After the election: Time for democratic action

| May 3, 2011

Canada has fallen into the hands of Harper majority government. It is hard to imagine a worse outcome for the 2011 election, over-shadowing the magnificent victory of the NDP in Quebec where 59 New Democrats were elected (out of a total of 75).

At 11 p.m. EST the Conservatives had won 166 seats, the NDP 103, the Liberals 34, the Bloc four, and the Greens had elected leader Elizabeth May. Some races still awaited a final tally.

Based on polling of voting intentions, Conservative voters turned out in greater numbers than those of other parties. While Ekos showed Conservative support at 34 per cent, and Nanos had them at 37 per cent, election night the Conservatives were registered close to 40 per cent of the vote. Voter turnout was exceedingly disappointing, the CBC projected it to be 61 per cent, only up from 59 per cent in 2008.

The great deception in this election was Ontario where vote splitting elected 72 Conservatives (up from 51) out of a total 106 seats, and ejected 26 Liberals, giving Harper his majority. The NDP have solidified their position in industrial Ontario, natural resource Ontario, and downtown Toronto. But the Conservatives walked through the 905 region, Mike Harris territory, and picked up the seats they needed, scoring over 44 per cent of the Ontario vote overall.

Regional breakdowns do not tell the whole story. Surveys of voting intentions showed women voters consigning the Liberals to third place, with the NDP first. Combined with NDP popularity with youth voters, poor voter demographics reduced the once mighty Liberals to an even smaller rump than the 40 Grits that resisted the Mulroney sweep of 1984.

For many observers the real ballot question was leadership. Ignatieff never had anything resembling the common touch, and failed to impress electors anywhere, losing his own riding. His political career is likely over, though he is waiting to announce his future plans.

Harper held on to his core vote, and grew marginally to win his majority. Liberal blogger Warren Kinsella described Harper on the campaign trail as "looking like an exhausted chartered accountant in a crowded airport trying to get home for the weekend." Seemingly oblivious to the need to win new supporters, Harper applied his control freak methods to the old media to manage the message. Not enough Canadians were online watching ShitHarperDid videos. 

Jack Layton ran as Jack Layton. Straight from the operating room, onto the campaign bus, waving his cane, he injected some good will into the election by talking about what his government would do for Canadians. Doctors for families, income security for seniors, retrofits to "green" our cities, and a break on fuel taxes, the Layton message was positive, governments can act to benefit citizens.

In contrast Harper ran on tax cuts, hoping people would share his view that the private sector had the answers to what ails Canada. He played on legitimate fears about the economic future. An endorsement from the Globe and Mail must have led some voters to think he had something to offer. The Harper campaign succeeded in knocking down Ignatieff, and picking up some of his voters. The fact his government had been found in contempt of Parliament for failing to disclose how much it planned to spend on F-35 fighter jets, and to incarcerate new prisoners following "tough on crime" legislation did not register with enough voters.

In Quebec, Gilles Duceppe went down to defeat, the Bloc lost party status and its future is not assured. Layton was a main beneficiary of the refusal of Quebec to endorse either Ignatieff or Harper. The orange tide swept that swept Quebec (43 per cent of voters) represents a direct challenge to the neoliberal orientation of the rest of Canada. The NDP needs to build on the energy of the new members, a bunch of talented, very capable people with much to offer parliament. The challenge for the party is to reflect the binational structure of Canada, so as to make the NDP the party that represents Quebec within Canada, and Canada in Quebec.

Widening inequalities are leading to a polarization of the electorate. For most NDP supporters the election of the Harper government represents a major defeat, over-shadowing its promotion to opposition status. The results must spur a new wave of democratic action by social movements. The main challenge is to the trade union movement. The public sector will be the main target of the Conservatives. Cuts to transfer payments, public administration, and to public service employment are at the top of the Harper agenda. 

The trade union fight back has to begin with creating broad alliances across society with youth, senior, and women's groups. Arts and culture are on the block. Big banks, big oil, and big business can write their own cheque.

The Harper government was elected by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the National Citizens Coalition (Stephen Harper, former president). These groups promote an anti-union, anti-worker ideology. The response must come from an energized trade union movement, which must reclaim ownership of democratic debate and discussion in Canada.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca.

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