The results of the general election were good for both Conservatism and Unionism in Canada last night: Stephen Harper's Conservative government now governs as a majority, a gift caused by splits in a balkanised left, and the nationalist Bloc Québécois was annihilated. The Conservative Party broke out of its strongholds in Western Canada to seize 71 seats in Ontario and make gains throughout the Liberal's Maritime heartlands.
Only in Quebec did the government suffer a defeat, and it is from Quebec that the challenges of this Parliament for Canadian Conservatism stem. Although the province now lies overwhelmingly in unionist (federalist in Canadian political parlance) hands, the Conservative Party held only six of the eleven seats it held at dissolution. According to a national Canadian paper, not since 1917 has a majority government been so under-represented in Quebec.
Furthermore, Quebec has provided the main game-changer of this election: the rise to prominence of the New Democratic Party, formerly the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Canada's answer to the Labour Party. Almost a century after its British equivalent, it appears to have finally overtaken the Liberals as Canada's second party. Moreover, it won its Quebecois landslide by making many of the same promises to sovereigntists (nationalists) as the shattered Bloc did. Canada's Official Opposition is now a decidedly left-wing, perhaps socialist party committed to proportional representation and in thrall to a separatist electoral base. The need for a strong, broad-based and cleverly-led Conservative Party has perhaps never been greater.
|The federalist darling of the separatist electorate?|
Harper is a natural pessimist, and tends to favour incremental gains and an assumed low overall ceiling of support to playing for high stakes. Yet the next parliament is crucial. Deplorable as the NDP are, it would be foolish to sit back and hope the Liberals bounce back. Nor can the Prime Minister afford to make the fatal error of ignoring either the opposition or Quebec. There are those who argue that the NDP's success is ephemeral, and won't last. Perhaps they're right, but that doesn't mean that the Conservatives can afford to ignore them or fail to exploit the opportunities now presented to them.
Some believe that the breakthrough of the NDP in this election has redefined Canadian politics. In my view, the real opportunity to redefine politics is this parliament and the 2015 election, and the initiative lies with the Conservatives. Despite the challenges, if they choose too this could be the parliament where they set in motion Stephen Harper's dream of becoming Canada's natural party of government. The way to do this is the method used so effectively by Tony Blair to consistently outmanoeuvre the British Conservatives: triangulation.
The nature of the parliamentary NDP has two advantages for the Conservatives. First is the quite startling lack of calibre amongst some members of their new Quebecois caucus: paper candidates have been elected in numbers, and while it makes for a mightily impressive election result the influence of these people on the future of the NDP could be anything but good. Even if not actively malign, the fact that the NDP caucus will be presented as inexperienced and gaff-prone will only exacerbate the Conservative's incumbency advantage and their self-image as the sensible, reliable and trustworthy custodians of the nation. The NDP will be under scrutiny as they've never experienced before, and if their MPs aren't up to scratch all the charismatic leaders in the world won't save them.
|Harper's Canada this morning (03/05/2011). Six large NDP ridings -|
(E-W) Skeena-Bulkley Valley, Western Arctic, Churchill, Timmins-James Bay,
Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou and Manicouagan - visually mask
the scale of the Conservative victory.
The second potential advantage for the Conservatives is the NDP's surprise dependence upon a previously unimagined Quebecois base. The long-term impact of this isn't entirely knowable at this point, but it is fact that Jack Layton won many Bloc sympathisers by making many of the same promises to the sovereigntist electorate that the nationalists usually do. There are several ramifications to this. First, it could be used to damage the NDP's federal credentials by turning their position on Canadian unity into something of an Achilles' heel, if cleverly exploited. Second, it makes cooperation between them and the avowedly federalist Liberal Party more difficult, which is a boon to a Conservative Party that profited so greatly from the balkanisation of the left at the last election. Third, it means that if Layton and his NDP don't have a good parliament, and especially if they are seen as not standing up for the province, their Quebecois base could evaporate.
The third advantage for the Conservatives lies not in the NDPs specific parliamentary makeup but its overall position on Canada's political spectrum. Unlike the centrist Liberal Party, the NDP is decidedly on the left, perhaps even socialist in character. Its rise and the eclipse of the Liberals means there is now a window of opportunity for Harper to try to annex the Canadian centre ground permanently for the Conservatives. Analysts on the CBC's election program last night attributed the Conservative's ground-breaking result in Ontario (seventy-one seats out of 106) to the collapsing Liberal vote "breaking right" to avert an NDP-led administration.
If the Conservatives can occupy the political centre ground, it will harm both their main rivals. It will further rob the Liberals of any raison d'être they might have still have, which will either lead to them merging with a united left (and shedding what remains of their centre and right-leaning figures in the process) or engaging in a life-or-death struggle with the NDP, depending upon how the latter fairs in the next few years. The end result of such a struggle would either be a revived Liberal Party that had been pushed out of the Canadian centre, or a triumphant NDP nearly as remote from it as ever. Whether the NDP strengthen or the Liberals rebound, the Conservatives need to convincingly occupy the centre in order to maintain their hold on many of the former Liberal seats they gained at this election. Only by seizing the centre can the Conservatives ever 'incrementally' become Canada's natural political home.
The other Conservative Party imperative for the next few years must be Quebec. There are both tactical and strategical reasons for this. Tactically, the Conservatives need a resurgence in Quebec to help neuter the NDP. The latter gained the Quebecois vote at least in part on fear of Harper's Conservatives, and it would be foolish of the Tories not to try to undermine this representation before it solidifies and the NDP's position in national politics becomes entrenched. Strategically, the NDP's landslide reflected all the worse on a very disappointing performance by the Conservatives, who held only half a dozen of the province's seventy-five ridings and saw a senior minister unseated. Like the British Conservative Party and Scotland, lacking representation in a large and culturally distinct territory damages any party's claims to be a truly national administration, no matter how impressive the party's showings in the rest of Canada.
Gilles Duceppe and Michael Ignatieff, the unseated leaders of
the Bloc Québécois and the Liberal Party of Canada.
When the next election comes, the Conservative Party of Canada should have acted upon these principles. If they have, they could well be in the position to start the historic shift in Canada's alignment they've long dreamed of. Come the next election the economy should be on the up, which the Conservatives will be able to take credit for. This would also allow them to step away from grim austerity politics and start offering more baubles in their manifesto. If so, it should not shy away from including measured, affordable spending commitments in its manifesto alongside tax cuts.
If the triangulation is successful, they should face an NDP pushed out onto the left of Canadian politics, with an appeal too narrow to win an election. If the NDP collapse, the should face a rudderless Liberal party unable to claim the centre-ground and uncomfortable anywhere else. If the result falls between those two extremes, they'll face the same divided, vote-splitting left that served them so well last night. If the Liberals and the NDP end up merging, the Conservatives face more of a threat to their centre and it becomes more vital than ever that they have strengthened their position there.
Stephen Harper understands that right-wing governments are only viable in centre-right political climates, and he has begun the long work of shifting Canada's political axis his way. If he can successfully rebuild in Quebec, outmanoeuvre the NDP and wrest the centre-ground from the parties of the left, he could well succeed.