Monday, December 14, 2009

Liberal/NDP coalition viable without the BQ and Dion?

There were two major factors that made last December’s opposition coalition a tough sell and, ultimately, likely doomed it to failure: the presence of the Bloc Quebecois if only on the tertiary, and the unpopularity of Stephane Dion. The fact we’d just had an election that had increased Conservative seat count didn’t help any either. But what if Dion and the BQ weren’t in the equation – does a coalition become more viable?

Some numbers today from pollster Angus Reid suggest that, while it would still be an uphill battle to sell it, under the right circumstances a Liberal/NDP coalition may not be as toxic as originally thought by some, including, well, me.

Asked if they’d support formal power-sharing coalition between the Liberals and the NDP, 42 per cent said yes and 47 per cent said no, with 11 per cent undecided. Those 11 per cent would be critical, and much would demand on the circumstances at the time: electoral result, issues of the day, and so forth. Some 64 per cent of Liberals would support a coalition, and 70 per cent of NDPers. Interestingly, a majority of Green supporters, 51 per cent, would be opposed.

Angus Reid also polled other questions under a “unite the left” theme. While support was highest for the coalition option, they also polled running joint candidates to avoid vote-splitting and a party merger. Here it’s the Liberal and NDP supporter numbers that are really most relevant, as they didn’t ask if the options would change voter intention.

On an agreement between the Liberals and NDP not to run candidates against each other where it would split the vote, 55 per cent of Liberals and 51 per cent of NDPers were supportive.

And on a full-blown merger between the Liberals and NDP, 50 per cent of both Liberals and NDPers would be supportive.

Frankly, I don’t consider the latter two likely enough scenarios to discuss at length. Even if agreements could be reached around non-competes in swing ridings, the per-vote subsidy, which both opposition parties ironically fought hard to keep, is a major disincentive to not running strong with 308 candidates on the ballot.

As for an out-right merger, there’s not the historical unity on the left there is on the right. I doubt the far-left would be willing to be shut-out or would be placated as easily by a LPC/NDP as the far-right has by the Conservatives. There would be much more likelihood of a left-wing splinter party emerging and, while the remaining moderates would still be a force, there would be some bleeding on the centre-right to the Cons. And besides, I don’t think the lefties would let the NDP go without a dogfight.

Back to the coalition question, while it appears the battle wouldn’t be as uphill as I’d previously thought, I still think it’s highly unlikely. For starters, I think both parties would need to signal openness to the possibility before an election. You can do it after, but to try to arrange one after an election when you went into it saying no makes the sales battle all the much harder. It could be overcome, but it wouldn’t be a good start.

Declaring openness to a coalition before an election though is highly unlikely, at least for the Liberals. The NDP would probably be fine with it. That’s because the possibility of a coalition going into an election will bleed Liberal votes to the NDP. The Liberals run to win, and part of that strategy is always going to be “we’re the only party that can stop Harper and form a government” which means solidifying the anti-Harper vote in the Liberal column. Openness to a coalition gives license to NDP swing voters to avoid going Liberal to stop Harper, ie. voting strategically. I know that’s cynical, but this is politics.

So, in the next election I expect every party will run hard to win, and then the chips will fall where they may. I think a far more likely option than a coalition, other than a Conservative government of some variety, would be a Liberal minority with a governing agreement short of a formal coalition. That would mean no joint government caucus, no joint cabinet, but a Liberal government with NDP support for a given period based on a set of agreed-to legislative priorities.

Whether the NDP would accept that scenario instead of a formal power-sharing coalition would depend on how well each party does in the next election. The NDP would likely of course want the formal coalition; their chances of getting it would be dependent on their bargaining power, determined by their support. Neither party would want to be seen by Canadians as putting personal ambition ahead of a progressive government. And such governing agreements have a strong history in the Canadian system, and so would be seen as credible by the public.

But anyways, looking at those Angus Reid horse race numbers, that’s still a bridge far, far away.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting numbers and very insightful analysis.

In respect of the per vote subsidies, do you think it would make a difference if a limited non-compete agreement had the same number of candidates standing down in each party? (Eg. Libs agree not to run in 25 ridings where the NDP has a chance to win, NDP agrees not to run in 25 ridings where Libs have a chance to win.)

This might resolve the subsidy issue, or least mitigate it. Presumably, the party that gets to run uncontested increases its share of the vote and, hence, the amount it gets from the per vote in that riding. The party that doesn't run a candidate loses some money, but presumably they are standing down candidates who would get relatively little support anyway, so the loss is minimal. If the non-compete is equal, the gains from non-competition would partially make up for the losses of non-competition, and both parties would be unaffected financially by the deal (that's overly simplistic, of course: in reality both would lose some money, but it would be a fairly small amount compared to the drastically increased odds of forming a post-election coalition government).

I think that a limited non-compete deal, with each party standing down in the same number of ridings (10 or 20, maybe), would give the most bang for the buck for both parties, and is probably more realistic than a complete co-operation agreement.

A reader said...

I believe you correctly identify the crux of the issue, Jeff, when you focus in on whether the two parties will be willing to run on that possibilityduring the next election, and then you assert that the Liberals probably won't, in favour of trying (for the third time now) to run a squeeze play on the NDP.

But, open up to the alternative possibility for a second.

For one thing, how credible is it going to seem, when the NDP is advocating a coalition, for the Liberals to say No during a campaign, when they've already said yes before.

As you say, this is politics, but let me ask you: don't you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? That squeeze play strategy is deeply insulting to New Democrats; it all but says they should not even be running; whereas for all the time the Liberals have been turned, inward knifing each other, the NDP was carrying the can opposing Harper.

Ditto for claiming that Jack Layton elected Stephen Harper, when the record clearly shows that every NDP MP in the House voting for Martin would still not have saved that government.

What if, on the other hand, the Liberals were to acknowledge that they had a good faith partner, with strengths in parts of the country they don't, and who, while not in agreement on every detail, would still be worth working with in the national interest. Might that not turn into a more successful formula for turning those tight-margin seats into wins?

The Liberals have lost a LOT of trust with the NDP over the signed agreement that they walked away from. They are not likely to gain the NDP's support for a minority government without a LOT more concessions this time, unless some more (significant) shows of good faith emerge between now and then.

Food for thought. Because you guys simply CANNOT win a majority government on your own next time. And the country cannot, as we both well know, afford to give this b atch of Conservatives a majority.

Offered in all sincerity.

Chrystal Ocean said...

And the unpopularity of Iggy is irrelevant? He's doing as badly as Dion and the latter still retained respect among progressives, especially environmentalists. (His carbon shift was the right policy; I just wish the LPC had stuck by the man and that policy.)

wilson said...

Liberals must make it clear before the election in what senario they would precipitate a coalition government.
The last attempt was brutally dishonest and was viewed as a coup because of the deception.

Libs need to quit pretending that a coalition is not on the table.

The next election results will be a majority government,
either Conservative or Coalition.
That's what the Cons will run on.

Emily Dee said...

You mentioned the voter subsidy, but that may soon be off the table. Steven Fletcher has been working on abolishing it.

The Mainstream media hasn't been covering that but the Winnipeg Free Press interviewed him and it's part of wider 'democratic' reform.

I thought the Cons might include that in the January budget, simply because they were so high in the polls, that they could afford to make it a confidence motion.

Not so sure now.

Greg Fingas said...

Of course, most of the polls at the time weren't all that different in the support numbers: there are probably higher numbers out there, but even a quick search turns up support at 42%, 38% (at least under Ignatieff), and 37% depending on the question asked (and this while the Cons' PR machine was in overdrive). Mind you, the opposition is somewhat lessened now - but the support level actually doesn't seem to have changed much at all.

CanadianSense said...

If you look at 2000-2008 with the LPOC winning 40% a few things happened to change the future from replaying.

The Right of Centre parties united and have remained a disciplined party that has won more seats but kept the same share of vote 30-37%

The NDP recovered from 8.5% to 18% in 2008.
The emergence of a Green Party has begun to allow for another protest vote other than NDP. The Greens were 0.5 in 2000 to ?? in 2008.

I have laid out a graph showing the 40% majority win by the LPOC and the divided 2 right parties.

Political Parties need to adapt and look at the demographics of who is supporting the party. The largest bloc of voters are no longer supporting the LPOC.
You have a lead with under 25, university educated and Montreal Island. Where are the other metrics? Catholic vote, visible minorities, Femal vote(soccermom's)?

This is should not be about a single poll (bounce back +6 Angus).

The choice is clear

a) Play scandal of the week game
b) Get serious offer an alternative that is credible to the voters.

The Coalition should get the heavy lifting done before the next election while the LPOC has 77 seats. If they lose another 20 seats their bargaining strength will be greatly diminished after the election.

BTW that is the frame in the next coalition.

Jeff said...


It may be manageable, but it would be very difficult. A stumbling block would be the LPC's federated nature: the provincial wings (not provincial parties, but provincial wings of the federal party) receive a cut of the subsidy. If, say, the LPC pulled out of target BC ridings and the NDP in Ontario, the BC wing would want compensation from Ontario. It could be worked out, just a real headache.

More than that though, I wonder about those party support #s. It's supportive in the abstract, but when it comes down to saying your riding won't have a Lib or NDP, it's another story I suspect.

A reader,

First, let's not pretend that one party is on the side of the angels here. Not that you are, but just to scene set: the NDP wouldn't be advocating coalition in a campaign because they're swell folk, they'd be doing it because its a strategy that would benefit them electorally, and largely at Liberal expense. It's about politics for them too.

Second, the "squeeze-play" has been run many times by the NDP as well. Lend me your vote, vote strategically, etc.

Back to the last coalition, the public support just wasn't there, proceeding w/o it when the government had made budget concessions would have been suicidal. And given that the NDP was producing anti-Ignatieff attack ads while we were still supposedly coalition partners, I find NDP cries of betrayal somewhat lacking. Makes it hard for us to trust them too.

Back to your substantive points though. I don't think the NDP running on a firm coalition openness position and the LPC something much less will help or hinder either. Were I Ignatieff, I'd say something like I'm not running for a coalition, I'm running to govern, and I'm running to win, but should we end up in a minority situation I'd look to the example of Lester Pearson, who governed with a minority and worked with the opposition to accomplish a great deal for Canada, such as yada yada.

As for post-election negotiations, as I said, the NDP will likely want a formal coalition, and the LPC perhaps less, more of a Pearsonian working arrangement. Which way it goes will depend on the negotiations, and their seat counts will help determine bargining power. You say the NDP will want big concessions. I'm sure they will. Neither party will want to be sees as putting politicking in front of a progressive govt, but it is two-way. So I ask you this: would the NDP really say we'll not support the LPC and let Harper back in/force another election because the LPC won't give us cabinet seats? Explain that one to progressives.


Never said it was irrelevant. If he doesn't turn it around and increase the seat count substantially in the next election this is all academic and irrelevant.

I feel no need to establish my credentials as a supporter of Stephane Dion, but to ignore the role his unpopularity played in the failure of the coalition is to bury your head in the sand.

wilson, I believe I stated the need to have the door open before an election. But for the record, you need to look up the definition of coup. And second, speaking of dishonesty, the Conservatives have outright flip-flopped or ignored multiple election statements, positions and policies. Income trusts was a big one. Point being a) no virgins in this bordello, and b) if sold correctly, a position change can be accepted by the public.


They've been talking about pulling it for awhile. They tried last year in the fiscal update, helped trigger coalition I. They're still talking but I'm not sure how keen they are to try it again. We'll see, I guess. The LPC is less dependent than we were a year ago, but I don't think we'd want to give it up yet. For the NDP, it would be a huge blow. BQ, diddo.

Jason Cherniak said...

64% of 29% is 19% support for the Liberal Party if they go for a coalition. I'm not sure how this is anything but a horrible idea.

Reading Brian Topp's article on this, it struck me that the NDP was willing to agree to just about anything while making assumptions that they could somehow manouver the Liberals into changing the deal in the future. In essence, the NDP seems to figure that once the Liberals agree to a coalition, the NDP can demand whatever they want. With the extreme unpopularity of a coalition, such NDP members are likely correct. I don't think I would trust them to keep to any "agreement".

I believe what we learned a year ago is that people who support the Liberal Party are not necessarily "left leaning". Given the choice of a left-coalition or the Conservatives, they would pick the Conservatives. I supported the concept at the time - perhaps out of loyalty to Dion - but in hindsight I think it was a mistake. Let's never try it again.

Jeff said...

I don't follow your math, Jason, and I don't think you can interpret the numbers in that way. You can't directly tie these numbers into voter intent. I may be a Liberal who doesn't support a coalition, or a undecided who does support one. That doesn't mean I'd necessarily change my vote based on that issue. 19% of Conservative supporters support the idea, doesn't mean they'd vote LPC if it happened.

Jason Cherniak said...

Exactly. I suspect they "support" it to the extent that the think it would kill the Liberal Party. Take that into account and the country, as a whole, overwhelmingly prefers the Conservatives to a left-coalition.

It is true that there is no science to interpreting the numbers, so I don't suggest my answer is the only answer. However, I do believe my answer to be the right answer and I think I have a decent sense of where middle of the road Canadians stand (at least in Ontario and maybe the Maritimes).

In any event, the numbers are not as important to me as the NDP's position when all is said and done. Based on Topp's article, I don't think they are trustworthy partners.