Would joint Liberal/NDP candidates defeat the federal Conservatives if an election were held today? Or, more pointedly and more importantly, in three or four years time? This is the question pundits are now asking. The long and the short of it is that we don't know. Comparisons with the earlier CA/PC merger suggest not while raw numbers suggest that, in fact, they would. According to the Globe's reporting of an Angus Reid poll close to 50% of Canadians who are decided voters and likely to vote, would vote for an NDP/Liberal joint candidate if they had the option while the Globe is right to point out that the PC/CA merger into the Conservatives Party of Canada did not bring with it everyone who had voted PC or CA. In other words, the total CPC vote was less than the two parties received separately in the previous election. Two plus two, in other words, ended up not equally four.
This is an interesting academic puzzle and makes some fun as a discussion point. It is likely, however, no more than that because it treats political parties and ideologies in too broad and vague a way. I've complained about this before but I'll say it again: political parties are not like clothes that one puts on because on happens to like their look. There were significant ideological differences between the PCs and the CA; that is why they were two separate parties. They were not distinct political entities because their leaders disliked each other or because one or the other set of insiders clung to the nattered belief that they could win without the other. They were different and distinct from each other because they were different from each other. Their hard core supporters believed different things, thought about Canada in different ways, self-identified differently, and had different political heritages.
This is the problem with reporting political ideologies in broad strokes "centre-left" or "centre-right." It fails to capture the nuances of different ideological perspectives and different conceptions of the future of Canada, indeed, even different conceptions of Canada's past. To those who are outside of a particular ideology (or, political perspective), the views of others look like variations on a theme. If one is not particularly well informed about politics, then they differences can look very much less like differences. After all … right wing parties believe right wing party like things … do they not? If you want to understand the difference between the CA and the PCs read Bercusson and Cooper, Deconfederation and compare it to Grant's Lament for a Nation.
These are dramatically different ways of thinking about Canada and its future, the nature of the economy, the place of morality in politics, the role of the state. This is what makes Harper's ability to forge an alliance between the PCs and the CA an event of historic importance. He did not bring together like minded people. Any dimwit can do that. He brought together people who saw eye-to-eye on some things but not on others. He built, in other words, a new historic bloc that was neither CA nor PC. He drew on provincial conservative parties and ideologues. In the process, he lost some PCs (Danny Williams anyone) but attracted others (Bernard Lord). He marginalized some old Reformers but drew in others and brought in new people who were neither Reform, CA, or PC. He did not just simply ask for compromise (in the manner of Mulroney) but -- along with many others -- forged a new political movement whose goal was to do more than win an election, whose goal was to refashion Canada (drawing heavily on the Republican election handbook in the process).
The NDP/Lliberals face the same types of issues. The truth of the matter is that the NDP and the Liberals are not and should not be the same political party. They are different because one (the NDP) is a socialist political party that, theoretically at least, aims -- like the CPC -- to build a different type of country. The other (Liberals) are civic nationalists who, in fact, built the country Harper and his crew are trying to dismantle. Civic nationalists have had a significant influence on Canadian socialists (and, oddly, on Conservatives as well) but they hold different views (civic nationalists are, for instance, capitalists who look askance at ethno-linguistic nationalists). Socialists, theoretically at least, want to replace capitalism with something else and are willing to discuss the merits of ethno-linguistic nationalism if it represents an oppressed people.
What pushed the CA and PCs together was like mindedness. Indeed, as the numbers show, a lot of PCs stayed away from the new CPC (a number joining the Liberals and some dropping out of politics all together). Instead, what contributed to the merger and its eventual success were two things. First, the spectre of electoral destruction. It is hard to remember this but the pre-sponsorship scandal Liberals looked like they were poised (under Martin) for a victory of historic (Mulroneyesque) proportions. the PCs, in particular, were faced the possibility of being finally wiped out. The CA was going to be rolled back to a rural rump with extremist views. It was only in the face of this type of massive defeat that merger was seriously considered, that the PCs and the CA were willing to put some water with their wine and modify their ideological positions. Second, times changed. The PCs no longer represented what we can think of as a broad ideology. Toryism had long been in opposition in Canada but it represented the views of a significant minority of Canadians, perhaps 25% perhaps 30%. By the early 2000s, this was no longer the case. The number of committed Tories -- people committed to Toryism as a way of seeing the country -- had shrunk to perhaps 10-15%. And, new ideological perspectives (neo-conservatism) that had only a loose connection to Toryism had popped up.
For the Liberals and the NDP, the question is do these same circumstances apply. One reason that I'd suggest that a Liberal/NDP merger might be successful is that the ideological perspectives represented by each of these parties have changed. Their opposition to Harperesque neo-conservatism does not make them mirror reflections of each other (the centre-left is a big, big, big political space occupied by the Greens and the Bloc as well). But, the old battles of Trudeauvian liberalism are no longer battles and Canadian socialism, as I've pointed out before, is not really socialism. It's sort of a vague progressive reformism. What this means is that there is an opening for some type of electoral cooperation in the sense that what divided the parties in the past has been, in part, overcome by history. We have, right now, a civic nationalist Liberal Party led (comfortably it seems) by a former socialist and socialist NDP led (perhaps slightly less comfortably) by a former Liberal civic nationalist. Both are pragmatists (unlike, say, Trudeau and Broadbent or Pearson and Douglas) who are committed to the Canada that Trudeau and company built (multiculturalism, bilingualism, charter rights, regional equalization, autonomy in foreign affairs) with some twists and turns. Moreover, the Liberals face the same question the PCs faced a decade ago: is our ideological perspective relevant any longer in the sense that Canadians are willing to commit themselves to it. I don't know for sure, but my guess is that the number of true believers is considerably less than it was. For most people civic nationalism is the background of Canada; the goal. Hence … a merger of some sort just might work.