Earlier this year I came across a poll in one of the papers showing popular support for the federal Tories who were running neck and neck with the Liberals. But that wasnt what made me sit up and take notice. Looking at the party standings it occurred to me that Canada really is a country of the liberal Left. After all, take a look at the breakdown of seats in the House of Commons. The ruling Conservatives have just over 120 seats. The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois have almost 180. Parties of the liberal Left have almost 65 per cent of the popular vote.
Why hadnt anyone told me this before? Was I the first to discover it? More to the point, had anyone told those very liberal and left-wing political parties (that is, the Liberal Party and NDP) that make up the House of Commons? If most Canadians vote for parties that are not conservative, it stands to reason that left-of-centre parties have a good chance of forming governments time and again, permanently shutting out the Right. Yet, ironically, a neoconservative in the person of Stephen Harper now happens to be sitting in the prime ministers office, albeit with a minority government.
It seems I wasnt the only one who stumbled upon this strange statistical fact. Jamey Heath, former communications and research director of the federal NDP, did so as well. And he wrote a book about it: Dead Centre: Hope, Possibility and Unity for Canadian Progressives.
If I felt befuddled over my morning coffee, wondering why Canada was a liberal Left nation which had recently elected a conservative government, Heath too seemed to be shaking his head: A country that had just stayed out of the Iraq War, ratified Kyoto and embraced equal marriage for lesbian and gay people suddenly had one of the most right-wing leaders around, he writes. The question is why. Its easy to blame Canadas first-past-the-post electoral system, often enabling governments to be elected with a minority of the popular vote. But the imbalance is starker when the elected party seems out of touch with the ideological views of most of the countrys citizens.
For Heath, the reason the Tories got elected in 2006 is part of a wider problem, and it is at the heart of his book. Most Canadians, he argues, are probably even further to the left than the positions taken by the Liberal Party, which has long equivocated on issues like day care, Kyoto, and same-sex marriage. As the cliché has it, the Liberals campaign from the Left but govern from the Right. Heath argues that the best party to represent these progressive Canadians is actually the NDP. But the NDP hasnt been able to win national elections. Heaths aim is to explain what has prevented the NDP from winning, and offer a step-by-step guide for overcoming the impasse in which it currently finds itself.
First of all, Heath argues, the biggest obstacle to the NDPs success is none other than the Liberal Party itself, the party of the centre that dupes voters by proposing left-of-centre policies (anti-free trade, national day care, cutting pollution that causes global warming) but does essentially nothing to fulfill its promises once in office, and even reverses its position with respect to these issues. More to the point, he says, the Liberals pull the wool over the eyes of leftists themselves, including prominent NDP types.
To illustrate this point Heath looks at how the Left strategised during the 2006 election. Left-wingers were so anxious that the Tories could form the government that they betrayed their own social-democratic principles. Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, was a leading example; he called for traditional NDP supporters to vote for Liberal candidates in ridings where there was a good chance Tories might win. But there were other people as well, like Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Maude Barlow of the nationalist Council of Canadians, who did the same through their advocacy of the Think Twice campaign.
Heath argues that this strategy not only constituted a betrayal of NDP principles, but that it backfired and helped elect Tories. Sure the NDP picked up ten seats. But his analysis of voting patterns indicates that the party came within five thousand votes of winning in another 21 ridings and seven others were up for grabs by any of the three main parties. In fact, only 13 percent of the popular vote separated the NDP from the Liberals. Heath suggests that if the Left had allowed itself to assert its own platform instead of panicking at the prospect of a Tory win, it could have made major breakthroughs, and could, in fact, have prevented the Tories from winning in areas not traditionally known as Conservative bastions like Edmonton, Saskatoon, or even Oshawa, a home to one of Canadas more militant unions, Buzz Hargroves CAW.
Leftists will shoot themselves in the foot time and again by tying their fortunes to the Liberals, Heath writes. Thats because the party, with its small l liberal values, looks good on the surface, but in reality is an opportunistic group that can only be influenced under the right political conditions (such as minority governments) to implement truly progressive policies. Heath concludes, The trend could be snapped if we saw through the (Liberals) hegemony mirage instead of reinforcing it.
The author also asserts that Canadas electoral politics are something of an anachronism. In most democratic countries such as those in Western Europe, parties of the middle have long been in decline, and now, robust parties of the Left and Right confront one another. But thats not what happens in the Great White North. Heath compares Canadas natural governing party-the Liberals-to Mexicos Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which lasted in office 70 years: Were the exception to many rules, he writes. Unlike all of Europe, the American and the South Pacific, weve yet to build a dominant progressive party that includes class in its approach. Instead, we got lumped with the last of the worlds Liberals [in countries where ruling parties] are rarely kind to workers and the middle class. But, theres hope. If Mexicans can end it, we can, too.
So how to end the Liberals near monopoly? Heath argues that it shouldnt be that difficult. By cutting through the mirage of Liberal invincibility, leftists can exploit the partys vulnerabilities and render it a dwarf of its former self. Then the NDP can replace it.
First of all, he says, Liberals need Quebec to win. But Quebecs Liberal vote has been in a free fall for a generation, accelerated lately by the sponsorship scandal. Second, again despite appearances, the Grits have never been a truly national party, unlike the Tories which had monumental electoral sweeps in 1958 and 1984. Heath gives us the reason for this: Large parts of the West cant stand them. Heath identifies a multitude of ridings-Liberal or NDP bastions-which the NDP could win if it manages to convince voters that the Liberals dont act in their interests. These ridings include Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Regina, Victoria, Winnipeg, and smaller and rural ridings like Kingston, St. Catharines, Thunder Bay, Kenora, Thompson, Prince Rupert, and Yellowknife.
Heath admits that the NDP has never made inroads in Quebec, Canadas most progressive province. But, he says, even here theres hope. Outside Quebecs rural areas, its cities are very much like those elsewhere in a ringing endorsement of Canada being a community of communities. And if progressive people outside Quebec could form a common frame to push against with our counterparts there, our majority would be unbeatable.
While its true, argues Heath, that Canada as a whole is a dinosaur among nations for continuing to have a party of the centre, one region of the country has successfully eschewed the meaningless middle. Thats the West. For a hundred years the Canadian West has been characterised by populist movements of both the Left and Right, from Tommy Douglass CCF to Ernest Mannings Social Credit. Both are parties of protest. Theres a big anti-establishment vote out there, he says, and it doesnt go Liberal.
A lot of Heaths analysis is convincing, until you look carefully through the authors own mirage. Are Canadians really as progressive as Heath would like us to think? No question, the Liberal Party does dupe Canadians (though other parties do too), but large numbers of voters choose the Liberal Party for a host of different reasons: theyre comfortable with a party that doesnt move too far right or left of centre; they like a party that supports individualism and the market economy but endorses policies that soften the nastier consequences of a laissez-faire economy; and they are suspicious of, and even hostile to, socialism.
And while Heath may be correct about widespread voter support for environmentalism and for ending Canadas military presence in Afghanistan, the NDP has difficulty profiting from this disenchantment because it is labouring beneath its own baggage. Bob Rae couldnt win this years Liberal leadership in part because of his unimpressive role as former head of Ontarios NDP during the partys failed effort to run the provincial government in the early 1990s.
Moreover, many on the Left are gravitating away from the NDP, as the rise of the Green Party demonstrates. Many younger Canadians, galvanised by issues like the environment and animal rights, tend to lump the NDP together with the other traditional parties. Finally, there is a strong segment of Canadian voters who see the NDP as being inextricably linked to rigid trade unionism.
Perhaps what the NDP really needs is a makeover. Heath may be right in asserting that a strong campaign push is all the NDP requires to win the electorates progressive hearts, but the party might gain more traction by reinventing itself, like Britains Labour Party, as a party that stands strongly for individual rights and free enterprise and, yes, even some traditional values such as patriotism. After all, you can be of the Left and still believe in having a strong national army-the Left did it during the Second World War.
While Heaths book is a breakthrough for NDP strategists, it has several weaknesses that shouldnt be overlooked. First and foremost, this a policy wonks read. Party apparatchiks and those who live and breathe politics will no doubt gobble it up. Others, including leftists inside and outside the party, will find the book thick with the kind of analyses and facts that could bog them down. And Heaths fluid writing style often reads like shorthand, as if every reader is equipped with a grasp of the wider context, which happens to be a prerequisite for following Heath's arguments.
There are also aspects of political analysis with which Heath doesnt come to terms. Quebec might be Canadas most progressive province, with its antiwar sentiment and government-funded daycare, but it veers to the right with respect to issues like free trade and private health, as demonstrated by the Chaoulli Supreme Court decision and by films such as Denys Arcands Les Invasions barbares, which mocks the Quebec health system.
And just what about Canadas Afghanistan policy does Heath not like? He sounds like the typical whiny leftist, castigating Canadas involvement in a country which had a regime that poses a threat to all of the democratic and liberal values he holds dear. Says Heath: Canada seems to hop to it on multilateralism only when its American-supported multilateralism, not the broader kind that Canadians like. So, knee jerk anti-Americanism is right, regardless of the justice of the cause?
He also rails against globalisation, advocating the right kind of global policy in which, [h]elping businesses trade isnt its only point, and rules that protect people and the only planet we have can work too. Fair enough. But the Lefts analysis of globalisation misses the point that capitalist wealth creation in countries like China and India are giving rise to sizable middle classes. Isnt this what lefties have said they always wanted for the Third World?
But these are criticisms of ideology. Dead Centre in and of itself should be valued because it cuts through myths about why the NDP cant gain more electoral traction on the federal level, and points out a plausible way for doing so. If self-doubt and lack of self-esteem are Canadian traits, it seems theyre affecting Canadian leftists twice as hard. In this sense, Dead Centre might be viewed as a timely self-help manual for raising their political confidence. Ron Stang
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada