NDP’s anti-Conservative gambit may drive voters to Liberals

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Did the New Democrats commit a strategic blunder last week, or instead engineer the foundation of a cunning leap in popularity?

With the NDP sagging in public opinion polls as it prepares to contest a federal election in less than two months, the party recently made a bold announcement: it would not cooperate with Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament.  There would be no potential coalition between Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer, nor a confidence agreement, and perhaps even informal support would be in short supply, if you can forgive the fiscal pun.

The NDP’s refusal to work with the Tories is a calculated gambit.  New Democrats hope the announcement will boost their popularity, even if it means diminished negotiating power in a potential hung parliament.

The NDP has been floundering in opinion polls.  When the Liberals recently unveiled an attack ad featuring Andrew Scheer – now leader of the Conservatives – delivering a 2005 speech in the House of Commons opposing same-sex marriage, the NDP saw opportunity and pounced.  Instead of just criticizing the Tories as the Liberals did, the NDP instead upped the ante by refusing to cooperate with the Conservatives if the autumn federal election results in a hung parliament.

The announcement was designed to buttress NDP popularity in two ways.  First, it was meant to earn plaudits from progressive voters, particularly in LGBTIQA+ communities.  Ideally this would elevate the party’s polling numbers and also galvanize its voter base, the latter crucial for arousing members to volunteer during the campaign ahead.

Second, the statement was intended to differentiate the NDP from the Liberals and Greens.  The NDP hoped to frame itself as being more aggressive on protecting human rights than Liberals, while also demonizing the Greens for being open to cooperating with the Conservatives.

However, any improvement in popularity for the NDP may come at a price: diminished negotiating leverage in the event of a hung parliament.

The federal NDP has historically only wielded power during minority governments, acting as kingmaker.  At the conclusion of such elections, the Liberals and Conservatives might both offer policy concessions to the NDP in exchange for their support.  The NDP’s most profound impact in this role was felt during the Lester Pearson minority Liberal governments of the mid-1960s, in which social healthcare and a national pension plan were two prominent outcomes.

But by already refusing to work with Conservatives, the NDP has curtailed its leverage with the Liberals in potential governance negotiations.  Justin Trudeau’s party would be in a position of strength and thus likely to offer few concessions to the NDP.  New Democrats would face a stark choice in such a scenario: either prop up a much larger and hard-bargaining Liberal government with only minimal policy input, or trigger another election that could result in the NDP having no power at all.

To cite an example from BC provincial politics: imagine how little leverage the BC Greens would have had in governance negotiations with the BC NDP, had the BC Greens already ruled out cooperating with the BC Liberals.

While New Democrats would like nothing more than to govern unilaterally, unless public opinion shifts greatly over the next eight weeks, the party’s best hope is to become the junior partner of the Liberals once again.  We shouldn’t rule out the possibility of polls changing drastically – both the federal and Alberta elections of 2015 witnessed stunning shifts in sentiment during the campaigns – but unless the usual script is ripped apart, the NDP’s best outcome will merely be to extract policy concessions from Justin Trudeau.  This is why entering potential negotiations with little leverage could greatly undermine the NDP’s ability to secure grand concessions as seen during the 1960s.

It’s arguably also hypocritical of the NDP to advocate for proportional representation – an election system that encourages multi-party governments – while refusing to even negotiate with one of Canada’s two big-tent parties to ensure a hung parliament would be functional.

With its announcement, the NDP has potentially sacrificed medium-term power for short-term popularity.  Strategically, was this an astute decision?  We won’t know until the election has concluded and the next government has formed.

However, initial indicators aren’t promising.  A public opinion poll conducted by EKOS the day after Singh’s announcement pegged the NDP at 10.4 percent popularity – the party’s worst result in almost a month, and tied for its third-worst result in almost three years.  Subsequent preliminary polling by EKOS between August 25-27 had the NDP down to 8 percent, according to a Twitter post by EKOS president Frank Graves.  If this figure holds, it would be the worst polling result for the NDP in at least a dozen years.

So if the NDP’s strategy was to sacrifice leverage in favour of popularity, that popularity has yet to materialize.  In fact, it’s getting worse.

Ironically, the NDP’s refusal to work with the Conservatives may actually encourage Canadians to vote Liberal, because a third party with less leverage increases pressure to vote strategically.

Many Canadians already feel compelled to vote not for their favourite party, but instead for the least-worse of the two larger parties, due to our antiquated election system that causes “vote splitting.”  The NDP’s newly-diminished negotiating leverage arguably exacerbates this, as voters whose main priority is to keep the Conservatives out of power may question the wisdom of investing their vote in a party likely to command little respect during a hung parliament, if such a vote also risks splitting the vote and handing victory to the Tories.

Perhaps it would have been wiser for the NDP to draw policy “red lines” that it would refuse to compromise on in the event of a hung parliament, rather than completely rule out working with one of Canada’s two big-tent parties – especially with polls suggesting a hung parliament is likely unless public sentiment swings wildly in the weeks ahead.

The lesson future politicos may learn from this strange saga is whether it is better to have less negotiating leverage and a larger caucus, or more negotiating leverage and a smaller caucus.  But unless the NDP can improve its popularity soon, it appears unlikely to achieve either.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Devon Rowcliffe.    @DevonRowcliffe

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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