Ah, the pipe dream of a Liberal-NDP merger. Once more the idea has been mooted, this time in Ontario provincial politics. Once more it will have a few people doing imaginary electoral math on the back of napkins, and perhaps convening a few meetings, before it dies the certain death of unworkable proposals.
The idea was put forward immediately after Ontario’s June 2 election by a prominent Liberal politician, former provincial finance minister Greg Sorbara – and the source shouldn’t be too surprising.
It usually comes from Liberals, who tend to see the existence of the NDP to be an inconvenient impediment to power. If only common sense prevailed, the thinking goes, New Democrats could join a more centrist alliance and be a little bit more Liberal to win power. Yet New Democrat activists don’t usually see NDP orange as just a different shade of Liberal red.
That alone is probably enough to kill the idea, because merging the clashing culture of two parties isn’t easy, even when the rift is relatively recent. Just ask Alberta’s outgoing United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney. The activists at the core of Ontario’s Liberal and New Democratic parties have spent so long hissing and spitting at each other that many can’t stomach the idea of joining together.
But another reason is that party mergers just don’t offer the easy political arithmetic that proponents suggest.
The provincial Liberals and NDP wouldn’t just get to add their votes together to beat Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. They could lose a lot of them in the process.
At any rate, it isn’t a remedy for failures of the NDP or the Liberals in last week’s Ontario election. The reason both parties were both clobbered by the PCs wasn’t that they split the left-leaning voter pool. It’s that neither interested those voters.
It was a sleepy campaign, designed that way by Mr. Ford’s strategists – and neither NDP Leader Andrea Horwath nor Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca did much to wake it up.
Ms. Horwath spent the last days of the campaign promising to fix health care – the number one issue for most Ontarians – but her platform didn’t really offer a sweeping reform, and the NDP’s big-spending platform didn’t promise major health-budget increases. Mr. Del Duca didn’t seem to have many people listening after the first week of the campaign.
If the New Democrats had won as many votes in 2022 as they did in 2018, they would have been ahead of Mr. Ford’s Tories in the popular vote.
The problem of having two uninspiring opposition leaders offering citizens no particular reason to vote for them is not solved simply by merging into a single uninteresting vehicle for voters to shun.
If you are the Ontario NDP, or the Ontario Liberals, the message you should take from the 2022 election is not that there are not enough “progressive” voters for two parties. It’s that those voters are just not that into you. Either of you.
Combining the failings of both isn’t necessarily the path to success. The votes of each don’t automatically get transferred to a merge party. After the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives joined together nearly 20 years ago, the newly merged Conservative Party garnered about eight percentage points less in the 2004 election than the combined vote of the predecessor parties in the previous election.
Supporters of the Ontario NDP or the Liberals could be turned off by a merger – presumably, one or both would have to change its policies – and move to the Green Party or the PCs or someone else.
That’s not to say there isn’t a potential electoral advantage from a merger. Even a few extra percentage points can bring a lot more seats. But it’s not a straight shot at power.
Yet mergers often tempt those frustrated by election losses. Mr. Sorbara admitted it is a “pie-in-the-sky” proposal, but there are other left-leaning Ontarians who dislike Mr. Ford or his Tories so much they are frustrated that all his opponents don’t join forces immediately to fight them.
But it’s no easy fix to ask two parties that reflexively fight each other to join hands in common cause. Maybe next time, one of them should just try offering Ontarians something they want to vote for.
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