I was speaking with a union organizer Tuesday morning, who made an astute comment. "Those guys in Ottawa are probably celebrating because they got bigger offices and more research money," he said. "But today the NDP have a hell of a lot less power than yesterday."
Under a minority government, the NDP and other opposition parties had a trump card over the Conservatives: fall out of step with public opinion and we will withdraw confidence in the House. That card was actually used successfully in 2008, leading to the withdrawal of the fall economic statement, and threatened enough to eke out changes in legislation and budgetary priorities here and there.
Today, the Conservatives can govern virtually without restraint for five years.
During that period, there will be at least four Supreme Court appointments, four or five budgets, countless laws passed, and a renegotiation of health-care funding with the provinces. There could be decisions to go to war, or invoke the Emergencies Act, or enter into a joint security perimeter with the United States, or approve free trade with China or India.
In every one of those decisions, the opposition will be a bystander, critic and influencer, but will have the same power as you or I. They can speak, ask questions, raise concerns and watch as the decisions are made.
The truth is that today no one outside the Conservative caucus is a restraint on Stephen Harper. So how did we get here?
Let's see what some of Canada's most respected political observers say:
Tim Harper: (Toronto Star, May 3, 2011) Tories owe a debt to Layton - "Harper gained more than 20 seats in Ontario by increasing his vote by only five percentage points."
Alan Gregg and Peter Mansbridge: (CBC National coverage. May 2, 2011, 10:09pm)
Gregg: ... and yet the Conservatives have picked up three times more seats than the New Democrats have. And this is because this is the way these splits are working we talked about earlier. Basically in the riding where the Liberals go from first to third and the NDP go from third to second, and the Conservatives don't even have to move and they win the seat. That is what's happening and it is going to propel them.
Mansbridge: They can end up winning seats with less votes than the last time.
Gregg: Absolutely. That is happening in the Greater Toronto Area right now.
Thomas Walkom: (Toronto Star, May 3, 2011) NDP surge gave Conservatives coveted majority "In Ontario, vote splitting between the NDP and Michael Ignatieff's Liberals handed Harper a swath of Toronto-area seats he otherwise never could have won."
Again we see the age old problem: a rising NDP splits the vote and allows the Tories to win seats that otherwise aren't in their reach.
Why do we get vote splits? One reason is simple math. The Conservative vote stays the same, but as the Liberal vote falls, the Conservative candidate can get elected with fewer votes.
Another reason is that NDP member rhetoric about wealth redistribution, and a "working class party" ending neo-liberalism seriously freaks out the middle class. It sounds to some "bourgeois" ears like the NDP is going to come and take away their RRSP nest egg, tax the hell out of them, and blow up the economy.
So on Monday night a few per cent of centre-right Liberals, people who support national daycare programs and same-sex marriage and public health care, voted Conservative to keep the NDP out. (I was certainly not among them.)
There are no obvious fixes to this problem.
I've written before that merger is a false hope. The math didn't work last summer, and I'd be surprised if it's better post-election. The Liberals are split between progressive and business wings, and a minimum of one-fifth of the party would move to the Conservatives and one-fifth to the Greens rather than join the NDP.
As for the NDP, last summer they would have had a hard time herding everyone to the new party. It's only gotten harder.
The second choice party for a plurality of New Democrats is probably the Bloc Québécois now, given the strong showing among Quebec francophones. Former Bloquistes are voting NDP in part because they already rejected the Liberals. Merger with the Liberals now would risk this shift by francophones to the NDP, and put half their new caucus at risk.
The two major progressive parties offer no obvious solutions either.
There is no easy answer in the Liberal Party to end vote splits. They are a big tent coalition that can challenge the Conservatives, but that tent is tattered and torn and letting the rain in. The Liberals are going to need to restructure from top to bottom if they want to survive.
A new leader is just one step. They need to go back to their core values and rebuild around a unique proposition the Tories and NDP cannot provide. They need to stop trying to be all things to all people and start defining their target voters clearly. They need to open up the party backrooms to new people with ideas and energy.
Those are nice words, but all of them are high risk and hard work. There is no guarantee it will pay off in the end either.
The NDP's road ahead is no easier.
New Democrats clearly have a ceiling on their support in Ontario. The current policy and ideological offering will find hard going winning new seats there. As I've said before, there likely isn't a stable majority in Canada for a party of the left.
So to get to a majority, the NDP will need to moderate their economic positions further. No rhetoric about class. No plan for soaking the rich. No talk of ending "neo-liberalism". And if they get to office, it will have to be in the mode of Tommy Douglas, with years of conservative fiscal management to eventually earn the trust to implement transformative social programs.
The real losers in the move from third party, influencing the system from the outside, to alternate government may be the NDP left. The NDP has served as a vessel for the hopes of a lot of people with socialist dreams for tomorrow. The sad reality is that some of those dreams may be dashed in the years ahead