By the standards of extended family gatherings, the gala hosted by the Broadbent Institute on Thursday night in Toronto was a sober affair and not just because the issue of inequality was on the menu.
For the past and present New Democrat luminaries who make up the backbone of this progressive think tank, federal life can hardly be said to be unfolding as it should.
On Monday, the GTA voters of Whitby-Oshawa delivered the NDP a morale-sapping blow. The party’s vote collapsed to a miserable eight per cent. And that was only the latest in a string of federal byelection setbacks that included the loss of Olivia Chow’s former Toronto seat last summer.
Each of those defeats increases the risk that non-Conservative voters trample the NDP in a rush to the Liberals next year. Each stands to accelerate a detrimental bandwagon effect for the party.
At some point Thomas Mulcair’s civil society allies will have to decide whether loyalty to the NDP should take precedence over taking out an ideologically hostile federal government next year. Some of them quietly acknowledged that reality on Thursday night.
But if they’d come to the pre-gala cocktail looking for hints of a convincing plan B to restore the party’s momentum, they did not find it.
By now Mulcair’s brain trust is near the end of its collective wits.
Neither a leader who routinely performs at the top of his game, nor a caucus with enough talent to form a competent cabinet, nor a voter-friendly policy handbook seems to do the trick for the NDP.
It is actually no wonder that party strategists are increasingly helpless at strategizing their way out of the current predicament. The main authors of the NDP’s misfortune are not within their ranks.
At least part of the credit for that belongs to the apprentice sorcerers who toil in the Conservative war room and who may, in this instance, have outsmarted themselves.
In 2011, a majority of Canadians — 60 per cent — did not support Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Since then the prime minister and his crew have given those voters little cause to change their minds.
If anything the past mandate — and the consistent polarizing approach to policy that is has featured — has solidified the opposition to the current government cash till payday advance. When asked by pollsters, precious few 2011 non-Conservative voters rank Harper’s party as an acceptable second choice.
This hardening of anti-Conservative feeling did not loom large in the party’s pre-election calculations, or at least it did not until now.
Second only to a committed base, vote-splitting between the opposition parties has been a winning condition for Harper since his first election victory in 2006. A long-standing assumption had been that it could be counted on to again work its magic for the party next fall.
The results in Whitby-Oshawa suggest otherwise.
On Monday, the opposition vote coalesced behind the Liberals. And while it was not enough to carry this particular riding, the pattern, if it were replicated across Ontario in the general election, would make vaulting from third to first place easy for Trudeau.
If by a domino effect Quebec followed Ontario’s example, the elements of a Liberal majority would be reunited.
For two years, the Conservatives have framed Trudeau as the leader to beat in the next election, virtually ignoring Mulcair in the process.
Never has a federal third party leader attracted as much attention from a ruling party.
In so doing the Conservatives wanted to ensure that Trudeau would walk wounded into his first campaign but so far, it is Mulcair who has had the legs cut from under him.
By systematically treating Trudeau as the leader to beat next year, they have helped to enshrine his status as the top Conservative slayer in the mind of an electorate that has rarely been more motivated to look for such a champion.
Less than a year from the federal election, the Liberals are exactly where they want to be vis-
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