Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Fallacy of a United Left

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 14, 2011

Responding to Warren Kinsella, who waxes enthusiastic about a united left.

The thing is, a united left will bleed support from its margins to the Conservatives. It would bleed those people who supported Ignatieff, who supported Paul Martin, who support blue Liberalism. How much would it bleed? Probably, as in other two-party systems, just enough to balance the two sides. At which point political discourse becomes a race to win those centre votes, and becomes meaningless.

What Ignatieff failed to do (besides act like an unrepentant conservative) was to define any actual policy differentiation. What Harper and Layton had in common was an understanding of what they stood for and why they were running. The reason the Conservative attack ads were so effective is that they spoke to the fact that Ignatieff had no reason to return to politics other than a desire to play in the game - there was never any sense that he was trying the save the country from something, to lead it toward some vision or ideal, or anything.

As a longtime New Democrat - someone willing to work in the wilderness because I do believe in something - I have always felt that Canada worked better when it had a variety of points of view, a variety of perspectives. It is is easy to sell (to Liberals, apparently) the idea that politics in Canada operates along a single dimension, but it's incorrect. Harper's party is economically and socially conservative, the Ignatieff Liberals could have been very successful being economically conservative (it certainly had the track record) and socially liberal, while the NDP distinguishes itself as liberal on both fronts.

The requirement that New Democrats abandon socialism is, I think, as clear a statement as any that there is not some mythical 'united left' that we could all have belonged to. The leadership renouncing socialism would have been the death of the NDP. I know, some people still live in the world where socialism involves nationalizing banks and withdrawing from NATO. The objective of socialism, of a liberal economic policy, which the NDP will not abandon, is one that promotes social equity, that resists the increasing disparity between rich and poor, that protects the security of the old, the ill, the infirm, that treats society, not as a competition, but as a community.

Liberals asking NDPers to abandon socialism did not understand this. Liberals - from my perspective - have always been willing to talk a good game about social equity, but less willing to make the spending decisions when it counts. That's why Liberals and the NDP have found a great deal in common in causes but such a division of purpose in actual legislation. That's why Liberals can be sanguine about cutting health, education and social assistance, while to the NDP this strikes at the heart of public policy. And it underscores, as we have always known, that there are distinct points of view, distinct perspectives, and that our diversity of voices is what makes us stronger as a nation.

Finally, it wasn't a matter of uniting the right that led to the Conservative victory. It was the result of some very smart campaigning, of a devastating advertising campaign undermining a weak opponent, of a coalescing around economic priorities while shelving - for now - the potentially much more divisive social issues that still divide the party, of successfully co-opting the media, which with one exception supported Harper in the election, and in very smartly painting a false picture of us against them, left versus right, Harper's way or the wrong way. And the Liberals bought into the myth, still buy into the myth, that brought them down.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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