Politics

HARPER’S HIDDEN FOE

Layton’s NDP could make gains in the West at the Conservatives' expense

JOHN GEDDES May 16 2005
Politics

HARPER’S HIDDEN FOE

Layton’s NDP could make gains in the West at the Conservatives' expense

JOHN GEDDES May 16 2005

HARPER’S HIDDEN FOE

Politics

Ottawa

JOHN GEDDES

JACK LAYTON IS SURROUNDED by images of his party’s saints. To find his sixth-floor digs in the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, look for the gold wall plaque, just down the hall, marking what was once the office of Stanley Knowles. After you’ve knocked on the New Democratic Party leader’s door, step in and turn left for the conference room, presided over by a big formal portrait of bearded J.S. Woodsworth, or right for Layton’s compact private office, in which a smiling white bust of Tommy Douglas, complete with eyeglasses, is the focal point. Last week, Layton found himself in the shadow of a living icon, Ed Broadbent, who made the poignant announcement that his desire to devote

more time to his ailing wife meant he would not be running in the coming election.

All that history. Yet Layton and his top advisers are not in a mood to reflect much on their party’s legacy—certainly not on the many frustrating years spent claiming moral authority, but precious little actual federal power. Instead, they prefer to concentrate on how, just now, their party looks as potent as it ever has. Prime Minister Paul Martin, faced with seeing his minority defeated by the combined Conservative and Bloc Québécois forces, turned to Layton for a deal in late April to keep his government on life support. The resulting pact, which saw $4.6 billion in NDP priorities like social housing and tuition cuts added to the Liberal budget, turned Layton into a player in a way his storied predecessors rarely were. The question heading into a possible June election, though, is whether he can parlay that new-found clout in the House into a bigger bang at the ballot box.

The credibility boost Martin has handed Layton might suggest that the Liberals have taken a huge risk by strengthening their rival for centre-left votes. But among party strategists, the potential damage to the Conservatives looms at least as large. One way they tend to size up the pre-election landscape is this: the scandal-battered Liberals are all but certain to lose seats in Quebec to the Bloc, and to face many tough races against Tories in Ontario. But in the West, the NDP looks like a serious threat to steal perhaps a half-dozen seats from Stephen

Together-but so far apart-at an Ottawa remembrance ceremony last week

Harper’s Tories. In last June’s election, NDP candidates lost three ridings in Saskatchewan and three in British Columbia to the Conservatives by margins of fewer than 1,000 votes. Given polls that show an excruciatingly tight race nationally between Harper and Martin—with the likely outcome that one of them will head another minority—just a handful of NDP gains at the Conservatives’ expense could make a decisive difference.

But Layton knows better than to look too confident. The New Democrats have been punished for premature optimism before. When Broadbent led the party in the 1980s, the NDP threatened to go from also-ran to serious-power status, but failed to make a breakthrough. After drifting through the 1990s, the party saw its prospects brighten with Layton’s win in the 2003 leadership race. Yet in last spring’s campaign, NDP support shrank in the final days, with many voters swinging to the Liberals out of fear of a Conservative win, leaving Layton with a caucus of just 19 MPs—a frustrating one or two seats shy of holding the outright balance of power.

So Layton is cautious, admitting the Liberals might well get credit from voters for changes he insisted be added to the budget. He hopes otherwise, of course. “More people are going to say, ‘Actually, it turned out to be a good thing to have more New Democrat MPs,’ ” Layton said in an interview. The fate of the budget bill, which is expected to be debated in the House this week and perhaps voted on the week after,

is too close to call. Opposition to it from the Bloc and Tories is nearly equal to the combined Liberal and NDP support, making it possible the House’s three independent MPs could decide its fate. And since the vote is a confidence motion, rejection of the budget would mean the fall of the Liberal minority.

Trying to guess the outcome of the late June or earlyjuly election that would follow has political insiders poring over recent poll results. Media coverage of these soundings has naturally focused on the Liberals and Conservatives jockeying for top spot. But Allan Gregg, chairman of the Strategic Counsel, says his firm’s April opinion survey uncovered some key signs for Layton’s NDP. The poll found the Liberals supported by 30 per cent of Canadians, the Conservatives with 28 per cent, and the NDP with 18 per cent. But what caught Gregg’s veteran eye was the swelling pool of potential switchers— Canadians who now plan to vote for another party but might change to the NDP.

Layton’s NDP could make gains in the West at the Conservatives' expense

Of voters who currently back the Liberals, 42 per cent make the NDP their second choice, compared with 27 per cent who name the Tories as their next pick. Perhaps more surprisingly, of Conservative supporters, 32 per cent make the NDP their second choice, slightly higher than the 29

per cent who would switch to the Liberals. In B.C. and Saskatchewan, vote swings between NDP and Tory candidates are commonplace. But Gregg says he can’t remember a time when the NDP was the top second choice nationally. “The accept-

THE question is whether Layton can parlay his new-found clout in the House into a bigger bang at the ballot box

ability of the NDP to Liberal and Conservative voters has never been higher,” he says.

If the NDP looks more palatable, Layton has to be given much of the credit. In that Strategic Counsel poll, 27 per cent said their opinion of the leader had improved in the last year, compared with 22 per cent whose view of Harper had gotten better, and just 10 per cent who saw Martin in a more favourable light. “Layton doesn’t look scary and, more importantly, he doesn’t look weak, which has been part of their problem in the past,” Gregg says. (As an aside, though, he notes that focus groups “always talk about his freaking moustache.”)

Does Layton have the skills to build on the numbers? He is not a galvanizing campaigner. His alert manner tends to convey earnestness, even wariness, rather than easy likeability. And then there is the matter of how to appeal to voters not as a potential prime minister—a goal that still looks well out of reach—but as a parliamentary power broker. The budget deal offers a practical example to put before voters: vote NDP to let us keep forcing the Liberals to the left. “The best way to get Liberals to act like Liberals is to elect NDP MPs,” says Jamie Heath, Layton’s communications director.

But that argument will only work with voters who expect the Liberals to win. Not much point electing New Democrats to exert influence on Liberals if the Grits appear bound for defeat. If a Tory victory looks likely, Martin will undoubtedly again implore left-of-centre voters to rally to the Liberals. “It definitely did work last time,” Layton ruefully admits. But next time out, he adds, outrage over revelations at Justice John Gomery’s inquiry might prevent a swing back to the Liberals. If he’s right, Layton may manage to boost his seat total enough to win an influential role in the next Parliament—and one day a spot among those NDP icons, for parlaying their old convictions into a new era of clout. dH