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There has been lots of analysis of the marathon Canadian election campaign, some of it reasonably sound, including about why the NDP plunged from first to third place so dramatically. However, the commentary has missed a central point.

There has long been a myth that Stephen Harper is some kind of evil genius of political strategy and that the Conservatives masterfully crafted themselves into nearly a decade-long hold on Canada’s government. This despite the frequent reminders from the Conservatives of just how politically tone-deaf they can be, unable to restrain their self-indulgent excesses and out of touch with the sentiment of an electorate that came to hate them by degrees as time passed.

There is a larger contextual piece to the storyline that goes a long way to explain the fortunes of both the Conservatives and the NDP — not the whole explanation, but a dimension that helps the rest make more sense.

The big story in Canadian federal politics since the late 1990s was the implosion and subsequent recovery of the Liberal Party. Harper did not so much mastermind an ascent to power as occupy a void left by the crumbling Liberals, whose internal strife led to a succession of low-quality leaders, confused messaging, and damaged credibility.

The collapse of the Liberals, who had held government through most of Canada’s history, left space for the Conservatives to take power (the centre-right having nowhere else to go) and for the NDP to advance into less contested centre-left territory. The ebbing of the sovereigntist movement in Quebec and collapse of the Bloc, which followed after the recession of the Liberals, left a void there that the NDP was able to occupy more or less by default — by another absence of alternatives — given the unpopularity of Harper and the diminished credibility of the Liberals in that province.

The NDP regarded the “orange wave” as a genuine shift in Canada’s political culture in favour of social democracy at its peril. Miscalculation of the firmness of its newly won voter base in Quebec and elsewhere across Canada would be a costly error. It led the leadership to conclude that the main task was not to consolidate its base but rather a project of expansion to creep toward the threshold of winning government. That upward creep would be achieved, they reasoned, by shifting toward the ideological centre and further occupying the space formerly held by the spent Liberals.

Rumours of the Liberals’ death were grossly exaggerated, it turned out. Trudeau succeeded in rebuilding his party and uniting it in a project of re-establishing its hold in the Canadian political landscape, shedding the internal struggles (personified between Chretien and Martin) and projecting an invigorated re-entry onto the scene.

The Liberal recovery meant that centre ground held by default by the Conservatives and the NDP was going to be contested territory. On the Conservative side, their drift ever farther to the right meant forfeiting that swath of support and increasingly isolating themselves as a core that was incapable of winning power. They paid a heavy price for the hostile takeover of the Progressive Conservatives by Harper’s Alliance Party, and making their tent with its shrill rhetoric and heavy-handed manipulation of power increasingly uncomfortable for their own centrist cohort.

Once the Liberals were back in play, the Conservatives authored most of their own misfortune, through a series of strategic blunders that sealed their own fate. To a large extent, they were prisoners of their own decisions.  I will name only a few of the long series of mistakes that they only got away with so long as they faced no serious competition from the Liberals. 

One serious Conservative error was the fixed election date legislation, which hog-tied them disastrously.  One way of defining “power” is being able to select among alternatives: to be weak is to lack options, to be strong is to have many. Undermining their own ability to select an advantageous election date was a  huge mistake.

Then in February of 2015 the Conservatives lost their nerve about ignoring the fixed October date and calling a snap spring election. It is clear that they were considering this option, but feared public backlash over timing. It seemed clear enough that any flak they might take for calling an early election would be relatively minor compared with the risks of an autumn 2015 election, with the Duffy trial scheduled for the summer, plummeting oil prices and the inevitable damage that this would do to the economy (weakening their ability to project themselves as competent economic stewards presiding over stable prosperity).

Just as important, delaying the election to the fall meant giving the Liberals more time to recover. They compounded this same strategic error by dropping the writ in early August and giving the Liberal campaign even more runway to reach takeoff speed, and Trudeau far more opportunity to transform himself from a vaguely known persona into a credible candidate for Prime Minister.

If they had gone in the spring, as some Conservative insiders were urging, they would have faced a simpler one-front battle against the NDP, avoided the impact of Duffy and falling oil, and probably been re-elected at least with a minority government.

On the NDP side, the dynamics were even more difficult. The intensifying dislike that two-thirds of Canadians felt for Harper and his party meant that the electorate was searching for an alternative to coalesce behind. Mulcair’s main task was to ensure that as few as possible of the newly won “orange wave” voters (and even of his core supporters) would decide that Trudeau was an acceptable and likelier vehicle to oust the Tories. Moving farther into the deep centre, especially in taxation and fiscal policy, thinking that this would help them hold the soft liberal/centre support that the NDP won in 2011, would blur the distinctions between the NDP and the Liberals and make it easier for supporters to contemplate the Liberals.

That is to say, the main strategic problem facing the NDP was that with the recovery of the Liberals, there was no longer a centre-left void to occupy by default; in an emerging three-way race the surest strategy to vie for power would be one of differentiation from the Liberals, to give voters a stronger motivation to vote NDP rather than regard the two parties as near-equivalents programmatically.  The NDP ran the campaign as though the Liberals were still essentially out of serious contention and the “orange wave” base was secure until the very last moment when the polling numbers showed a strong surge of support for Trudeau.

As things went, the federal NDP adopted essentially the same strategy that failed in the Dix campaign in British Columbia and the Horwath campaign in Ontario. They mistook “bland centre” for safe; in fact, “playing it safe” was a high-risk approach in all three elections. Each of the NDP campaigns gave voters insufficient motivation to hope for NDP governments and conceded the initiative to (in all three cases) Liberal parties that projected more dynamic and bolder faces to the public. In the Dix and Mulcair campaigns, the strategy of defensively protecting positions that appeared deceptively strong in the polls led to rapid dissipation of support. Polling strength early in the campaigns was deceptive because in both cases it rested upon temporary weakening of Liberal credibility and not fundamentally on having won a solid loyal base sufficient to carry the day. They needed to keep striving hard to hold their ground, not to sit back and avoid popping their heads into the line of fire.

One final point about the 2015 outcome — it is simply not credible to blame the collapse of NDP support in Quebec, in particular, on the racist Conservative/Bloc Quebecois niqab propaganda. The Liberal and NDP positions were essentially the same, yet the Liberals gained ground while the NDP lost. The NDP slide had begun before this issue erupted. The Conservatives and Bloc did not hand the win to the Liberals.

There are many lessons to be learned. Perhaps one of them is the fundamental truth of the old maxim that generals always tend to fight the last war. Both the Conservatives and the NDP re-fought the 2011 election this fall. They failed to recognize the consequences of the fundamental strategic shift in the battleground that was engineered by the Liberal resurgence, and they both paid for their mistakes.

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