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Canada hasn't lurched to the left - it's returned to the centre

To describe Justin Trudeau's Liberals as a "leftward lurch" is to misunderstand how right-wing Stephen Harper's government was. 

Since the Canadian election on Monday, one of the most misleading claims in the international media is that Canada has suddenly “lurched to the left.” In a context where the Stephen Harper government has consistently moved the country to the right over the course of a decade, the only direction of travel for the opposition getting into power would be to move left… towards the centre.

The Liberal victory in Canada is not at all comparable to Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination as Labour leader in the UK or Bernie Sanders’ popularity in the Democratic presidential primary. In the British and American cases, these are internal party elections, among party members who tend to be more left-wing than the average voter. In Canada, Trudeau is a centrist leader who brought together disaffected conservatives as well as progressives, building a broad coalition of support that cuts across geographical, class, and educational divides.

The Liberals’ core manifesto pledges merely return Canada to its natural state of progressive centrism. Environmentalism, protecting Aboriginal rights, and supporting immigrants and refugees are core aspects of the Canadian identity which have been mauled by the Conservative government. Harper tried to convince Canadians to fear their own neighbours, to believe that enemies are lurking everywhere. His attempts to divide the country into “old stock Canadians” and ‘dangerous others’ failed miserably and sounded absolutely absurd to Canadian ears.

There is nothing radical about the Liberals’ economic policies either. They plan to cut income taxes for middle income earners and raise them for those earning over $200,000 – to levels that are still lower than in the UK.

The Liberals plan to scrap the regressive income splitting introduced by the Harper government last year – a policy whereby a high-income earner (typically a man) is able to transfer part of his income to a lower-earning spouse for tax purposes. The policy currently benefits 13 per cent of families – high income earners with stay at home spouses. It reinforces men’s dominant role in relationships and discourages women from working. Introducing income splitting was a “lurch to the right”; getting rid of it is merely a return to progressivism.

Among the Liberals’ other so-called left-wing policies are the reintroduction of the long-form census (meaning a return to evidence-based policy-making), the amendment of the anti-terror Bill C-51, which has been deemed unconstitutional by lawyers and experts around the world as an infringement on civil liberties, and the improvement of the Access to Information Act so that all government data is open by default.

While the party does not preclude the option of running a small deficit until 2019/2020 to invest in infrastructure, innovation and clean technologies, they are able to win support because the whole of their economic platform is credible and realistic. Some on the left are claiming that the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) lost because it promised a balanced budget, coded as “austerity”. This is only half of the sentence – they promised to balance the books while also promising the sun and the moon in spending and investments. A fantasy budget. The NDP dropped in the polls when all of the manifestos came out.

In an article for The Atlantic, David Frum argues that it is populist anger about inequality, similar to that expressed by Corbyn and Sanders, which is driving Canadians “to the left”. While this is of some concern, he misreads the root of Canadians’ antagonism.

Stephen Harper has utterly transformed Canada’s democratic nature. Most commentators abroad have only caught wind recently, but anger has been brewing for years in Canada. The Conservatives committed electoral fraud in 2011. Members of Team Harper have been caught misleading parliament. Civil servants and scientists have been prevented from speaking to the media. The government has outright lied to the public, has concealed evidence of crime, has been complicit in Senate scandals, has spied on opponents, has bullied and smeared members of its own party. Stephen Harper has prorogued parliament more than other Prime Minister in Canadian history. The government has targeted progressive think tanks through extensive audits. It has eliminated the independent elections monitor (the individual is now someone directly responsible to the prime minister), forbidden campaigns to encourage voter turnout, and increased the influence of money in politics. Even John Ibbitson, one of Harper’s biographers, concludes: “No prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative party.”

It suddenly becomes clear why 32 pledges to strengthen democracy, including electoral and Senate reform, were a core part of the Liberal manifesto. To say that voters chose Trudeau because of anger over inequality would be to miss the point. Canadians wanted a change of policies, but also of tone. The Liberals won offering Canadians a positive, inclusive, pluralistic counter-narrative to Harper’s portrayal of the country.

Canadians chose a politics of hope over a politics fear. The proposed moderate agenda merely brings the country back to the centre after a decade of right-wing rule.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change

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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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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