Canada’s realignment of the left

The breakthrough of the socialist NDP means that Labour finally has a strong sister-party in North A

While millions of Britons were enjoying their May bank holiday, a huge political realignment took place in Canada.

Most people will have paid little or no attention to yesterday's Canadian elections, but those who have include ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie and the Tory maverick Daniel Hannan, both understandably jubilant about the Conservative Stephen Harper's surprise majority victory.

Yet the rise of the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) from the fourth-largest political grouping to 103 seats and 31 per cent of the vote is arguably more significant. So were the trouncing of the once-dominant Liberal Party and near wipe-out of the separatist Bloc Québécois.

Back in 2003, I worked for the NDP MP Libby Davies. She is now deputy leader of the official opposition, rather than a parliamentary party that in 2003 had a meagre 14 MPs in the House of Commons, out of a parliament of 308 MPs, having polled 8 per cent in the previous election. The transformation of Canada's political landscape since then is quite remarkable.

The election campaign started in March when the minority Conservative government was found to be in contempt of parliament and lost a vote of no confidence by 156 votes to 145. In any normal circumstances, you might imagine that the opposition would stride into government.

However, while Canada's Liberal Party dominated 20th-century politics, producing iconic politicians such as Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson and Jean Chrétien, the party has been in crisis since it lost office in 2005. Today, that crisis has become a meltdown. The Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, lost his seat and has already tendered his resignation, becoming the third leader in the past six years to resign.

On 8 April, a week before the party leaders' televised debate, the polls had put NDP support at 15 per cent. After a strong performance by the NDP leader, Jack Layton, in the debate, the polls suddenly had the NDP and the Liberals equal on 25 per cent.

Initially, it seemed as though the NDP surge was worryingly similar to the "Cleggmania" that saw the Liberal Democrats climb last May to nearly 30 per cent in the British polls before collapsing in the final days.

But even though both the Liberals and Conservatives suddenly turned their fire away from each other towards the NDP, the only effect seemed to be stronger support for the New Democrats. Unlike in Britain, the party's momentum kept rolling into the polling booths.

Blocked

The province where the most seismic shift has occurred is Quebec, historically a battleground between the Bloc Québécois (which seeks independence from the rest of Canada) and the Liberals. Last night the Bloc collapsed from 47 seats to four, with the NDP taking a staggering 58 of the 75 constituencies in Quebec, having won just one seat in the 2008 elections.

It is the clearest signal that Quebeckers have tired of the Bloc and have shifted their support to another left-wing party.

The NDP also made significant gains in British Columbia and Ontario, the usual battlegrounds where elections are decided, though it failed to make a breakthrough in the Conservative heartlands of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Many people will be asking who the NDP are. Like the Labour Party, its members are a product of trade unionism and left-wing intellectualism, though it did not come into existence until the early 1960s when the Canadian Labour Congress and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation merged to create it.

Ideologically it is a socialist party, but also one that has tended to be environmentally friendly and socially liberal, something that marks it out and makes a stark contrast to Harper's climate-change scepticism and Republican-style attitude to gun control, migration and prison policy.

In addition to this, the NDP campaigned on a ticket that would have increased wealth taxes and corporation tax for big companies while cutting tax for small businesses. Both the NDP and the Liberals steered clear of the spending cut fetishism of the Conservatives, producing plans to eliminate Canada's budget deficit by 2015. On defence, it was committed to bringing home all Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

Hit the ground running

But the NDP's moment of triumph is also bitter-sweet. It went in to polling day hoping to hit 100 seats, but also that the Liberals would hold up enough support to deny the Conservatives a majority. Indeed, many pundits thought that an NDP/Liberal coalition was a distinct possibility.

Instead, the NDP will have to land on its feet quickly as official opposition and government-in-waiting, and with nearly three-quarters of its MPs elected for the first time. It will have to demonstrate quickly that it is a viable party of government, or else risk a Liberal revival four years from now.

Despite this, the NDP's breakthrough means that Labour finally has a strong sister-party in North America, and promises a profound rebalancing of Canadian politics on the left. Canada is usually seen, and rightly so, as a socially liberal, centre-left country. This should provide the NDP with fertile ground to complete the leap from obscurity to government.

The complete collapse of the Bloc Québécois makes it difficult to see how it can recover, and it is quite conceivable that both the Bloc and some Liberals will be swept inside the NDP tent.

The Liberals have recovered from drubbings before, but never on this scale. The once-dominant "Grits" will start life tomorrow as Canada's third party in all the main provinces bar Quebec. It will require a Herculean effort and a lot of luck for them to come back.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.