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The federal political landscape is shifting in ways never seen before. The Liberals and the NDP are in a race to the bottom. The Conservatives are targeting ridings held by both parties. Yet this could present a unique opportunity for progressives.

Nothing is foreordained. But one possible future could see the union of the left in federal politics.

The confidence-and-supply agreement in which Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats sustain Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in exchange for new national social programs has not profited the social democrats politically.

This was predictable. When a small party agrees to support a large party in a minority Parliament in exchange for legislative concessions, the small party usually suffers at the polls. It happened to the Ontario NDP in the 1980s, to the Liberal Democrats in Britain a decade ago and to the Greens in British Columbia more recently.

So it is hardly surprising that, more than two years after the NDP-Liberal agreement, the NDP is polling in its traditional territory of less than 20 per cent. What is surprising is that the Liberals have not benefited from the compact either. The Grits are hardly more popular than the Dippers.

The Tories, in contrast, are approaching stratospheric levels of popularity. According to an Abacus poll released Thursday, they enjoy 44-per-cent support, with the Liberals at 24 per cent and the NDP at 17 per cent.

(The online survey of 2,000 Canadians was conducted April 3-9, with a comparable margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)

NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Carol Hughes, who hold Northern Ontario ridings, and Rachel Blaney, whose riding is on Vancouver Island, recently announced they will not contest the next election.

Polling analyst Éric Grenier believes that changing riding boundaries and Tory popularity among working-class voters and private-sector union members pose such a challenge for the NDP that “they would be lucky to get out of Northern Ontario with one seat right now.”

It is entirely possible that the Conservatives could win a large majority, with both the Liberals and the NDP in the electoral basement.

If that were to occur, it would present an opportunity much discussed but never acted upon in the past: the union of the Liberals and the NDP into a single, progressive national party.

“If there is a crushing defeat for both of them at the next federal election, they will not necessarily merge,” Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said in an interview. “But I think the odds that they would agree to entertain the idea would be much higher.”

In the past, unite-the-left talk has foundered because one of the two parties was much more popular than the other and saw no benefit in merging. But that could change if both parties were to find themselves in equally dismal territory in seat count and popularity.

The NDP and the Liberals dislike each other as much as they dislike the Conservatives. But the two parties have been co-operating throughout the life of this government and have gotten used to working together.

Both the Liberals and the NDP may be in search of new leaders after the next election, affording an opportunity for candidates to say whether they would be open to exploring the possibility of co-operating with the other party – though Prof. Béland believes it might take at least two majority-government victories by the Conservatives for the Liberals and the NDP to enter into serious talks.

The union of the NDP and the Liberals, were it to occur, would reshape the political landscape. The NDP has been successfully pushing both Liberal and Conservative minority governments to adopt a more progressive agenda since the 1960s. That would disappear with a merger. (Although the Bloc Québécois might still be there.)

Two-party government is not unheard of in Canada. As Max Fawcett at the National Observer recently pointed out, the Prairie provinces now regularly alternate between conservative and NDP governments. There is no reason that could not happen at the national level as well.

This is all speculative, of course. But we are in uncharted territory. If the polls hold until election day, things could get interesting.

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