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The Canadian Elections: Majorities, Mixed Messages and Mergers?

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Is there anything to be learned from Canada's elections last month? Is it portentous for progressives? A triumph for Harper's Conservatives, as the prime minister himself and many in the media would have us believe?

The Harper government did win what seems at first to be a resounding victory. But let's look just a bit closer at the 41st Canadian federal elections.

After the Parliamentary Committee found Prime Minister Harper's government in contempt for refusing to supply budget and program details for proposed legislation, opposition leader Michael Ignatieff called for a vote of no confidence. On March 25, Parliament voted 156 to 145 no confidence, moving to set federal elections which took place on May 2, 2011.

Most of the media focused on the results at the top of the ticket. The Conservative Party gained enough seats to take firm control of the government, going from the 143 seats won in 2008 to 166 seats as the result of the recent elections. After years of alternating rule with the Liberal Party, the Conservatives now have an outright majority of the 308 seats in government.

The Liberal Party led by Ignatieff absorbed a crushing defeat. Liberals won the fewest seats in the history of the Party. Even their leader Ignatieff was defeated in his own riding. The Liberals seemed to have taken too much for granted. They seemed to be self-contentedly waiting in the wings, assuming that it would be their turn to take over from what they saw to be a flawed Harper government.

But their sense of entitlement, seasoned perhaps with a bit of hubris, undid them. The party itself had suffered scandal, split and discontent. It was nowhere near as strong as it had historically been. The Liberals never seemed to modernize and go back to their grassroots base. Instead of reaching out to find out what people wanted, which issues were compelling or even stirring to the often historically blase Canadian electorate, the Liberals campaigned -- evidently not vigorously enough -- on yesterday's assumptions.

But the Liberal Party's loss was the New Democratic Party's gain. The NDP won more seats than ever before. They did effective grassroots campaigning, listening to voters disaffected with the Liberals. They reached out to the Bloc Quebecois constituents, offering them more than their symbolic role as a separatist left.

NDP asked them to join a federalist left that had the potential to more effectively represent them. Bloc Quebecois lost almost all of their seats to the NDP, winning only four ridings. NDP also spoke to progressives in the west and environmentalist voters, deferring to Green Party candidate Elizabeth May so that her unified campaign produced the first Green Party MP.

At their 2009 convention in Halifax and at the 2010 convention in Vancouver, the NDP had developed a vigorous campaign strategy that was clearly modeled after the Obama grassroots and electronic outreach programs. When the Liberal Party warned that NDP organizing and pushing issues would split the opposition to the Harper government, the NDP seemed to outflank them and disprove this contention by working harder.

Steering this ship, providing the leadership and inspiration was charismatic Jack Layton. Layton had been a strong advocate for the middle class, small business and the environment. He had fought for improved health care, AIDS funding, local economic development and to make the tax system more fair for the working class.

His policies bore fruit as the NDP electoral surge netted them 103 seats in the new parliament. The Conservatives gained two per cent in their popular vote over their showing in the 2008 election. But the NDP surged to a 12.45 per cent increase, a gain of almost two million voters.

Following up this stunning outcome, Jack Layton addressed the NDP biennial convention last week. In his concluding address to the convention, Layton fused program with political organizing. While some scorned the Liberals, the majority of NDP voted down an anti-merger resolution that they thought would have alienated Liberal MPs and supporters that they sought to work with. As behooves a practical opposition party, the NDP members wanted to be pragmatic in keeping the door open to merger talks with the Liberal Party, even as their leader himself focused on the issues of workers rights, economic development, environmental protection and growing small business, both building on and supplanting Liberal positions.

Looking ahead, he urged continued outreach and grassroots organizing that would take the NDP from its first ever Opposition party status to its first ever ruling party position. "We end this convention once again united behind a common good," exhorted Layton to the enthused party, "to build an alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives, to continue to earn the trust of Canadians and to form the government of Canada in four years' time!"

Layton's optimism may seem a bit overblown given the Conservatives large parliamentary majority. But probably the best election analysis still comes from the exuberant NDPers themselves.

"It was a bittersweet victory, to be sure," exclaimed handily re-elected MP Bruce Hyer (Thunder Bay) in a personal interview, "I and the NDP did well. But Harper got a 'false majority' with less than 40 per cent of the vote. If we had proportional representation, he would have only 122 seats instead of 166."

"Look at our increase. Next time is our time!" observed NDPer Angela MacEwen to friends. "We speak for Canada!"

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