The reward of pessimism is how rarely one is disappointed. But a big person must be ready to admit he's wrong, and boy, am I ready. Hell, I've been ready for a lifetime. Only Canada wasn't. But now something unprecedented seems actually to be happening on the Canadian political scene, and I'm prepared to recognize it - especially if it proves how stupendously wrong I've been for so long.
Based on past patterns, I've never expected the New Democratic Party to move beyond 20 per cent in any national election, and I've never been disappointed. Sure, it's formed governments in British Columbia, Yukon, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia, and that's most of the country. But for Canada as a whole, 20 per cent was the best result since the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was founded in 1933, and that happened only once, 23 years ago in Ed Broadbent's final campaign. But that was then.
Of course those who know my little book on early Canadian socialism will vividly recall that magic moment in September of 1943 when the CCF, for the only time ever, led the Gallup Poll with 29 per cent while the Liberals and Conservatives were tied at 28 per cent. Alas, prime minister Mackenzie King's reluctant adoption of the welfare state combined with the most vicious anti-socialist campaign in Canadian history punctured the dream. Actual 1945 election results: Liberals 40 per cent, Progressive Conservatives 28 per cent, CCF 15 per cent. So we better not start celebrating just yet.
But even us diehard pessimists understand that something historic is happening in this campaign. Every poll agrees the NDP has reached groundbreaking levels of support across Canada. Yet how this support translates into seats will remain unknown until the last nail-biting moment Monday night (come on, British Columbia). We mustn't be complacent and think this week's unrelenting anti-NDP barrage by the other parties won't be effective. It worked in 1943, and it worked - in a limited way - in the 1990 Ontario election as well. When final-week polls showed a zooming NDP, a desperate Liberal premier David Peterson launched an over-the-top, last-ditch red-baiting attack against the NDP. Even though the party won a huge victory, anticipated support did decline by about 6 per cent in the last few days. That's a lot.
Even unbelievably lame-brained attacks can work, like those Michael Ignatieff's panicky Liberals have been running against the NDP this week: New Democrats and Conservatives are two sides of the same coin, Jack Layton has no experience (compared to Mr. Ignatieff?). I'm less sure of the effect when Stephen Harper claims gas prices will rise under the NDP; I guess he doesn't fill up much anymore.
Ironically, one of the unexpected weapons for the NDP on Monday is the tool that's been such a bugbear for the party through so many elections - strategic voting. Now that phenomenon gets turned on its head. It's finally time for those progressives who embrace strategic voting to act logically by voting for their local Layton candidate. That's who has the momentum almost everywhere across the country in seats where the Conservative can be defeated.
And think of the bonus in strategically voting for your NDP candidate. Two out of five times you're going to be voting for - and in many cases electing - a woman, since for the first time ever 40 per cent of a Canadian political party's candidates are women.
There are a number of groups across the country, like Catch-22 or Project Democracy, that have been doing good work promoting strategic anti-Conservative voting. They can help you figure out who makes most sense in your riding, taking into account the NDP surge. I suspect many people have no idea the NDP came first or second in over 100 ridings in 2008, even with 18 per cent of the vote. And with the surge, all kinds of unlikely places become winnable.
Look, we better be tough-minded here. Don't bet your RRSP that Stephen Harper will lose this election. His faithful base, those who back him even when he wants to export Canadian asbestos to India where it kills poor workers, seems never to go below about 35 per cent. It may seem incomprehensible, but it's a reality. Remember that Jean Chrétien formed a majority government in 1997 with only 38 per cent support, thanks to a perfect split in the opposition votes. So Mr. Harper could still win that majority, and if not he's surely likely to win the most seats and form the next government.
And whichever is the case, who would you most trust in this country to stand up to him on behalf of the rest of Canada? It's hardly necessary to emphasize how crucial this future role will be. If Mr. Harper was able to get away with so much as a minority leader, the mind boggles at what he has in store for us with a majority. Imagine him, John Baird, Tony Clement and Jason Kenney -unleashed, unrestrained and unrepentant. And Conservative hacks have the gall to spook us about a Layton cabinet (did I really write that?).
Altogether now: All we are saying….