Liberal-NDP merger and/or coalition talk is back in style again this week. Let's cut to the chase: Should the Liberal Party pursue merger talks with the NDP? Furthermore, should a merger even be on the Liberal radar at this point?
There are many arguments against a merger. The two parties have two very different histories, political cultures, and beliefs. Furthermore, a merged Liberal-NDP party wouldn't necessarily defeat Stephen Harper's Conservatives in a general election, with right-leaning Liberals and ultra-left New Democrats likely to withhold their support.
However, there are two principle issues that need to be taken into account by any Liberal when considering this issue. The first is historic, and the second is ideology.
From 1993 to 2003, the Conservative party's base was split. The 1993 federal election coincided with the Progressive Conservative party's "grand coalition" exploding and its support in the west moving toward the Reform Party. The forces of Quebec nationalism, fiscal conservatism, and Western alienation found themselves united and in power in 1984, and divided not too long thereafter.
The Liberal decline has, in contrast, been long-term. The Liberal party's base isn't split; it's gone.
This is evident both ideologically and regionally. On the ideological front, Liberal support has bled both left and right over recent elections as the Conservatives and NDP have moved closer to centre. From deficit spending to opposition to private health care -- among other issues both fiscal and social -- the Tories have clearly moderated their public stances, while the NDP's 2011 election platform actually called for reducing taxes on small businesses.
Regionally, the Liberal Party's base has slowly eroded as well. Liberal support in the West began to wane following the Diefenbaker landslide of 1958, and was lost for good following Trudeau's National Energy Policy in 1980. Similarly, Liberal support in Quebec hasn't been the same since the constitution was repatriated in 1982, and the party's image took a beating following AdScam. A united Conservative Party has slowly but surely eaten away at the Grits' support in Ontario.
A merger with the NDP would pull the Liberals away from the centre, and allow the Tories to occupy it for the foreseeable future. We all know that Canadian elections are won from the centre of the political spectrum. Rather, the natural corollary to other parties infringing on the centre is for the Liberal Party to redefine the political centre -- by outflanking the Tories on fiscal responsibility and the NDP on social progress while claiming particular issues for themselves. (For example, here is an old column of mine dealing with how the Liberals could do just that on the environment file.)
There is a deeper reason behind why Liberals should oppose a merger with the NDP: The NDP isn't a progressive party.
The word "progressive," for some reason, has earned the connotation of "left-wing" over the years. In reality, however, the word literally means "moving forward," as opposed to conservatives who seek to conserve the status quo (or worse -- return to the past).
Liberals must recognize that the NDP is in fact a conservative party. It is a party that wishes to conserve our current incarnations of public health care, welfare, and pensions without offering any tangible solutions to the upcoming demographic crisis. It is a party that wishes to maintain Canada's "traditional" international role as a peacekeeper, despite the fact that such a tactic is unlikely to function in the non-bipolar world that has been created following the demise of the Soviet Union.
And just like the Conservative party, the NDP appeals to the politics of fear in order to win votes -- fear of Stephen Harper. The Liberal party tried just that in the 2011 election and it didn't work. The Liberals' primary message during the writ was one rebuking the Conservatives for their undemocratic practices, not one offering a compelling vision for the future of the country. Never engage your enemy on the battlefield of his choice.
Putting the discussion of whether a merger would actually increase the odds of unseating Stephen Harper in 2015 aside -- and it is my belief that a merger would actually keep the Tories in power for longer -- there is a major problem behind the argument that Liberals and New Democrats must unite in order to defeat Harper: This argument is focused on Stephen Harper.
When Liberals appeal to this argument, they are in essence defining themselves in opposition to Stephen Harper. That's the opposite of being progressive -- it is in fact quite reactionary.
The act of simply contemplating a merger distracts Liberals from the task ahead -- a task that involves developing a comprehensive vision for the future of Canada, the job of any progressive party. Our job as Liberals isn't to "rise up", but rather to "rise above" the partisan field. It isn't to get angry, but to remain cool and collected. After all, the lawyer with the worst case bangs the table the hardest.
Those openly musing about a merger, coalition, or any form of cooperation with the NDP are undermining those Liberals who are pouring their hearts and souls into rebuilding the party from the ground up -- and we all know that rebuilding is tough enough as it is. It's time to put the entire merger discussion aside and get back to work.