Layton's state funeral could backfire on Harper

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to give the late NDP leader Jack Layton a state funeral can be parsed two ways: a noble gesture or a Machiavellian political manoeuvre to further marginalize his original foe, the leaderless, languishing Liberals.

But no one, least of all Harper himself, could have predicted Canadians' week-long outpouring of emotion. Was it a fleeting historical moment? Or something more profound? If the former, political normalcy will return with the opening of Parliament Sept. 21. If the latter, the state funeral could turn out to be Harper's biggest political mistake yet.

Since Reform party days, Harper and his former chief political strategist, University of Calgary's Tom Flanagan, have pursued their goal of destroying the Liberals, making the Conservative party Canada's new natural governing party and turning Canada into a conservative/Conservative nation.

But in their single-minded determination to destroy the Liberals, Harper and Flanagan have fashioned another new reality. Today, it's the New Democrats who pose the threat to Conservative hegemony. Not only did they win 103 seats in the last federal election compared with the Liberals' meagre 34, they came second in 121 other ridings. In other words, they are competitive in 224 of Parliament's 308 seats.

The NDP's share of the national vote rose from 18.2 per cent in 2008 to 30.6 per cent, a huge swing and a gain of more than 12 percentage points, placing them just nine points behind the Conservatives' 39.6 per cent. The NDP won 42.9 per cent of the vote in Quebec in 2011, compared to 12.2 per cent in 2008 - a 31-point increase.

There are signs the Conservatives are noticing the threat posed by the New Democrats and are revving up their ruthless attack machine. Flanagan recently told The Globe and Mail the government had two reasons for returning the royal designation to Canada's navy and air force. It plays to the Conservative base but it "also discomfits the NDP with their big Quebec caucus since the monarchy is less popular in Quebec than elsewhere."

Flanagan believes everything is unfolding as it should in the Conservative universe with the destruction of the Liberals and the rise of the NDP, because the Conservatives now have their remaining enemies -- the left, Quebec and unions -- particularly public-sector unions -- all wrapped up together in one package.

He puts it this way: "If the NDP repeatedly defends Quebec and public-sector unions, against all other considerations, they may solidify their core vote but will cut off their prospects for growth. It could turn into a Conservative utopia."

But the Conservative divide-and-demonize game may have run its course. Thanks to the prime minister's decision to give Layton a state funeral, the NDP not only was accorded a national stage to profile its "fallen hero," but the unparalleled opportunity to command the nation's attention for a week to showcase its political brand, one polar opposite to the Conservatives.

With both the Liberals and the New Democrats leaderless, speculation is rife about merging Canada's progressive majority. Reflecting on the week-long public outpouring of praise and grief for Layton, former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who nixed a coalition with the NDP in 2008, boosted the idea on his Facebook page Sunday.

"At Jack Layton's funeral service at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, I thought, yes we are separate families, separate traditions, and yes, we've fought each other over the years, but now sitting together in the same hall, isn't it obvious how much we have in common?

"The words we care about -- generosity, justice, hope -- they care about them too.... These values are bigger than all of us, bigger than our divisions and our arguments. It was good to put the past behind us... and imagine what the future of our country might look like if we put those values first."

On Monday, former Canadian Alliance leader and senior Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day got down to the raw political calculation. Appearing on CBC's Power and Politics with Evan Solomon, he said he still carried the scars of bridging the bitter political split between Reform-Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives.

He also knew that what he was about to say would not go down well with his party, but said it several times anyway: The Liberals and New Democrats together could create a game-changing foe for the Conservatives.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator. This story first appears in The Winnipeg Free Press.


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