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It seems that management and government alike are allowed to argue that the post office is either really important or not very important at all. (The same double-speak applied to the Air Canada strike.) (Jason Lee/Reuters/Jason Lee/Reuters)
It seems that management and government alike are allowed to argue that the post office is either really important or not very important at all. (The same double-speak applied to the Air Canada strike.) (Jason Lee/Reuters/Jason Lee/Reuters)

Norman Spector

The cleavage with labour Add to ...

Almost immediately after voters gave Jack Layton his mandate to move into Stornoway, attention turned from the unalloyed good news in the May 2 election returns. Notwithstanding the near-destruction of the Bloc Québécois, pols and pundits focused, instead, on the hard times ahead for the NDP in bridging Canada's two solitudes. Canadians, meanwhile, were regaled with stories about the age and inexperience of some of their newly elected MPs in Quebec.

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Lost in the shuffle, too, was reflection on another problem the NDP faces. As last weekend's Canada Post filibuster demonstrated, the party's relationship with organized labour may prove to be the knottier obstacle to forming a government in Ottawa.

Depending on the Harper government's agenda over the next four years, the NDP's Quebec difficulties may remain theoretical. Mr. Layton has already moved to dampen expectations of constitutional reform. And Stephen Harper, aside from reaffirming his support for asymmetrical health arrangements with Quebec, made clear at his party convention that he won't be adopting Pierre Trudeau's approach to federalism.

But the NDP's relationship with labour is fundamental to the party's nature. More important than money, trade unions give the NDP its organizational muscle - resources particularly appreciated on Election Day.

Pointedly, Mr. Layton refused to renounce the relationship at his convention in Vancouver. With the labour movement increasingly dominated by public-sector unions, the divergent interests of taxpaying voters will continue to hamper the party's march to power in Ottawa.

It was this cleavage that the Conservatives exploited by intervening in the Canada Post dispute. And aside from the relative numbers in the House of Commons, it was this cleavage that preordained the filibuster to failure.

Some are now reproaching the NDP for engaging in a fight they couldn't win. Pish. No one need explain to Mr. Layton that the Official Opposition won't be able to defeat legislation, much less the Harper government, in the House. But it would have been inconceivable for the party to have rolled over in the face of Conservative back-to-work legislation affecting its core supporters.

Happily for Mr. Layton, Mr. Harper's quick intervention meant Canadians were not yet very angry at the postal union for holding up their mail; as a result, the NDP won't pay a huge price for its 58-hour filibuster. Happily, too, the postal union seemed quite eager to get back to work.

Such will not always be the case in the next four years. Yet, if Mr. Layton plays his cards right, he need not despair of ever moving into 24 Sussex Drive. His job now is to continually show the Harper government in a bad light. While he must do his best to persuade more Canadians that the NDP is ready to govern, victory can be secured by ensuring that his party is the only serious alternative to the Conservatives.

Much has been said about Mr. Harper's plan to replace the Liberals as Canada's natural governing party. But recent Conservative messaging suggests he has yet to decide whether the best short-term strategy is to kill off the Liberal Party or to leave it in its weakened state to divide the vote.

For Jack Layton, the path to forming a government is clear. The NDP must remove the Liberals from contention - either through a takeover or a merger - leaving voters only one alternative when they tire of the Conservatives, as they inevitably will.

nspector@globeandmail.com

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