Layton's Mortgage Comes Due?

Earlier this week, the Conservative government announced a number of law-and-order measures designed to play to their base. Specifically, the Conservatives introduced legislation to remove the “feint hope” clause, allowing people convicted of first and second degree murder to apply for parole much earlier than would be allowed. There is also legislation instituting mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes.

I have no problem with removing the feint hope clause. I do have more of a problem with mandatory minimums. These have been shown not to work in the United States, and I believe judges should have the leeway to insure that a seventeen-year-old kid who makes a stupid mistake isn’t sent to prison with a twenty-five-year-old hardened criminal who can teach the kid everything he knows. But the Conservatives’ base likes the illusion that they’re “getting tough with criminals”, and with that base fatigued as a result of the Conservatives various un-Conservative policies of late, the party clearly decided that this bit of red meat was needed to keep their core voters in line.

What might surprise some viewers, however, was the Liberal reaction. While the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois have been firmly opposed, the Liberals under leader Michael Ignatieff have decided to support the government, despite the fact that these measures do not represent a confidence motion, and defeating the government here won’t result in an election that Canadians supposedly do not want. Some Liberal members in the crassroots are upset and calling for a revolt. NDPers are tsking, and saying that it proves yet again that the Liberals are the ones truly propping up the Conservative government. Even some Liberal members who support the move are citing political expediency.

For me, I believe that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is being pragmatic (if cynical). He has a base to shore up too. Indeed, his job is a harder one. The Conservatives’ social conservative and libertarian wings have few other places to go if they’re dissatisfied, and so the Conservative option has rarely, if ever, received less than one quarter of the popular vote. Ignatieff’s Liberals straddle the centre, with wings of support poking out among the centre-left and the centre right. His supporters have somewhere to go if they’re dissatisfied, and he does not want the centre-right bleeding off to the Conservatives.

He is, in effect, trying to fight the 1999 Ontario election, while not making the same mistakes that Dalton McGuinty made.

In 1999, Dalton McGuinty was a fresh-faced leader of a party that had gone into the 1995 election with polls suggesting they had 51% of the popular support, only to come out as the opposition party. They stood there in Queen’s Park as Mike Harris made waves through his Common Sense Revolution, and the NDP wrestled with the legacy of Bob Rae. Four years later, with Mike Harris’ record controversial at best, McGuinty appealed to former NDP voters, saying that the Liberals were the party most likely to end the Harris hatchet job on the province.

The ploy worked. NDP popular support dropped by over 8%, and much of that support went to the Liberals, who clocked in at a very respectable 40% of the popular support. They were unable to catch the Conservatives, however, who remained at their 45% plateau. Indeed, the Conservatives gained popular support, which suggested that, even as the Liberals sucked up votes from the left and the NDP, they lost votes on their right — either directly from their party, or from people who hadn’t voted in the 1995 election.

I believe that Ignatieff’s moves of late suggest that he is eying where the voters are likely to go in the next election. He sees a large pool of potential Liberal supporters in the current NDP block, but he doesn’t want to lose the support he has on the centre-right. So he matches the Conservatives on various ‘gimme’ policies such as law-and-order and crime, while conceiving of other ways to appeal to the centre-left. In this respect, he might be calling in a loan that’s about to come due.

In 2006, Jack Layton led the NDP through one of its most successful elections in a while by appealing to Liberal voters to ‘lend’ them his votes. His message to the electorate was this: “The Liberals have become tired and arrogant and need time in the political wilderness to learn some humility. You know this. But I know that you don’t like the idea of voting Conservative in order to accomplish this. Well, here’s my offer to you: lend me your vote. That way, you can send the Liberals a message, without giving Harper a majority mandate. You can feel good about your choice, and you can count on us to keep Harper on a short leash.”

It worked. The Canadian electorate finally gave the Liberals the defeat they needed, and the NDP walked away with 29 seats. And I think, at least at first, those loaned NDP voters have been happy about their choice. Harper has been kept on a short leash, the Liberals have been humiliated, and the NDP has made waves in the opposition.

The problem with that strategy is that it doesn’t work forever. Layton cannot run against the Liberal’s record, now, as they essentially have none, being two leaders removed from the last Liberal prime minister. The man who has the electorate’s attention is the one sitting in the prime minister’s chair, and he’s Conservative. The Liberals and the NDP thus rise and fall on his record, and are jockeying amongst themselves to be the party that is, in the minds of voting Canadians, most likely to replace the him.

So, as memories fade over the previous Liberal government’s misdeeds, and as Stephen Harper becomes an ever more polarizing figure, the opportunities increase for Ignatieff to do to Layton what Layton did to Martin in 2006. Indeed, I think that’s the strategy for the next election. As the Conservatives implode, Ignatieff can turn to former NDP voters and say to them, “I know I’m not your cup of tea. But you know what Stephen Harper and his party are doing to this country. I can stop them. Lend me your votes, and we can defeat what is the biggest threat to your vision of Canada.”

And I think it just might work.

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