My last blog post was critical of the Conservatives’ move to the right; this post will be a critique of the Liberal’s move to the left, both federally and in Ontario. In today’s polarized world, where most people go to their echo chambers to get their news, it seems that the political centre is being hollowed out, with both the Ontario and federal Liberals acting more like the NDP, and Conservatives are abandoning their traditional slightly right of centre post. I believe this is both an electoral mistake and bad for the country in general. Some assert that most Canadians want a left wing government, and while I agree that it may be easier to win on a left wing platform in Canada than a right wing one, many are over simplifying it. I will offer some examples that many on the left point to as proof works, explain why that might not be the case, and suggest its drawbacks for the country, despite perhaps being politically popular at the moment.
In 2014, as the narrative goes, the Ontario Liberals won a surprise majority because they “out- lefted” the NDP, but, I believe this is a simplistic answer. Lefty politics may have played a role in voters swinging from the NDP to the Liberals in places like Toronto’s downtown core, but downtown Toronto, which is considerably more left wing than the rest of the province, is not representative of Ontario. We must also acknowledge that Tim Hudak and his very right wing platform scared the heck out of most people, causing many to vote strategically in order to stop the Progressive Conservatives. This accounts for why the Liberals gained in the GTA, as well as why the NDP gained in places like Hamilton-Niagara and Southwestern Ontario. People have claimed Justin Trudeau won using the same type of logic, but I would argue Trudeau’s persona, coming across as more authentic than Mulcair, as well as regional splits, were bigger factors. The NDP were leading in the polls federally in August 2015, but if you look at the provincial breakdown, it was only in two provinces (B.C. and Quebec), so their lead was quite superficial. Mulcair’s support of the niqab contributed to his party losing 20 points in Quebec, and that shift alone moved the party from first to third. Once the Liberals moved ahead of the NDP, the anti-Harper voters coalesced around them, as 2015 was a change election, and getting rid of Harper was the number one objective for many Canadians.
Some will point to the success of Bernie Sanders and the polls that showed he would have fared better than Hillary Clinton in a general election as a sign of left-leaning political support. For starters, we are not the United States, and don’t have the same levels of inequality or political polarization. After 4 months of non-stop attack ads declaring Sanders a radical socialist in the lead-up to the Democratic nomination, I doubt his strong lead in the polls would have held up. It is possible he would have done better in the Midwest than Clinton and won the White House, but I suspect the race against Trump would have been close, too. Many fail to acknowledge that most of his ideas were DOA, as Congress wouldn’t have approved many of them; most Americans understood this, so the presence of a Congress to act as a check against Sanders’ more left wing ideas, which we lack in Canada, needs to be considered.
Another example many on the left point to is Jeremy Corbyn’s better than expected showing in the U.K. While Corbyn outperformed with respect to most of expectations, had Labour chosen a more centrist leader, it’s quite possible they would have won outright, and would probably be comfortably ahead in the polls, rather than tied or slightly behind. Corbyn did quite well amongst younger voters, but amongst seniors he came across as too extreme, causing many seniors who traditionally voted Labour to go Tory in the last British election. We should also keep in mind that the 40% support rate was partially due to running up the margins in urban centres, and that Labour’s support was not particularly high outside of them; in Britain it is seats, not votes, that matter. When Tony Blair was leader, many soft Tories were willing to vote Liberal Democrat due to their dissatisfaction with the Tories, but their fear of a Corbyn win kept them in the Tory column this last time around.
Perhaps Canada is ready now for a strongly left wing government. After all, recent results and polls would suggest that Canadian voters are more left wing than most other countries, so a lack of political success for the left elsewhere doesn’t mean the same for Canada. Still, I believe both Trudeau and Wynne’s swing into traditional NDP territory will be bad news in the long run. For a government to be successful, it is not just about winning, but about producing policies that improve the lot of most people in their jurisdictions. Higher taxes, large deficits, and excessive interference in the market have all been shown to stunt economic growth long-term. Whether it was Pierre Trudeau in the ‘70s, or the NDP in B.C. the ‘90s, they both created messes that took years to clean up. Under Trudeau, we had double digit inflation, 18% interest rates, a deficit to GDP at 8%, and double digit unemployment rates. In the latter, we had the worst growth in Canada, became a have not province, and saw a lot of our talent flee to Alberta. In both cases, austerity had to be imposed due to bad fiscal situations, so those who want to avoid austerity should support fiscally responsible governments. I would also argue that playing identity politics, which Justin Trudeau seems to be doing, is exactly the type of thing that could incite a right wing backlash and ultimately elect our own version of Trump.
There is a reason the NDP has usually been stuck in the 15-20% range. Although many believe their hearts are in the right place, most people realize their policies don’t work in the long run, and trying to run on an NDP lite platform is not likely to be any more successful. The federal Liberals should go back to being more centrist like they were under the Chretien/Martin government, and the Ontario Liberals should return to how they were under the McGuinty government. It might anger some social activists, and diminish their clout amongst millennial voters, but in the long run, they will do better as a party, and their jurisdictions will do better, too.