Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ripples from Across the Pond

On May 2010 the citizens of the United Kingdom went to the polls and cast their ballots in one of the most dramatic elections in Britain since 1945. The 306 Conservatives, led by David Cameron, with the largest vote share and number of seats in the House of Commons immediately made a public, open overture to the Liberal-Democrats, led by Nick Clegg to form the government. Since mid-May Britain has been ruled by a coalition.

There were two major incentives for the Conservatives to form a coalition. First, Britain is on the verge of an economic crisis with its massive debt and spiralling deficits. Second, by forming a coalition the Conservatives remove the sting and stigma for these policy decisions from themselves alone. The Liberal-Democrats are now in the position of defending the actions of their government because their young leader is deputy prime minister, and they hold significant posts in cabinet.

The Cons and Lib-Dems share a lot of common ground on the budget and economy. Both are free market parties that support free enterprise, but the Lib-Dems are tempered by a progressive ideology and notions of social justice. There is also a gulf of differences, particularly on democratic reform, which is the price the Libs demanded for coalition.

While the political transformation in Britain is ongoing there has been an effect here in Canada. Over the past two months talk as swirled regarding the possibility of a coalition here between the Liberals and NDP. Pieces came out as early as May 14 discussing the possibility. Talk about a coalition initiated in the winter of 2008 between Dion, Layton and Duceppe, but the Canadian public rejected the idea in polling.

I find the discussion of a coalition in Canada following the British election a bit ridiculous. Aping the British seems to be ingrained in the Canadian psyche, but in all honestly we’re comparing apples and beavers.

I suppose the principal drive for the leftist coalition has been the simple comparison. The Lib-Dems and the NDP are both third parties, and the Conservatives and Liberals have been kicked out of power for a number of years. That’s about all the two scenarios have in common by my read, and a minority government was the product of the British election, and likely the outcome of any Canadian election in the near future so a coalition would provide a government with a more stable majority.

On the far left in British politics is the Labour Party, followed by the Liberal-Democrats in the centre-left and the Conservatives on the right/centre-right. In Canada the model is the NDP on the left/centre-left, the Liberals in the centre (debatable) and the Conservatives on the centre-right. The point is that the Liberals are the centrist party in both countries, and as the third party in the UK they could reasonably form government with either of the main parties. The Liberal Dems have long considered themselves part of the middle, and could see a path to coalition. The NDP on the other hand style themselves as the conscious of the parliament.

The NDP are, at least in their own mind, principled voices. When asked to compromise with the Liberals, those who they view as poll-following, power hungry centrists who compromise a progressive vision of the country. Run on the left, and govern from the right. The alliance between the NDP and the Liberals are filled with potholes for both, as Bill Tieleman discusses here.

Curious enough, polls show that even if the parties do merge they would not instantly get the combined support of their component parts. Merged under Ignatieff the new party polls 34% to 40%, with Bob Rae at the helm the Conservatives and new party would be tied at 38%. However, with Jack Layton the new party would lead 43% to 37%. The “protest” vote of the NDP would likely spill to the Greens, especially if the party got dragged to the centre. Moderate Liberals would switch to the Conservatives, especially in a province like Ontario where the NDP are very unpopular.

There’s also the consideration that the NDP and Liberals are from fundamentally different origins. The NDP is largely a deep urban and union party, with support in union towns and remote districts. The Liberals are suburban, or metro.

Canada has a fractured political system, and coalitions between parties are not simple or straightforward. The NDP and Liberals are often political enemies, and have trouble sharing the political left in this country. The talk of merger says to me that the Liberals, as always, are desperate to return to power, and the Conservatives are relatively strong. The NDP see an opportunity to reform the system and gain power as well. Still, it won’t happen, because unlike Britain we are not in the midst of a crisis, there’s no incentive for a drastic political change.

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