For three quarters of a century Canadian social democrats have been working to make their movement and party into a major political force in Canada, a force that can actually compete effectively for power in Ottawa.

Never have the conditions for the NDP to move to major party status been more favourable than they are today. (Don’t quote polls to me. They’ve been all over the place, and pre-election polls aren’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.)

The Harper government is wretchedly unpopular with a majority of Canadians. It is hanging on to its right-wing base, but cannot grow beyond that. The Liberals are led by a man whose instinctual response to every issue is to turn to the right. A believer in the benign character of the American Empire, he’s done this for years on Afghanistan. He did it on the coalition when he walked away from the chance to install a progressive government last January with himself at the helm. And over the past year, he’s repeatedly failed to come up with sweeping new ideas to cope with the economic crisis and to offer a platform that addresses the needs of Canadians. When he walked away from the coalition and supported the Harper government in return for the issuing of a few report cards, Ignatieff made it evident that he offers Canadians nothing new.

Meanwhile, over the past year, Jack Layton grew in political stature. His role in launching the coalition was masterful. It was Ignatieff who abandoned this progressive initiative not Jack Layton. As the months went by the NDP was making itself the real alternative to Stephen Harper. It was the right approach and it was working. (It’s true that a much more public assault on the failed economics of neo-liberalism would have helped.)

The move this week to vote confidence in the government was wrong-headed. The NDP has abandoned the high ground to the Liberals on the central question of who is leading the fight against the Harper government. From now on, the Liberals will vote against the government at every turn in parliament, and the NDP will have to prop up the Conservatives until the changes to EI it favours are passed into law. (Gilles Duceppe has announced that the Conservatives won’t be able to count on him for future votes.)

By the time the next opportunity to defeat the government comes along in the winter or spring, the Ignatieff Liberals will be rhetorically entrenched on the high ground — substantively they offer nothing — while the NDP is reduced to a minor player whose job is to sustain the Harperites who loath social democrats.

The coming months are going to be difficult ones for Canadian families and communities as the rate of unemployment rises and the bite of the economic crisis is more deeply felt.

The Harper government is set to lose the next election. Had the NDP stuck to its role as the unwavering opponent of the Conservatives, the party could have gained enormously. More important, the party could have offered the country the prospect of real change.