Volume 41, Number 2: March/April 2007

Can the NDP work with the Greens and the Liberals to Defeat Harper?

It is clear that in the November 27 London-Centre by-election, Elizabeth May drew votes from past supporters of all political parties, but especially from the NDP. With her as Leader, the Greens are increasingly likely to draw support from the NDP across the country. Through cooperation rather than competition, however, the prospects of both parties could be enhanced.

An obvious first step toward cooperation would be for the NDP to give its support in the next general election to Elizabeth May’s own candidacy, rather than running a candidate to oppose her. She may choose to run in Cape Breton or possibly again in London North-Centre. It is the NDP, which, from its better-established, more powerful position, should graciously initiate such a proposal. I hope the Green Party would reciprocate by supporting an NDP candidate in another riding.

This would be only a small first step toward the needed cooperation, however. It would be better still if the two parties could agree to run only one candidate in several other perhaps many other ridings, throwing the support of both parties behind each such candidate.

Sufficiently Similar Goals

I am aware that major difficulties stand in the way of such action. There are some policy differences between the NDP and Greens, and these have been emphasized in past election campaigns. There are fierce loyalties within each of the parties. There are internal disagreements within each party. Each local riding has an array of party activists whose views would be crucial in any decision regarding such cooperation. But the two parties have sufficiently similar basic goals that it should be entirely possible to achieve a significant level of cooperation enough to make it possible to give common support to one candidate in each of many key ridings. Planning for such cooperation is needed as far in advance as possible before the next election which means immediately.

I am not suggesting the parties combine into one. A primary goal of cooperation would be to achieve proportional representation in Parliament. After that, each party could pursue distinctive approaches with assurance that each would gain seats in Parliament in proportion to its share of the popular vote. Electoral competition would not be so damaging and cooperation could proceed within Parliament.

In the last general election, the NDP strategy was to focus a relentless attack on the Liberals, taking advantage of the infamous sponsorship scandal while giving very little attention to the grave dangers from the Conservatives, who are profoundly committed to pursuing deep integration with the United States. This means continuing to support U.S. military actions and supporting the corporate agenda, which includes increasing massive privatization, exploitation of labour and abuse of the environment here and abroad. No political party committed to an independent Canada and to an environmentally sensitive social democracy can afford to ignore this danger during an election campaign.

The NDP under Jack Layton’s leadership has been so focused on trying to displace the Liberals that it may be diverting attention from the greater immediate danger from the Conservatives. Next election this strategy might help Conservatives to continue to govern, and perhaps even to gain a majority, which could enable them greatly to accelerate the process of deep integration with the U.S.

Cooperation between Greens and the NDP might not be sufficient, however, to prevent the Conservatives from governing after the next election. Might there conceivably be some possibility that newly cooperating NDP and Greens might also seek some cooperation with the Liberals, running only one candidate in some ridings?

A Painful Case: The 1988 “Free Trade Election”

I recall that, during the 1988 election when “free trade” was the burning issue, Canadian Dimension, hardly a supporter of the Liberals, called for the Liberals and the NDP to run only one candidate in each riding. The Liberal-NDP rivalry prevailed, however, enabling Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives to gain a majority, with 47 per cent of the vote, and to push through the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The PCs, despite plunging popularity, left office with the even-more-damaging North American Free Trade Agreement essentially a fait accompli.

In that 1988 election it was the Liberal Party under John Turner that took the lead in vigorously opposing the “free trade” agenda. The NDP under Ed Broadbent, in the judgment of many NDP supporters, made a major mistake by remaining essentially silent on this crucial issue. Apparently there was a fear that emphasizing the same issue would lead voters to support the Liberals who would be more likely to win enough seats to govern. Perhaps the NDP strategy enabled it to win a few more seats that year, but a crucial battle was lost, and many people have been paying a heavy price.

The Liberal Connection

Judging from the stance of St phane Dion since he became leader of the Liberal Party, he will be stressing how his party’s platform contrasts with the Conservatives’ agenda. If the Liberals under his leadership operate according to the competitive logic that typically prevails in Canadian elections, they will try to convince voters not to split opposition to the Conservatives by voting for the NDP or the Green Party. Of course, NDP supporters have a deep mistrust of the Liberals, who allowed NAFTA to be approved in early 1994 and who severely cut social programs in 1995. The Liberals have all too often supported a damaging corporate agenda.

But Dion is a new leader, who strongly emphasized his concern for the environment in his leadership campaign. In response to a question at a news conference on January 18, he said that, during the next general election, May should be included in the televised leaders’ debates a position the NDP should already have taken. The possibility of Dion moving his party to some degree of cooperation with the NDP and Greens should at least be explored. Cooperation could be sought not only in order to head off a Conservative government, and to strengthen social programs and environmental protection, but also to enact proportional representation. Indeed the three parties might well make proportional representation the primary explicit goal of their cooperation.