Unite the Left? It’ll Never Happen

There’s a regular wave of people chattering about uniting the Left these days. You find them even on the so-called Right, where the myth is that if the left would just unite, everyone could have BC-style politics, where left and right face off with nothing else (more or less) in the game. This, of course, doesn’t explain the endless stream of new parties being formed in BC, but it’s a nice myth for all of that. After all, a Conservative facing a united left — almost always painted with the NDP’s colours, since Conservatives think the left would unite with the Liberals going away — would (much like BC) definitely have a regular ride to success as a result.

On the so-called Left, however, the calls for unity tend to come from the Liberals. Oddly enough, their mental map of the landscape shows their colours nailed to the mast, and those noxious NDPers gone from the scene, merged into their party. (This, of course, is a model that promises endless Liberal power, at least in their mind, although after the 2008 election the model now stretches to “the Greens should fold and join in” and even the occasional “the Bloc should fold and join in” to get the numbers to work.)

But a merger on the Left just isn’t going to happen. Instead, all the parties not currently in Government are going to have to fight it out for dominance, much as the Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives needed to fight it out. A merger, after all, can only come when several things are bloody obvious:

We can’t win in the current circumstances.
They can’t win in the current circumstances.
We’re what block them from winning (and vice versa).

and the biggie:

We’re prepared to change our views to reach an accommodation.

Well, as long as the Liberals have dreams that they can win in the current circumstances (and they do) and that they don’t see themselves as being the roadblock to their other prospective merger partners winning (they don’t; they see them as exclusively a roadblock to Liberal achievement of winning), a merger won’t take place. Put bluntly, they have no respect for the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc. Would you merge with someone who was obvious about their lack of respect for you, your views and your traditions? Thought not.

Then, too, two of the potential merger partners aren’t even necessarily “Leftist” parties (save only that both the Bloc and the Greens believe in the use of state power to smash current social order, which is the traditional definition of a Leftist). Both the Bloc and the Greens contain political views that run the gamut from the traditional left-right divide in Canada. As with Social Credit and the Progressives before them, they are brought together around a very few issues — and don’t try to bring everyone together beyond that.

NDPers, too, are not Liberals in waiting. As with the Canadian Tory (not all Conservatives are Tories) an NDPer has a view of society as something organic and pulsing with life. It has a history and a future: we in our time are stewards of that future, and inheritors of that tradition. Tories tread more cautiously than NDPers in changing traditions, but both think of the future differently than do Liberals (and some of the old Reform members of the Conservative party): they think about what it will mean to future generations to take action. Liberals do not. Everything is “right here, right now”; creating a new problem for the future merely creates a new opportunity for the party.

This is why NDP governments are often the most fiscally conservative of all. Their strain is “purer” than the Conservative one, and Liberals don’t care enough about the farther future to worry.

You could put the Liberals and the NDP together — it would be much like today’s Conservative Party, which couples Red Tories, Blue Tories and neoconservatives (who are right-wing liberals) together. But NDP voices would be a deep minority in a merger with the Liberals (whereas Red and Blue Tories together counter-balance neocons in the Conservative caucus and conventions). That is why the NDP plays for the Liberals to quit, give up the ghost, split — and they’ll take the part of the party closer to the NDP and (just as after the CCF turned into the NDP) slowly imbue the longer-term view into its new members.

That, of course, would send the Bluer Liberals and the Red Tories who went Liberals off to the Conservatives if they didn’t want to be a minor party rump. This they would do, and relatively quickly: the raison d’être of the Liberal Party is holding and using power, not a philosophic framework held in the form of political ideology — the sort of thing that can sustain generational long ventures without “success”. Hence the Liberals need to hang together, and so they will, repulsing anything that would bring something other than the quest for aggrandisement to the party (except in the form of individuals switching to it).

That it would be good for the country to rationalise its party mix is undeniable. But the reality is it won’t happen. For better or worse we are where we are: a five party state.

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4 responses to “Unite the Left? It’ll Never Happen

  1. I think it’s for the better: even though our electoral system isn’t designed for it, Canadians want choices and they organize to create them if they don’t exist, even when it takes years of effort and persistence to do so. When Canadian politics looks like nothing more than a sea of cynicism and self-interest, that observation is a life-ring of hope.

  2. Hi, Kuri, and welcome.

    The rationalisation I would favour would be for the Liberals to split, with Blue Liberals and other centre-rights heading to the Conservatives and Red Liberals and other centre-lefts heading to the NDP or Greens. Beyond that multiple parties on either flank of the political divide is fine with me.

    In many ways there should be two conservative parties: one that emphasises fiscal conservativism and social liberty, and one that emphasises state power in the economy and society (the social conservative option). “I know which one I’d support!”

    Likewise, on the left, there could be fiscal rectitude with social justice, and the use of state power to force the economy, ecology and so on to be progressive.

    That would give us many decent choices — and some interesting potential partnerships, issue by issue, for managing minority Parliaments.

    But something so obviously rational, too, won’t happen.

  3. If they elect Bob Rae as leader, that red-blue split has a good chance of happening.

  4. Hi, Gimbol, and welcome.

    I suspect Ignatieff could just as easily be that trigger, although Rae is the more obvious of the two whose baggage and prior positions might lead to an exodus.

    This, of course, is just the flip side of the PCs figuring out where they wanted to be when the Conservative Party was being formed.

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