For my part I found the CBC analysis about Trudeau courting unions interesting in that it is being presented as newsworthy. But there should be no surprise here. This is the one thing -- the only thing -- both parties agreed on a couple years ago. Remember when the parties each had voices calling for a merger and each party's leader said there would be none. Each party promised to "unite the left" leaving the other outside.
And so we had a campaign that in Chantal Hébert's analysis went head to head leaving a generation of at least one party’s leading lights in defeat. Those were the rules of the duel. Some might say, a most ridiculous duel.
This is where the analysis of the last campaign must start. The two parties had an option to merge, and chose not to. They knew they were facing a major long-term battle for viability with each other more important than the immediate battle with the Conservatives. They opted for a winner-take-all battle. Voters were frustrated with both parties but accepted that there was going to have to be a choice between the two in order to unseat Harper. The membership of both parties solidly back a winner-take-all campaign.
In that campaign the Liberals made sure they ran to the left (in rhetoric if not entirely in policy) of the NDP and with them doing that, the NDP quite easily ran to the right of the Liberals. Mulcair clearly overplayed his hand appearing further to the right of the Liberals than anyone needed or wanted. The Thatcher quote symbolized this and it clearly meant Liberals had prepared for this and the research had been done. Each party intended to leave the other no ground to stand on. The result was going to leave one party with a crisis of identity.
The idea that Mulcair could stay on was theatre. He bet his entire career on a move that if it had succeeded would have ended the Liberal party and left the NDP as the strongest party in Canada. But in failure he had no credible strategy as leader. Trudeau did the same -- if he had lost to Mulcair his ability to survive as leader would have been heavily compromised if not to the degree of Mulcair.
There were differences in what they were gambling. For Mulcair, a loss meant he absolutely could not continue as leader of the NDP but his party, while smaller, could survive. The only thing that kills a party on a wing is a merger.
For Trudeau, he might have been able to hang on a little longer as his party was tired of divisive leadership races, he had brought in enough people to support him and he had lower expectations given how low the Liberals were. But the Liberal party itself was at risk. A party in the centre will vanish if there is no centre ground available (unlike a wing party). So for the Liberals the gamble was existence. For the NDP it was Mulcair’s leadership and their contender status.
If Mulcair's gamble to the centre had won electoral approval, there is little doubt that the rump of Liberals would have split as the NDP would have campaigned looking like a party they would recognize.
A loss to the Conservatives, with that government left in power, would have caused a revolt in both parties demanding merger. A merger probably would then have been inevitable as this loss would have required a stalemate between the NDP and Liberals. The voters were clear they would have none of that. This is why they moved so quickly from the NDP as the favorite to the Liberals with no wasted time in the middle.
So knowing this, the leaders and the parties presented campaigns and platforms designed to beat each other first but needing to reduce Harper at least to minority. With Harper at a minority, they both knew they would have to work together to create a new government, something they hated, but this was preferable than a merger. They both felt confident that a campaign primarily against each other would at least still reduce Harper to a minority such that they could go to a plan B coalition rather than merger and preserve their parties as independent entities. A loss to the Liberals would end Mulcair's career at least and a loss to the NDP would probably have ended the Liberal party.
This brings us to today. The NDP, having lost that mega winner-take-all battle is severely weakened but not dead (due to the fact that it is on a wing). So no surprise that the Liberals want to consolidate the NDP loss by going after their union support which they have been able to take chunks of before.
This also explains the position of Elizabeth May. Her party in approving BDS was striking to a progressive left -- passing the weakened NDP on the issue. This is a bigger story than people realize. If they succeed several things could happen. First the NDP would in fact be in a fight for survival no longer being a wing party as they would be squeezed between the two.
The Greens historically in Canada have been a somewhat Libertarian right of centre environment party with the NDP the left environment party. If, in a moment of NDP weakness, the Greens moved to being a left environment party, and took up room to the left of the NDP the NDP would be in crisis. Of course this Green Party would not be able to fit with May. It would no longer just be a Green Party, it would be the ultimate in parties: a sustainability party understanding the relationship between environmental sustainability and social sustainability. A party for the times, you might say, founded on the understanding that one sustainability cannot exist without the other. May is the NDP’s ally here. With her career at stake, she probably can extinguish the Green Party’s flicker of being progressive and keep them in their place. If she can’t, the Green Party could quite possibly take from the NDP most of what the Liberals have not already taken. They could go on with a new leader to challenge the Liberals.
The NDP are deeply wounded and the Liberals can keep them down for a while by tacking left (although there are indications that they are more likely to move back to the centre-right in a number of polices while rhetorically pretending different). But it is the Greens, a party that is small and nimble enough that it could be remade with a new leader that provides the more immediate than realized long-term threat to the NDP.
There is no room for May in this scenario so she is fighting it. But at the end of the day, this is the best hope for her party and her movement. Now, May is literally in the way. If May were to leave in the next year or so and a new, dynamic interesting, and most importantly, left leader, were to emerge, the NDP could end up in the worst shape it has ever been.
The NDP may think it is in an existential struggle with the Liberals but it has largely lost that battle for this generation. The recent BDS vote in the Green Party suggests it may enter one with the Greens. If May were to retire and the Greens opted to choose a leader who walked to them from the left of the NDP – things could move much quicker than anyone realizes. Imagine if someone of the stature of Libby Davies or Avi Lewis jumped at a Green Party Leadership. They would have unified the NDP-Green divide leaving the NDP establishment outside.
And those are the rules of the new duel.
To be fair, a good many would not see that bus coming until it hit them. This initial BDS vote in the Green party rank and file is the only warning they might get.