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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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