If the polls are correct, this election is winding down to a fundamental switch in Canadian politics -- New Democrats, instead of Liberals, as the main alternative to the Conservatives. Last night, Jack Layton got a taste of what it's going to be like if he does end up as the official opposition leader, and the relentless, negative attacks that will ensue. Discouragingly, there's nothing he can do to prepare himself for the onslaught either, because when his rivals run out of actual, random events of Layton's past, they will then start making things up. This is how it goes in Canadian politics, circa 2011.
Of course, on the upside, Layton, also like the Liberals of the past, enjoys the backing of the Toronto Star's editorial board. I'm assuming this means now that Star reporting will be dissed now by Conservatives as pro-NDP, as opposed to pro-Liberal, and the paper will now be called the "orange Star" etc. (I'm only half-kidding there.)
A few other things that are going to change if the NDP does, as predicted, eclipse the Liberal party for second place.
- The merger talk will be back, if it isn't already. Unite-the-left will become the preoccupation of the political class in the next couple of years, just as unite-the-right dominated the political realm from 1993 all the way to 2003.
- The Senate, filled with Conservatives and Liberals, no New Democrats, will look like an even stranger relic of the past.
- Our politics could become more sharply polarized, resembling the two-party politics of the United States. Some will argue this is a good thing, with more clarity for voters. Some will say it's evidence of creeping republicanism (small r intentional) north of the 49th parallel.
- All those Liberal strategists on the TV panels will slowly be replaced by New Democrats. It's become increasingly customary for political shows to keep their panels to two people: one Conservative-leaning, one Liberal-leaning. This has frustrated the heck out of the NDP, reduced to spectators of political chit chat. Now the Liberals will be the third man/woman out. And yes, this will happen quickly.
- Government-relations firms will start bulking up with New Democrats and wondering what to do with the Liberals they've kept on hand, just in case the Grits do end up back in power.
- It's going to become more difficult for the NDP to retain its strong proportions of women in caucus and positions of authority. The closer parties move to power in Canadian politics, the more the balance shifts toward men. As Sylvia Bashevkin noted at a conference I attended a few months ago, women tend to fare better, numbers-wise, in faltering parties and failing states. It should not go unnoticed that when the NDP and Conservatives had women leaders in the election of 1993, both were tossed out of official-party status for the next four years. I don't think that was strictly because they had women leaders -- it's far more complicated than that. But it is generally true that the farther parties are from power in Canada, the more women they've had in important roles.
- And finally, during future election campaigns, media will debate whether to bother covering the Liberals at all in any sustained fashion. In this election, the New Democrats deeply discounted the price for reporters to be on the planes, to make sure that media maintained a presence. It has been common for media outlets to cover the third party only in the first and final week of the campaign, to save some money. Now it will be the Liberals who have to fight for journalists to maintain interest in their campaign and their conventions.
Welcome to the new, traded-places world of Canadian politics. For Liberals, a lot of this won't be pretty.