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New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton raises a glass of beer during a campaign stop at a sports bar in Montreal, April 14, 2011. Canadians will go to the polls in a federal election on May 2. REUTERS/Shaun Best (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) (SHAUN BEST)
New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton raises a glass of beer during a campaign stop at a sports bar in Montreal, April 14, 2011. Canadians will go to the polls in a federal election on May 2. REUTERS/Shaun Best (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) (SHAUN BEST)

Jamey Heath

A progressive mix of orange, red and Quebec Add to ...

Jack Layton has formed an obvious connection with Quebeckers. And in return, they have given centre-left voters everywhere else a chance to realign federal politics.

This should be coveted. Good faith from old adversaries will be needed to make it work, but the key ingredient is imagining that something better can be built.

Outside of Quebec, "uniting the left" is seen to involve getting New Democrats and Liberals together. This is most pronounced in Southern Ontario, where anti-Conservative votes are split most often. As Gilles Duceppe knows, however, it also involves voters who have not voted NDP or Liberal for some time.

It is now 31 years since Liberals last won Quebec. Not by accident, these decades include the most wrenching moments for the centre-left: the 1988 free trade election, 2006 and now. The bitterness these defeats create keeps good people apart. They also underline the double challenge of framing politics more naturally around left and right, while navigating Quebec's national question.

To unite the centre-left, both need addressing. That's because Quebeckers who stopped Liberals being natural governors in 1984 are now parked with Mr. Layton after two elections with Brian Mulroney and six with the Bloc Québécois.

Staying stuck to rules that worked when Wayne Gretzky was a rookie cannot unravel this knot. It's time to throw out was once true and instead ask what can be made true - by looking at politics through a lens not focused on the Liberal Party.

That might seem silly. It was, after all, one of the world's most successful parties, which created a belief that a blip let Stephen Harper win. But the real blip was Jean Chrétien. Despite three majorities, he never won the most Quebec seats. He came close in 2000, but by 2004 Liberal scandal rejuvenated the Bloc exactly as a united right ended Liberal dominance in Ontario.

This dominance helped people forget about John Turner. His two elections are eerily similar to those of Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, and all underscore chronic Liberal weakness in Quebec.

The question for centre-left voters is what to do about it.

Pondering a federal NDP government is difficult, especially in Ontario, which once experimented that way and doesn't recall the experience fondly. With English media based in Toronto, Bob Rae is interchangeable with what NDP governments are like.

But there are 25 others that have competently run four other provinces and the Yukon for 87 years. These look similar to regular governments in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, which helped them get medicare, pensions and fight climate change decades before Canada. Issues like these are why centre-left voters never liked Stephen Harper. They are in part why Quebeckers stayed loyal to the Bloc, and explain why the party to do the most damage to it was the most progressive federalist one on the ballot.

So issues like these, not party labels, should guide people. That's because the Liberal Party is not progressive enough to vanquish the NDP, while the federal NDP has yet to morph into something like Manitoba's version.

"Uniting the left" has never just been about getting New Democrats and Liberals together. It has always involved Quebec. And Mr. Layton being the first federalist to beat the Bloc makes the NDP the foundation on which to build.

But while the NDP is the obvious base, it must be an NDP different from the one Mr. Layton first led. It already is, though: More than half the caucus is from Quebec.

The NDP is like Lego, adding pieces over time, but two have always eluded it. One is Quebec; the other mainstream, moderate voters, mostly in Southern Ontario. Seeing Mr. Layton celebrate as Mr. Harper won was jarring for them. Stopping that happening again will require Mr. Layton being brave enough to open NDP doors wide for others to change his party - and others brave enough to walk through.

Not to help orange beat red, but to let open-minded New Democrats, left-leaning Liberals and Quebeckers work together. And do more.

Jamey Heath was Jack Layton's communications director from 2002 to 2006. He is the author of Dead Centre: Hope, Possibility and Unity for Canadian Progressives.

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