Andrew Coyne: Divide and conquer? In Canadian politics, it seems maybe not

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks during the Federal NDP Convention in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018.

“The time for timid is over,” NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told his party over the weekend. The message was plainly intended to reassure those who felt the party had lost its way in the last election.

Indeed, the convention was widely seen as a return to militancy for the party. Though it avoided extremities such as the Leap manifesto, the convention passed resolutions endorsing a sheaf of radical policies, from universal pharmacare — and dental care — to abolishing tuition fees to legalizing all drugs for personal use.

Mind you, as others have noted, to call this a left turn requires forgetting what the NDP actually proposed in the last election, which included not only universal pharmacare, but a $15 minimum wage, a national child care plan, and Senate abolition. The party’s apparent caution, beyond the signature balanced-budget pledge, was mostly a matter of tone, and then only relative to its usual robust, unapologetic radicalism.

If you want to see timidity, rather, look across the ideological divide, to the Conservatives. Whether it is the Ontario Progressive Conservative party’s election platform, which promises to retain virtually every one of the Wynne government’s worst initiatives, or the micro-politics trickling out of the federal leader’s shop, this is a party that long ago gave up trying to change things much. We’ve grown so used to it we no longer notice.

NDP President Marit Stiles addresses delegates at the NDP Convention in Ottawa, Friday, February 16, 2018.

In writing on this previously, I’ve attributed this insecurity to the party’s long history of electoral futility, especially at the federal level. But that only invites the question: why have the Tories been such losers? Why, since 1935, have they lost two elections in three to the Liberals? And here we come across an intriguing puzzle.

For the start of that near-century of Liberal dominance coincides with the arrival of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, forerunners of the NDP. By the conventional assumptions of politics, the splitting of the left-of-centre vote — at any rate, the non-Conservative vote — should have been fatal to the Liberals’ chances, delivering election after election to the Conservatives.

But that is not what happened. Of the 17 elections from 1867 to 1930, the Liberals won only seven, trailing the Conservatives in the popular vote by an average of 1.6 percentage points. By contrast, the Liberals have won 16 of the 25 elections since then, with an average 3.3-point margin of victory (from 1993 to 2000, vs. combined Progressive Conservative/Reform-Canadian Alliance vote)…

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