After Monday night's devastation, the centre-left in Canada has a very long road ahead. The Canadian centre-left has not had a great few years under the Age of Harper. Whatever the Conservatives exactly stand for—and there are many views on that—there isn't a sense of a clear and obvious alternative choice for Canadians. What does the centre-left really look like after 2011? Are the Liberals and NDP destined to some sort of coalition or merger—or is the Liberal party doomed to a slow decline? And what's the deeper consideration for the state of Canadian public policy and discourse?
But first: what exactly is the centre-left? Ideological positions are, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder, and notions of right, left, and centre can differ depending on what we're talking about: state intervention in the economy, social policy, moral issues, law and order, and so on. Some readers identify with the centre-left; others will shrink with horror at the thought. But generally, "centre-left" denotes those who support what they consider a reasonable level of state involvement in the economy; they accept the reality of taxes, unions, and publicly-funded art they don't like; they favour current or somewhat enhanced social programs; and they probably listen to the CBC. Yet they reject the class rhetoric and suspicion of capitalism found further on the left and don't think the state can solve every problem.
The Liberal party long owned the centre-left in Canada—though often through words more than deeds, following Keith Davey's famous dictum of "campaign from the left, govern from the right." But both the centre-left and the Liberals have been floundering in recent years.
To some degree this is a function of party politics, and Stephen Harper's bold and unprecedented strategy of reorienting Canadian politics around a tough, right leaning Conservative party. His predecessors, like Mulroney, Clark, Stanfield, and Diefenbaker, all tried to span the political centre, including elements of the centre-left, in an attempt to recreate the historic Liberal brokerage coalitions that so often have ruled Canada. But voters inevitably realized they could have the real thing with the Liberals, with extra helpings of centre-leftness, rather than the unwieldy Conservative substitute. Consequently, previous Conservative attempts at a big tent have failed, sometimes spectacularly.
Harper's strategy has no place for the centre-left. The long-rumoured creature known as the Red Tory seems truly endangered, if it ever existed, or has retooled itself to suit the times (e.g., Hugh Segal). This has created a much tougher, more resilient party than the earlier big tent coalitions. Yet the centre-left doesn't quite know what to do with Harper either, because his government has been moderate and sometimes inconsistent on many fronts. It oversaw a flood of new government spending and hiring even before Canada's Economic Action Plan. It has privatized nothing significant; if it was in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet it would be one of the wets. It has a law-and-order agenda, but it won't be caught touching the third rail of health care reform.
Trying to nail down the ideology of the Harper Conservatives is like nailing jelly to the wall, and that's been a real problem for their opponents—while they can rail against Harper's controlling management, it's harder to position yourself ideologically against, well, jelly. So for the last few years, the Liberal party has flip-flopped around without much of a coherent vision on behalf of its natural centre-left constituency, and instead offered a patchwork quilt of ideas and positions, except perhaps the disastrous Green Shift of 2008. Vagueness is a natural Liberal attribute, but it is normally held together by some type of (fuzzy) vision—and that's been noticeably lacking in recent years.
The NDP will fill this vacuum now, but it has its own problems. The federal party is a hybrid of intellectuals, activists, and unions that tend to pull it further to the left, driving moderate centre-leftists to the Liberals (ex, Bob Rae). It will be further challenged by its new role as the party of choice in Quebec. In the West and Nova Scotia, provincial NDP governments have tracked more to the centre-left, usually thanks to a much weaker (or more right-wing) Liberal party. The federal and Ontario NDP have found it difficult to compete with the Liberals for this space.
But there are deeper forces at work, in Canada and elsewhere, that further pressure the centre-left. That happy Third Way decade of the 1990s, when Jean Chretien cautiously tagged behind Blair and Clinton, is long gone. The centre-left is no longer driving the worldwide agenda.
In the global recession and financial crisis, governments of all stripes turned to Keynesian responses that were traditionally the purview of the left and centre-left. But now that the bills are due and deficits are skyrocketing, the centre-left is caught between a rock and a hard place. Do they embrace the cutbacks and restraint agenda of the right, or try to spend their way out, as those further to the left demand? These dynamics are more evident in the United States and Europe, where staggering deficits are pressuring fiscal default and the radical polarization of left and right. But the Canadian centre-left has a similar dilemma. Everyone stole its ideas on how to fight the recession; now it has difficulty establishing its own position on how to pay for it. The Ontario Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty illustrates the haphazard, fingers-crossed approach of the centre-left to fiscal policy, and we will see in the fall whether it's enough to survive.
Another dilemma is cultural and religious diversity. Again, some of the bigger challenges are outside Canada. In a recent address to the Canadian Political Science Association, Queen's political scientist Keith Banting noted that Canada has largely escaped "the progressive's dilemma," in which robust welfare states seem unable to co-exist with diverse immigrant societies. European states can be generous with benefits, but only for the native born. The United States is far less generous, but more open to all. Canada is somewhere in the middle and does better on both fronts. But it's under pressure, especially fiscal restraint, and again this poses a dilemma for the centre-left. Which is more important to them?
The centre-left and (especially) the Liberals used to own diversity issues, but that's no longer true. To some degree, they took their ethnic base for granted; to some degree it evolved on them, especially as different groups and communities developed and grew. It's certainly difficult to address or speak of "ethnic issues" in any singular way. But to some extent, the Canadian centre-left's commitment to diversity has been hollow, based on a regime of equal rights. It has been less able to deal with deeper and complex diversities, especially those involving religious and faith questions, because for too long, culture and religion were treated almost as interchangeable. This is not to say that anyone else has magic solutions for accommodating differences within a Canadian framework, but the centre-left used to think it had the answers.
Regardless of what happens, the Canadian centre-left hasn't shown a great vision or agenda for Canada in recent years. To some degree, they can blame the slippery Conservatives or global forces, but their alternative is fuzzy and driven more by what they are, not than what they stand for.
A final question then: do we even need a centre-left? I say yes—with the caveat that I don't necessarily associate myself with it—because Canada needs the complexity and subtlety it offers. Most issues cannot be simply reduced to left and right without ending up with extreme positions—witness the vicious polarization in current American politics. Canada is a big and diverse country, and we've traditionally turned to the centre-left and its Liberal standard bearers to set the direction and tone for our country (and after a while, tossed them out). A vibrant and dynamic centre-left—and centre-right—is necessary to build bridges and allow for reasonable, informed, and just compromises in Canadian politics.