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October 30, 2011

Candidate's scheme is admirable but unworkable

Chantal Hebert

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Among the contenders for the leadership of the NDP, only Nathan Cullen has so far sketched out a co-operative arrangement to prevent a looming battle of attrition between the federalist progressive parties in the next federal election.

If he were elected leader, Cullen would pursue a non-aggression pact with the Greens and the Liberals with the objective of cobbling a common progressive front against the Conservatives in the 2015 campaign.

To avoid splitting the opposition vote, the three parties would strive to run a single candidate against the 166 government incumbents.

For trying to think out of the box, Cullen deserves credit.

His proposal is an attempt to square the circle of uniting the progressive federalist opposition while sidestepping the currently unpalatable notion of a formal merger between the Liberals and the NDP.

But his plan lacks the crucial elements that might make it a viable proposition for the parties involved and, more importantly, for voters in quest of a different but credible government.

Once the dots of the arrangement Cullen has put forward are connected, the shape that emerges is that of a headless battle horse.

Moreover, its legs, such as they are, rest on the slippery ground of some dubious presumptions about human nature in general and political reality in particular.

Cullen’s scheme would have the New Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals compete for the privilege of running a progressive candidate from their own ranks in almost 200 ridings (including the ones that would result from the upcoming redistribution).

In Atlantic Canada, Ontario and British Columbia, Liberals and New Democrats routinely fight each other tooth and nail at both the federal and provincial levels.

Politics is rarely more a blood sport than when it involves the committed activists who come out to help their parties at election time. Indeed, it is not unusual for nominating conventions to turn into divisive family quarrels.

In such circumstances, loyalty to a party brand is often the only material that allows a party to cement its internal cracks for the time of a campaign. Sometimes even that is not enough to glue a given partisan group together.

Throw three rival political organizations with electoral expansion at the back of their minds into the nominating mix and the potential for a bloodbath increases exponentially — with lasting hard feelings on all sides.

And then what of the 137 ridings that the Greens, the NDP and the Liberals currently hold? Under Cullen’s scheme, his proposed non-compete agreement would not apply to them.

But could the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens seriously present a common front in the Conservative half of the country while fighting each other in the other half?

The assumption that most non-conservative voters are ultimately predisposed to overlook policy and leadership differences and shift from one opposition party to another just to beat Stephen Harper may be the plan’s biggest flaw.

Party platforms are normally designed to distinguish parties from each other in voters ‘minds.

But in a campaign where the Greens, the Liberals and the New Democrats pooled candidates but not their programs, would they not need to harmonize or even homogenize their promises?

To offer a credible alternative to the Conservatives, a co-operative scheme such as the one Cullen is promoting would involve a lot more integration between its protagonists than a mere electoral non-aggression pact in government-held ridings.

A common platform and an across-the-board non-compete agreement would be minimal ingredients.

An understanding that a riding’s progressive candidate would come from the ranks of the party that placed second to the Conservatives in the last election might also be the only realistic way to prevent a nominating war among the opposition parties in the lead-up to the election battle itself.

When all is said and done, the path to a successful electoral coalition may be strewn with almost as many roadblocks as that of a merger.

The Record, October 25, 2011

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer with Record news services.

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