’”

We agree. Real solutions are more likely to emerge from a variety of perspectives: NDP and Liberal voices – as well as Green and Bloc voices – representing real constituencies. Indeed, we see the merger of the Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, and the resultant predominance of neoliberal conservatism at the expense of Red Tory conservatism, as a real loss to Canadian political discussion. For this reason, we prefer a solution that is capable of defeating the Conservatives while preserving the Liberal Party and the NDP.

What would a Liberal-NDP temporary, strategic coalition look like?

There are three potential elements to a TSC, associated with the periods before, during and after an election. We’ll start with what a coalition might look like during an election.

At its most basic, the parties would agree not to run candidates in constituencies in which the other party is incumbent. They might also agree that whichever party’s candidate came second to the Conservatives in the last election would not be opposed by the other party. The parties would likely agree to temper attacks on each other. The authors disagree on whether this arrangement should be made available to the Bloc Québécois (which the Bloc would be unlikely to accept), but we agree that the offer should be extended to the Green Party. In any case, all this would be subject to negotiation between Liberal and NDP (and Green and Bloc) representatives.

For the post-election period, Canadian political parties have some experience operating in coalition government, and we would limit our input here, with one exception: a pre-election agreement would include a commitment that, should the parties form a government, they would implement some form of proportional representation (PR). The authors’ preference is for a mixed-member type of PR, as practised in Germany and New Zealand. (We are talking about implementation, not just holding a referendum as in B.C., Ontario and P.E.I.).

We believe that there are a great many reasons to prefer PR to Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system. For our purposes here, PR has two salient benefits. First, it would make a centre-left government more likely. (The Conservatives formed minority governments with 36.3 per cent of the vote in 2006 and 37.6 per cent in 2008, and a majority government with 39.6 per cent of the vote in 2011.) Second, once adopted, PR would eliminate the need for strategic alliances in subsequent elections.

In the pre-election period – i.e. now – the parties would of course negotiate the nature of the electoral alliance and an approach to electoral reform. There might also be informal or formal cooperation in opposing the Harper government. There might be a protocol setting out regular joint strategy meetings; agreements on speaking order beyond that set out in the rules of Parliament; agreement on issues to be raised; and extraparliamentary work such as discussions to explore matters the two parties have in common, rather than a focus on where they differ. Local or regional “workshops” that borrow from nonconfrontational labour-management processes might prove interesting. All of this would run up against the reality that the two parties are in competition for the same electorate and for the same human, political and financial resources. It would take creativity and commitment to succeed in the face of decades of distrust.

All told, we believe a temporary, strategic coalition offers the greatest hope of defeating the Conservatives. There are, of course, no guarantees. There is no reason to believe that all NDP votes will go to the coalition’s “Liberal” candidate, and vice versa (just as there is no reason to believe that all NDP and Liberal voters would vote for a merged party). There will be those who regard this pre-election strategy as antidemocratic in that it reduces the electorate’s choices. There will be those who prefer a merger, and those who regard any cooperation with the other party as a sellout. There will be others steadfastly opposed to PR.

There will be resentment and resistance, and Stephen Harper can be counted on to accuse the coalition partners of everything from communism to treason. The process must be open and transparent, and Canadians will need to be won over. The Liberals and the NDP should get started now.

John Brewin is a labour lawyer living in Toronto. He was an NDP member of Parliament for Victoria, B.C., from 1988 to 1993.