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The Globe and Mail

A missionary view on why a Liberal-NDP merger would fail

I don't really know John Mraz but I have to thank him for my Saturday morning chuckle in today's National Post.. In an opinion piece once again making the case for a Liberal-NDP merger, Mraz calls me a "Liberal missionary." I have never been called a missionary for anything or anyone before and given how, um, off message I am from the Liberal talking points on many days, I must be one of those lapsed missionaries who ends up making for hilarious story lines in Nick Nolte's latest effort to resuscitate his moribund career.

But Mraz is right, on the notion that a Liberal-NDP merger is a good idea, I have religion: It's doomed to fail if the objective is to stop a Harper majority. Here's Mraz's accusation thrown at me:

Recently, a number of journalists made note of this endless stalemate. But when the Toronto Star's Chantal Hebert suggested in late 2010 that the Liberals might want to take another look at some form of progressive union, sanctioned Liberal pundits brayed nay. To that end, the Globe and Mail's Liberal missionary Rob Silver maintains that his party would lose more votes to the Conservatives than they could gain should they hold truck with the NDP. Silver informs his argument with polling data that details voters' "second party" choices. Yet a national pollster quietly admits that asking a voter for whom they would vote if their favourite party weren't on the ballot is akin to being asked by one's wife with whom one might sleep with if she happened to be away. She might not get an honest answer. When the options change, so do people's attitudes.

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So I used second ballot preferences - which can never be considered reliable (huh? So why do pollsters ask the question?) - to "inform" my argument. There's some truth to that; here are the sections of the post to which Mraz is referring:

More importantly, a reminder from back in May when merger mania swept the country: The notion that a Liberal-NDP merger leads to certain victory is almost certainly wrong. As Dan Arnold at Calgary Grit laid out at the time, when the Alliance and PCs merged before the 2004 election, they were only able to hold 78.5 per cent of their combined 2000 vote. One in four voters left the combined parties.

Given that only "37 per cent of Liberal voters list the NDP as their second choice, while 35 per cent of NDP voters list the Liberals as their second choice," a combined NDP and Liberal party would likely maintain even less of their combined vote if they merged with some of it going to the Conservative Party, some to the Greens and some just staying home. If the new party holds 73 per cent of their combined vote (and Dan explains why that is a reasonable, though likely optimistic assumption), the Conservatives in a "head-to-head" race with the LibDems (and the Bloc and Greens and the now surging Pirate Party) would win a majority with 163 seats.

In other words, a merger accomplishes the opposite of what it is intended to do. Which of course doesn't mean that the alternative pursued so far of just doing more of the same is a real alternative.

What I think I was actually using to form the basis of my argument that a LibDem merger would fail is the PC-Alliance merger. The same merger that proponents of a merger of the left use as the main basis and model for what we need to do.

The Conservative Party of Canada only maintained 78.5 per cent of their pre-merger vote total. That's a fact. There are all kinds of reasons to believe a new LibDem party would hold even less of their current vote. Yes, I used polling on second party preferences to try to make this point objectively in part because the numbers were so striking - roughly two in three voters of both the Liberals and NDP choose someone else as their second choice but if Mraz rejects this, I can make the same point using argument.

Look at the two parties: the Liberal Party has for at least the last 50 years been a coalition of "business Liberals" and "activist Liberals." Those are crude terms and life, for most of us, isn't that simple but there has been a significant "blue Liberal" core there for much of our existence. I would posit these voters are more likely to vote Conservative than for a party that involves the NDP. In fact you would almost certainly drive a percentage of business Liberals into Harper's open arms with a merger, likely in large enough numbers to give him the majority even if every NDP voter followed the new party.

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Looking at the NDP (a party whose rich culture I would never claim to fully know or understand), I assume there is a core of their voters who are voting NDP, rather than Liberal, for a reason. If they just wanted to be with the winners - or beat the Conservatives - they would simply switch their support to the Liberals. And yet they don't. Why would anyone assume that, post-merger, these NDP voters would all come along to the new party?

And that's the thing, for the merger to be a failure - defined as Stephen Harper getting a majority - just over two of every 10 Liberal and NDP voters from 2008 needs to vote Conservative, Green, Pirate, Bloc or stay home. Based on the Conservative experience, polling and logic this seems to be a near certainty to happen.

But that's what you'd expect from a mere missionary.

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