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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Will blue and orange squeeze out Bob Rae's red? Add to ...

Now that Thomas Mulcair has assumed control of the NDP, the Liberals are about to be squeezed in two directions, perhaps even to near-extinction. They’ve already been squeezed by the Conservatives; they might now get the same treatment from the New Democrats.

Mr. Mulcair offered himself to the NDP not as the spokesman of traditional party verities but as someone who would lead a broader based grouping of “progressives.” Slogans are just that: slogans. What such a “progressive” coalition might mean in practice and how it would be organized are among the questions that remain unanswered from the Mulcair leadership campaign.

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A chunk of the NDP worried about the party’s morphing into a less distinctly social democratic party than it had prided itself on being. Horror of horrors to defenders of the NDP faith: Mr. Mulcair did not attack former British Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s moderate version of progressive politics.

Mr. Mulcair won despite these fears. He has a mandate, therefore, to change at least the emphasis of the NDP, if not the party’s fundamental orientation. And the first place to go fishing for “progressive” voters outside the NDP’s confines is with people who haven’t voted (read young people) and some Liberals.

Too many Liberals have made the cardinal mistake of believing that the NDP surge in the last election was a fluke. We are the natural alternative to the Conservatives, these Liberals say to themselves. When Canadians tire of the Conservatives, we will be the most reasonable option. Wait and work, these Liberals believe, for the political universe to return to its natural pattern of Conservatives and Liberals fighting for government.

These Liberals apparently don’t understand their party’s fragility. Western Canada, apart from a few urban redoubts, was lost long ago. Quebec turned away from the Liberals at the end of the Trudeau era. Swaths of industrial Ontario that used to be consistently red are now orange or blue. The NDP is a major player in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Geographically, then, it isn’t easy to see where the Liberals might readily mount a comeback. Toronto? Not when the entire area surrounding the city has veered Conservative and some of the major ethnic communities are now voting that way, too. Canadian Jews, formerly a core Liberal vote, are moving massively to the Conservatives, whose support for Israel is unconditional and unquestioning.

Ideologically, the question arises: Does the more sharply conservative approach of the Harper government create conditions for a centrist alternative offered by the Liberals or a more left-wing one offered by the NDP?

In previous days of ideological muddle between Liberals and Conservatives, voting for one party over the other constituted a matter of degree. But the Harper Conservatives are more sharply ideological than any previous Conservative government. The consequent polarizing effect among non-NDP voters who dislike the Conservatives might be to shift them to the NDP.

The Liberals had an easy time while the NDP was busy selecting a leader, a process that seemingly went on forever. Now the Liberals will be desperately seeking attention, to the point of saying eye-catching but silly things, such as interim leader Bob Rae’s demand that the Prime Minister resign over the F-35 affair.

Mr. Mulcair has an opportunity to make life miserable to the point of extinction for the enfeebled Liberals – if, and only if, he actually widens the net of NDP thinking to make the party more aware of the global economy, economic competition and a balanced fiscal policy. None of that will be easy in a party habituated to the nostrums of opposition.

He has the party’s mandate, of course. But it wasn’t without significance that none of the serious leadership candidates backed him as each dropped off the ballot. They didn’t support another candidate. They refused to back anyone, which meant they didn’t publicly support him. This refusal obviously didn’t signal undiluted admiration for Mr. Mulcair.

If Mr. Mulcair plays his cards right by keeping the caucus united while broadening the NDP’s appeal, a Liberal recovery is difficult to imagine.

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