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Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)
Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)

Lawrence Martin

As in Britain, hopes stir for Canada's third party Add to ...

The New Democrats are liking the buzz from abroad. Britain votes Thursday and the rise of Nick Clegg's leftish Liberal Democrats has third-party hearts aflutter in Canada.

If the Lib-Dems do well, NDP Leader Jack Layton said, "I think it will open up Canadians' eyes to the possibility of change taking place." By change, he meant his third party becoming one of the top two. "I've believed that for a long time," Mr. Layton said as he pressed the up button on an elevator in a parliamentary hallway. "That's what I came here to try to accomplish seven years ago."

Wednesday, polls showed Britain's Conservatives close to a majority and Cleggomania falling off. So the excitement among the Dippers might well be tempered a bit. But the similarities on both sides of the pond are worth noting. In each case, the third party has been on the rise on account of dissatisfaction with the top two.

Here, recent soundings have shown the New Democrats at about 20 per cent, just seven points behind the Liberals. Things are so grim for the Liberals and Conservatives that a couple of recent polls showed both below 30 per cent. No one could remember that happening before.

Among party leaders, Mr. Layton continues to be rated highest. The latest Angus Reid survey shows him with a 31-per-cent approval rating, well ahead of his party. Conservative Stephen Harper was at 29 per cent, trailing his party by 16 points. Liberal Michael Ignatieff was at a humbling 14 per cent.

Besides gains from Liberal leakage, Mr. Layton attributes his party's rise to a consistent focus on serious issues, while the others mire themselves in the muck of low-grade warfare. "Our caucus always says, let's stick to the issues that matter. If you look at our question file in House [Question Period] it tends to be different than some of the other parties. Maybe that's having an impact."

The NDP numbers are particularly impressive considering that the Green Party now sinks its jaws into about 10 per cent of the vote, most of it from the left side of the spectrum. But instead of lagging, the NDP has seen the opposite. This is a party that hovered at around 10 per cent support in the 1990s and won just 13 seats in the 2000 election. In the three elections since, it has climbed to 19, then 29, then 37.

This has benefited Mr. Harper. Although there are many variables, it can be generalized that as the New Democrats go, the Liberals go the opposite way. The NDP did well in 1984 and 1988 and the Liberals stunk the joint out. The NDP did poorly in the 1990s and the 2000 campaign while the Liberals won majorities. The NDP has been doing well in recent years; the Liberals have tumbled.

Divisions on the centre-left and left of the political spectrum are as bad or worse than they have been in a long time. With the NDP, Greens and Bloc Québécois combining for roughly 40 per cent of the vote and the Conservatives with a solid base at 30 per cent, the Grits are getting squeezed. The Tories, who suffered terribly from a split on the right in the 1990s, are only too pleased to see the shoe on the other foot.

The only positive note for the Liberals is that over the past four years, the Conservatives have been unable to take advantage of the divisions to increase their vote share. The Tories won with 36 per cent of the vote in 2006. Their polling averages for the past year have been below that number. While neither Mr. Harper's party nor his personal numbers are auspicious, he is in such control of his flock that there is hardly a whisper of complaint.

In combination, the centre-left and left still have the bulk of the population of their side. In a culture war, they would likely clobber the right. But because of the divisions, there can be no such victory.

Such is the state of things that the Conservatives could win the next election with a mere 30 per cent of the vote. And as is likely in Britain, the third party could creep ever closer to second.

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