Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Election Ringside, April 27: Prime Minister Jack Layton?

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2011, 9:50 a.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

Hi John,

Story continues below advertisement

This NDP surge has got me thinking about the Liberal Party. It seems to me that, even if this surge subsides, the Liberals have a big problem.

As you know, the 20th century was hard on centre parties throughout the democratic world. Squeezed between social democrats on the left and conservatives on the right, they have either gone out of business or remain alive as niche parties, sometimes able to participate in governing coalitions but never able to govern by themselves or even be the lead partner.

Canada's Liberals have been the big exception, but the exception is more apparent than real. The Liberals prospered in Canada not so much as a centre party but as a coalition of ethno-linguistic religious minorities.

With Laurier's leadership, francophones became the core, to which were added Roman Catholics and visible minorities. It was an almost unbeatable combination while it lasted, but it started to fall apart in 1984, when Quebec francophones defected, first to Mulroney's Conservatives, then to the BQ, and now perhaps to the NDP. They have never come back permanently to the Liberals, though it looked for a while that they might under Jean Chrétien.

Now Roman Catholics outside Quebec are gone; recent polling shows they are more likely to vote Conservative than Liberal, or indeed any other party. Visible minorities are starting to leave, too, as the Conservatives make a massive play for them. If they ever leave en masse, all that will be left of the Liberal ethnic coalition will be Montreal anglophones.

Of course, there will still be many people who support the Liberals out of family tradition or personal conviction. The university-educated, particularly those with post-graduate degrees, still prefer the Liberals. But what will be the Liberal base? In a first-past-the-post electoral system, a party needs geographical concentration in order to elect MPs. That's what happened to the Progressive Conservatives. When Reform left, they lost their Western and rural base. They could still get 15 to 20 per cent of popular vote, but it just didn't translate into seats, and they ultimately had to merge with Reform/Alliance.

I'd be interested in your thoughts about the long-term future of the Liberals. Is my analysis faulty? Or if it is correct, can the Liberals do anything to turn the situation around?

Story continues below advertisement


From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2011, 3:30 PM ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

Hi Tom,

I am going to be no fun at all here and not get into the long-term future of the Liberal Party of Canada. I can assure you that it is a lively topic of discussion wherever I go, but the clamour is so raucous I don't really have anything useful to contribute at this moment.

Let's focus on something else: The NDP may be in first place, or pretty darn close to it.

Let me explain. The Nanos research poll, probably the heaviest covered of the campaign, this morning reported national voting intentions of Conservative: 37.8 per cent; NDP: 27.8 per cent; Liberal: 22.9 per cent; BQ: 5.8 per cent; and Green: 4.7 per cent for the period ending April 26. It takes a little arithmetic with this three-day rolling poll, but when you isolate last night's numbers, you get the NDP in first place with 36.2 per cent; the Conservatives second with 35 per cent; the Liberals with 17.5 per cent, the BQ with 4.4 per cent and Greens with 6.9 per cent.

Story continues below advertisement

That's right. Nanos's April 26 sample had the NDP in first. This is not definitive; it has a high margin of error; it must be handled with great care. But add to that today's Forum Research poll, which showed a mere three points separating the Conservatives and the NDP, and it's pretty clear what is happening. The NDP either has closed, or is close to closing, the gap with the Conservatives.

There is no reason to believe otherwise, frankly, or that this has to come to a halt. Fact: various polls are now showing the NDP eating not only into the Liberal vote (as in Ontario) but also into the Conservative vote pretty much everywhere outside the prairies. Analysis is catching up. Fact: the NDP surge is showing no sign of abating. Fact: The NDP has a great, upbeat "closer"-style spot on television right now, while the other parties have ads that are not resonating. Fact: The Conservative response, which would probably be impressive, is nowhere to be seen, plus they just lost one of their best strategy guys at the worst possible moment. Meanwhile, the Liberals are starting to fall off the coverage radar. Fact: earned media campaign coverage is about to go dark for the Royal Wedding and the final weekend.

All of those factors would tend to continue the NDP surge. Recoil is possible, of course. But for now, there seems to be no real floor to the Liberal support (they went through that in 2008, pretended they were on a new form of solid ground and got used to it. Big mistake.) And as for the Conservatives, we know now that the Tory floor from one election to the next is around 30 per cent, but that means that Mr. Layton still has room to grow -- a fair bit in fact. And Mr. Harper has not run the kind of campaign that makes newcomers actually desire to stay in the Conservative tent.

I am seriously starting to wonder whether some sort of massive genie hasn't been let out of the bottle here. Mr. Harper has framed the campaign and its run-up as an anti-politics exercise. Putting words in the PM's mouth, I described his core pitch as being, "The heck with these elections we've all come to hate. Vote for a Harper majority and all this political crap gets out of your hair for four years." What appears to be happening here is that the anti-politics appeal has found its audience, and it's expression is "the heck with Harper and Ignatieff." The response seems not to have taken the form of Liberal voters sourly staying home and throwing the election to the Conservatives. Rather, it appears the anti-politician mood that the Prime Minister stoked has created an immense opening for Mr. Layton's positive, uplifting, take-a-chance-on-me offering.

First in Quebec, now all over the country, voters who have never voted New Democrat in their lives are flocking to the NDP. Now, the major questions that lie ahead are these. First, is Layton actually not only going to win the campaign, but win the election, or come close enough to put a hung parliament into play with the NDP having a shot at government? Second, will people become aware of this in the dying days of the campaign? Third, if they do, how will they react, and how will other actors, such as markets and lenders? Fourth, when all is said and done on May 2, what will Canadians' have actually said? Goodbye Harper? Hello Jack? Something in between? If so, what?

Somewhere in all of this, like a cork in the rapids, lies the Liberal Party. But, frankly, their story is the least important thread running right now, and it's certainly far too soon to talk about structural drivers of political transition.

Oh yes, good luck at the Donner Awards tonight, Tom. Thanks to a certain wise Liberal finance minister, literary prizes are tax-free in this country!

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.