03/07/2019 15:41 EST | Updated 03/07/2019 15:41 EST

A Liberal-NDP Merger Makes More Sense Than Ever

And it could win, if Canada's left-leaning parties learn to put outcome before ideology.

Recent polls show just how much of a hit the Liberals have taken over the SNC-Lavalin scandal. But as bad as the numbers are for the Liberals, it's probably going to get worse before it gets better as polls start to pick up on the effect of Jody Wilson-Raybould's damning testimony last week. Jane Philpott's resignation from cabinet only worsens the situation. With the NDP not appearing to be a credible contender, a federal election, if it were held today, would have a good chance of returning the country to Conservative rule.

With the political left looking increasingly vulnerable with each passing day, the clearest hope for Canadian progressives is that the Liberals and NDP start to talk merger.

Vince Talotta/Toronto Star, Paul Marotta/Getty Images
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, left, and Liberal Leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right.

Merging political parties is an idea that the right has embraced, but it has only gotten a bit of traction on the left. Most famously, Stephen Harper was the successful architect of a 2003 merger between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties, which went on to govern from 2006 until 2015. Similarly, the Alberta PC and Wildrose parties merged in 2017 and are looking to take down the NDP, which benefited in 2015 from a split right.

A Liberal-NDP merger was discussed in the wake of Harper's second minority government taking office. At the time, giants such as Jean Chretien and former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow threw their weight behind the idea. But in the end, they chose to stick with the status quo, the wisdom of which was proven when Harper took a majority in 2011. After the loss, Justin Trudeau conceded that the idea had merit and that it even polled well. But again, there was no follow through.

The overall feel of a merged party probably wouldn't be dramatically different.

Clearly the left is willing to consider the idea in dark times, so we shouldn't be surprised if the Liberals' recently tanking support spurs rumours. Historically, though, left-leaning parties have lacked the pragmatist streak that characterizes the right, and this leaves the door open to their policy gains being stripped away every time the right takes power (generally, with a substantially less-than-popular majority).

If there were massive chasms between the ideological positions of the Liberals and the NDP, a merger wouldn't make sense as anything short of a cynical power grab. And many NDP and Liberal loyalists would seemingly fight to the death to defend their respective niches. But the reality is that these differences are more important to party members than they are to voters.

Take climate policy as an example. The Liberals favour a carbon tax, while the NDP want a "carbon market." It seems likely most NDP supporters would be happier with a Liberal-style carbon tax than whatever the Conservatives eventually propose. Given the broad alignment between the Liberals and NDP, the overall feel of a merged party probably wouldn't be dramatically different. In a lot of ways, it would look like the Democratic Party in the U.S., which has a more progressive wing and a more centrist wing under the same party banner.

Mike Ridewood via Getty Images
Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper celebrates his majority government win in the federal election on May 2, 2011. Harper's Conservatives rose to a majority government after merging parties.

The big question is how successful a merger would be given the political risks that such a major upheaval would bring. If it only improves their chances marginally, there isn't a whole lot of incentive to do it. This makes it important to understand the impact that a merger would have on the electorate. While voters could react in many different ways, it's likely most NDP and Liberal supporters would vote for the new party, while a segment would feel alienated enough to defect. "Second-choice" polling is particularly useful, as it shows where support would go if a person's preferred party was no longer an option.

Using second-choice polls, we can re-examine past election results to see what would have happened if the NDP and Liberals had merged. For simplicity's sake, let's assume half of all Liberal and NDP supporters who list the Conservatives as their second choice would choose to vote Conservative rather than stick with a merged party. This assumption probably overly favours the Conservatives, but it works for the purposes of this exercise.

If we look at the last federal election won by the Conservatives in 2011, second-choice polls at the time showed 13 per cent of both Liberal and NDP voters named the Conservatives as their second choice. If half of these people went Conservative rather than sticking with the merged party, the popular vote would have been 43 per cent for the Conservatives and 46 per cent for the left's merged party. If this dynamic played out in equal measure in all ridings, the Conservative majority would have flipped to a majority for the merged party, which would have won 55 per cent of the seats.

(The Green Party would have kept their one seat, while all four of the Bloc Quebecois seats would have been cannibalized by the merged party.)

There would never have been a Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the face of a merged left.

A similar analysis of the 2008 federal election shows that Harper's minority government would have turned into a minority government for the merged left party, which would have won 45 per cent of seats to the Conservatives' 41 per cent. Same deal in 2006; Harper's first minority government would instead have been a left-wing majority with 56 per cent of seats. If my analysis is accurate, there would never have been a Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the face of a merged left.

There's fairly solid evidence that a Liberal-NDP merger would result in substantially more left-wing governments taking power. But instead, the left-leaning parties continue to cling to their particular views as if they are sacred. The unavoidable conclusion is that the left-leaning parties are ceding the opportunity to implement progressive policy that's close to, but not exactly, their vision to protect their ideological silos. The effect? That it frequently results in the exact opposite.

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For those of us who value strong environmental regulations and other policies characteristic of the left, the risk of letting in a Conservative government that would act against such goals makes no sense. With the election less than eight months away, the time to start talking merger is now.

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