The idea of a merger between the federal Liberals and the NDP makes no more sense now than it ever did – for either party or for Canada – after the NDP’s election success and Jack Layton’s death. The country needs a broadly based centrist party (with some left-leaning elements), a consensus-building party, rather than a union of “the left” – a concept that in any case mischaracterizes the Liberal Party.
If anyone, Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, might be expected to favour such a union, having been a very prominent New Democrat for almost a quarter-century. But he has simply dismissed merger “as not on our agenda.” Even on merely tactical grounds, he is right. At the moment, an emotional wave caused by Mr. Layton’s death has given the NDP popular support equal to the Conservatives’, according to one poll. Any Liberal courting of the New Democrats now would be an admission of weakness, an invitation to a takeover bid.
Michael Ignatieff, the recently departed Liberal leader, got caught up in that wave at Mr. Layton’s funeral: “Now, sitting together in the same hall,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “isn’t it obvious how much we have in common?” The answer to that question is still “No.” Mr. Ignatieff, with views on international affairs quite different from Mr. Layton’s and the NDP’s, should know that.
Jean Chrétien has favoured such a merger for some years – that is, since a time when the Liberals would have been the senior partners. Mr. Chrétien, who governed quite cautiously and conservatively, is hardly plausible as an advocate of a united left. No doubt, he would like to eliminate a threat on the Liberals’ left flank, as Mackenzie King succeeding in doing in the 1920s by absorbing most of the Progressive Party. But the New Democrats believe the momentum is theirs.
The NDP and the Liberals do have a few things in common. They both have interim leaders and they both are in a phase of transition toward goals they have not decided upon, and toward unknown fortunes. Such uncertainty is no basis for union.
The analogy with the unite-the-right is false. The present Conservative Party is a reunion of two parts of a previous party that had suffered a schism. By contrast, the NDP is still a party of socialist heritage. It is not yet the equivalent of Tony Blair’ s New Labour, and may never be.
The Liberals, as a centrist governing party, have on the whole served Canada well. They have much work to do, but their essential purpose remains good.