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.


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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.