A united left would ensure a real debate and a real choice for voters.
This past election, the Liberal party won fewer seats and fewer votes than at any time in its history. The party has been through three leaders in the last five years. It will soon be asked to choose a fourth.
This is a party in crisis. The way to resolve this crisis is for the Liberals to merge with the New Democrats. There are three sound reasons why they should do so.
1. The electoral map no longer favours the Liberals.
The argument most often marshalled against a merger is that because the Liberal party has won majorities before, it can win them again. This argument fails because Canada's electoral map has changed in such a way that it is now nearly impossible for the Liberals to win another majority government.
This change didn't happen in 2011. It happened in 1984, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives swept away the Liberals' stronghold in Quebec.
The virtually unbroken string of Liberal governments that ran from 1963 to 1984 relied almost entirely on lopsided victories in Quebec. Were it not for Quebec, the PCs would have won a plurality of seats in eight of the nine elections held in this period.
When the Liberals regained power in 1993, they relied not on Quebec, but on Ontario, winning over 90 per cent of the seats in that province. But this advantage was only temporary – it depended on the split in the conservative vote between the PC and Reform parties. Now that this split has been healed, the Tories have regained their pre-1993 strength in Ontario.
Without a split conservative vote in Ontario, or a monopoly in Quebec, the Liberals cannot win a majority government by themselves.
2. The Liberals and the NDP need each other in order to govern.
This need goes beyond math. The Liberals need a leader who can connect with Canadian voters. The NDP needs a team capable of running a government. Only a merger will allow both parties to satisfy these needs.
It’s doubtful that any of the probable successors to the Liberal crown could beat NDP Leader Jack Layton in the next election. Bob Rae is too unpopular in Ontario. Justin Trudeau could be an attractive option, but his recent gaffe on the subject of honour killings indicates that he may lack the political judgment necessary to lead a federal party. Dominic LeBlanc has had over a decade to build a national profile as a member of Parliament, yet has failed to do so, and it is doubtful he can turn things around now.
The New Democrats could win the next election. But if they do, they will find themselves in roughly the same position as the Ontario New Democrats after the 1990 election – with a (then-)popular leader (Bob Rae) but a team that lacked the competence and the discipline to govern.
Rae was weighed down by his ministers' missteps and divisions, which fostered the perception that he had lost control not only over the economy, but also over his own government. Unless Layton can radically improve his bench strength in time for the next election, he will likely face a similar fate.
Layton could use people like Ralph Goodale, John McCallum, and, yes, even Rae –people who know how government works and would inject some much-needed pragmatism into a Layton cabinet.
3. It would mean a clearer political debate in Canada.
The left-right debate is as relevant as ever.
A left-right divide allows for a clear debate over how government should relate to individuals and communities – this is why most major liberal democracies feature a leading left-wing party and a leading right-wing party.
Those on the left tend to believe that government exists to give individuals the resources to survive at a basic level and, through hard work, achieve their full potential. This, they believe, is achieved with social programs and benefits, funded by high taxes on the rich.
Those on the right tend to believe that the role of government is not to intervene in the economy, but to enforce moral standards and defend the community from external threats. This, they believe, is achieved by regulating marriage and abortion and spending more on police and the military.
Different countries and different parties have adopted different combinations of these ideas. But the contours of the debate remain the same.
Having one right-wing party and one left-wing party would offer Canadians a clear choice with clear consequences. Voters could expect a left-wing party to implement left-wing policies, and vice versa – they would no longer have to deal with the “campaign on the left and govern on the right” strategy that the Liberals are well known for.
A Liberal-NDP merger would be good for democracy. The Conservatives would no longer be the only party capable of winning a majority, nor would they be the only party capable of running a government. It would ensure a real debate and a real choice for voters.