The NDP: What Might Have Been…

12 May

In the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics, we are into the fifth month in power of the current coalition government, led by that most unexpected of Prime Ministers, Stéphane Dion.

The reviews are mixed. The controversial way the government took power has divided Canadians along geographic and partisan lines. It’s also still unclear how well its fiscal plan will help alleviate the country’s economic crisis. But on the foreign affairs front, Dion’s good relationship with like-minded American President Barack Obama has had a positive effect on our country’s relations with the United States, with new bilateral agreements in the works.

Of course, the government has been helped immensely by the complete chaos on the opposition benches. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is facing open internal revolt over his leadership, after letting power slip from his hands into those of Dion, mere weeks after the Tory election victory. The Official Opposition has been giving the government a much freer ride than expected, as it sorts through its own divisions and ponders its newly shaky future.

For their part, Bloc Québécois MPs have been absolute pussycats, content to bask in the glow of their success in helping to bring this new government into being, and showing no sign of breaking the agreement that will keep the coalition in power – and the Bloc in its influential kingmaker role – for many months to come.

As for New Democrats, they have never been in a better political position, experiencing Parliament from the government benches for the first time in party history. NDP leader Jack Layton, Dion’s prominent Industry Minister, is up every day in the House of Commons answering questions about his sweeping auto industry bailout. Layton is enjoying unprecedented influence in Canadian politics and heightened attention from news media, while the NDP learns lessons about the discipline of power that will serve it well in election campaigns to come.

Okay… it’s not called the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics for nothing.

Back here in our own dimension, things have unfolded quite differently over the past few months. Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister and maintains a firm grip on the Conservative Party, despite that party’s precipitous drop in the polls.

Stéphane Dion is long gone, replaced as Liberal leader by Michael Ignatieff, who put the kibosh to the coalition and saw his party’s popularity rise above the Tories’.

As for Jack Layton… well… what happened to Layton anyhow?

To some extent, every party leader rolled the dice somewhat during the coalition drama last fall. But it was the New Democrats who arguably had the most to gain – a place in government for the first time ever – and who also took the biggest risk in pushing for a coalition.

The idea, in fact, was hatched by the NDP, and Layton was its most emphatic proponent.

“Prime minister, your government has lost the confidence of the House,” Layton said on the day the coalition agreement was signed, “and it is going to be defeated at the earliest opportunity.”

That, of course, wasn’t to be.

In the fallout from the coalition’s collapse, some observers say the NDP has become somewhat marginalized in national politics. It is down in the polls, with a diminished role in Parliament. This despite the fact that Ignatieff has moved the Liberals farther to the right, theoretically leaving more room for New Democrats on the left side of the political spectrum.

“The New Democrat caucus tried to do a big thing – tried to replace the government. And it didn’t happen,” said NDP strategist Brian Topp in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. “Undertakings that don’t succeed don’t build support.”

So what will rebuild support for the New Democrats? Some suggest a return to the party’s more traditional role as a principled opposition voice from the left. The eternal conundrum for NDPers, of course, is to what extent they should play the political game at the expense of compromising their principles. In the last election, Layton played power politics, explicitly running for Prime Minister.

But despite Layton’s modest electoral success in comparison to his predecessors, some think the party has been more influential as a kind of pressure group from the opposition benches, rather than as a pretender to the throne. There are even some whisperings that for the party to move forward, Layton may have to step down.

It’s a far cry from the alternate universe that might have been, where flowers grow high, the sun always shines, and New Democrats sit in cabinet.

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