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.