The time is coming when Liberals and New Democrats might begin to consider the possibilities of a political merger on the left.

Even to a 10-year-old those were obviously momentous and important times. Our crowded house spilling strangers onto the back lawn for days, the never-ending heavy blue cigarette funk and the loud latenight alcohol-fuelled arguments made that clear. Watching warily, long after bedtime, from behind the sofa or hidden by a banister on the stair, I knew that the dozens of politicians and journalists and hangers-on jammed into our Ottawa suburban bungalow during that hot August week were involved in something fateful; their intensity was real. Unabashed optimism and hope shone through their heated debates over unions and farmers, workers and intellectuals, Quebec, bloody Liberals and “the Indian tragedy.” I was dimly aware that a new party was being born, that our family was involved in its creation, and that it “could change the Canada you grow up in,” as one now famous journalist patronizingly put it to my sisters and me.

The New Party founded in Ottawa in the first week of August of 1961 was genuinely seen by many of its protagonists as the inevitable successor to the Liberals and the natural antidote to Diefenbaker conservatism. (The word “Democratic” was inserted at the last minute. This detail was, amongst others, at the insistence of my grandfather, Colin Cameron. Although a “New Democrat” of 47 years vintage is bizarre, how much stranger a name would the party have had if it were still only claiming its novelty?)

They were deluding themselves, of course. Liberals derided the effort at unity on the left from the beginning. It was a small success to have brought together unions, farmers, intellectuals, many Quebec Quiet Revolutionaries and left factions of a bewildering array of differences. It was a greater success to have held it together during the explosive tensions of the sixties on the left, though the Waffle battles came close to ending the dream.

The lessons of that merger effort — the product of nearly three years of negotiations following the misery of the 1958 defeat of nearly the entire CCF caucus — are at least two. Mergers require leaders who are committed to making them happen, they require a party that will endure disappointment and partisan attack along the way, and they require partners who understand that the price of failure is higher than the cost of compromises required for success. Tommy Douglas knocked down all opposition on the way to realizing the dream of unity, even though some of the angriest critics were from Saskatchewan.

Could the NDP have been born if, as some had argued, it had attempted to split the Liberal Party as well? Probably not: bridging the long and deeply defensive traditions of two political cultures as different as liberalism and social democracy is a far larger task than uniting the disparate and defeated factions of the democratic left.

In light of the Harper re-election and his successful reunification of Canadian conservatism, the plaintive call for unity on the left is once again being heard in more than the usual places. The frustration that nearly twothirds of the voters elected less than half the MPs has given new life to the unity debate. The realization that the Greens are chomping at least 5 to 10 percent off the totals of the Liberals and the NDP — for whom this is the difference between a minority and defeat — is additionally galling.

In light of the Harper re-election and his successful reunification of Canadian conservatism, the plaintive call for unity on the left is once again being heard in more than the usual places.

The dream of unity is alive once more. It faces far more serious obstacles to success today than in 1961. Corporate mergers are famous for destroying shareholder value and often destroying the culture of two enterprises while scattering much of their acquired talent to competitors, rather than fusing the strengths of each. For a generation, business school professors have inveighed against the temptation to see huge profits in corporate marriage. No one listens. Bankers, brokers and CEOs run a global matchmaking enterprise around the clock. Even in these grim times the appeal of snaring a competitor on the cheap is strong.

The merger fans are not crazy or obsessed only with personal gain. The advantage of removing a large competitor from the market is real. The combination of firms with complementary strengths can make a powerful and profitable union. Like the optimism of the betrothed in private life, enthusiasm often overwhelms judgment in the choice of partner. For every Hewlett-Packard/Dell success there are several Alcatel/Lucent disasters.

Political mergers have many of the same drivers: remove a competitor and grab a much larger market share. But these goals are much harder to achieve. Prospective partners are nervous about being caught flirting, let alone actively making out. Unlike the corporate world, political competitors are committed to their opponents’ defeat, even destruction. The insults that pass as mild political discourse are not cricket in the corporate world. Leaders, activists, supporters and employees of political parties are trained to regard the other teams with the hostility and contempt of opposing armies. Politics, at the level of partisan competition, really is the civilian equivalent of war.

The Athenian politico-military axiom that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is as true for Jack Layton and Stephen Harper as it was for those ancient Greeks in assessing Spartans and Persians. There is an even sharper reality for politicians: my worst enemy is the one closest to me politically. This is something that even otherwise sophisticated academic and journalist observers fail to understand as an imperative of political life.

As cynical as it may seem to political outsiders, there is a logic to conservatives and social democrats quietly conspiring to knife their shared enemy, liberals. Conservative voters are not likely to defect to Jack Layton or any of his peers on the democratic left around the world. Soft social democrats are vulnerable to the appeal of liberalism everywhere, and vice versa. This reality is masked by the harsh rhetoric of the political game, and it confuses some otherwise savvy observers into thinking that left-liberal cohabitation leading to marriage is logical, even inevitable. It’s not.

Some people look at the Canadian Conservative experience of nasty divorce and successful reconciliation and say, “Why not us?” First of all, there is no comparison between the circumstances of the political families. The Canadian right had more than a century of unity before the usual tensions between Quebec and the West ripped the family into two and then three angry pieces. A marriage reconciliation is a big challenge; a genuine peace between former blood enemies is even more so.

The adroitly manoeuvred, and carefully managed, reconciliation process on the right was a credit to the diplomatic and political skills of David Frum, Belinda Stronach, Brian Mulroney, Peter MacKay, Stephen Harper and the many others who played less public roles. It was an achievement, especially at the endgame, that overcame considerable odds, deep personal animosities and real policy and values differences. But it was a political reconciliation, not a negotiated end to generations of political conflict. Mergers create losers as well as winners, but the losers are always louder.

So why bother to make the attempt on the centre-left?

First, because the alternatives are worse. The arrival of the Greens has proved as destabilizing to the major parties as it was in Europe 20 years ago. Although Elizabeth May has bled support from each party, the Tories are the net beneficiary of Green strength. Secondly, the patterns of partisanship appear to be settling with large chunks of the political terrain relatively fixed in their behaviour. Alberta, Saskatchewan and much of BC are solidly Tory. Conservative gains this time in big cities and among new Canadians are deeply worrying to thoughtful Liberals and New Democrats.

In Quebec, the Bloc, while weakened, seems to be on the way to transforming itself into a regional champion, more like the Northern League in Italy than the Scottish National Party in Scotland. While this is nominally less damaging to national stability than the Bloc’s earlier incarnation as a “separatism first” party, it makes the formation of a stable federal government unlikely. Finally, there is the simple reality that four against one in a “first-past-the-post” system of elections favours the one, when it occupies a swath of ideological territory alone.

In any event, there will be no end to the demands of naive academics for the parties to attempt this political equivalent of a Mars landing. Until, that is, they finally try. Failure in the attempt would be embarrassing and painful, but it might open a dialogue about what is really possible. If not merger then perhaps cohabitation, or electoral compacts, or even another later try at marriage with different brokers and partners. It would be interesting if a way were to be found to make it less toxic for federalists to deal with the reality of the Bloc, for example. It is worth seeking a reality in which a Bloc caucus would participate cooperatively in legislation rather than continuing in its current purely parasitic form.

Each party is seriously in need of a “policy refresh.” The Liberals ducked serious reflection on their tired agenda despite the efforts of Tom Axworthy and others. The NDP has avoided the serious soul-searching that has gripped European social democracy in the two decades since Ed Broadbent retired. Perhaps a unity discussion would permit both a serious examination of the narcissism of small differences that divides social democracy and liberalism today, and a bold renewal of a Canadian progressive agenda.

Perhaps a unity discussion would permit both a serious examination of the narcissism of small differences that divides social democracy and liberalism today, and a bold renewal of a Canadian progressive agenda.

Who should take the first step in this pas de deux? Given the experience of the Canadian conservatives it seems likely that the most suitable formateurs are activists somewhat unknown to those outside their own political families, mid-level leaders respected across internal faction lines. David Frum, one of the champions of unity on the right, was, after all, better known for his family name than for his political achievement when he began to agitate for reunification. Belinda Stronach had even fewer credentials. Leaders, or those representing them, are almost doomed to failure as the issue of who concedes what to whom bedevils their progress. Joe Clark could not conceive of being number two to a Stephen Harper, let alone a Stockwell Day.

Preliminary discussions require secrecy and a credible commitment to confidentiality if the necessary trust between former antagonists is to bloom. Dozens (and more often even hundreds) of hours of dialogue are the required investment in a complex process of framing issues, positions and trade-offs before the work is exposed to public attack. Public assaults by partisans from each side, torqued by the national media, are inevitable.

Stephen Harper nearly sabotaged the conservative unity project with a campaign of strategic leaks against Peter MacKay’s negotiating team. It was a smart, calculated gamble by a better strategist. Harper’s bet that MacKay needed public pressure to give up his obduracy paid off, but it might well have ended in tears. Diplomatic negotiators fear most the moment when the curtain rises, and their secretly assembled house of cards is revealed to the masses.

The compromises in any bargain between political antagonists are certain to enrage their own hard-liners. The têtes durs of any political tribe want to fight to the last man, to shed every drop of the enemy’s blood and to shout “Traitor!” at anyone who would accept less. It is easy to predict the men and women who would play this blocking role in any discussions between Liberals and New Democrats.

Overwhelmingly, they will live in Ontario and British Columbia, the two provinces where Liberals and New Democrats hate each other most. In BC, Liberals run the gamut of liberalism nationally, but provincially they tilt to the right. The current provincial Liberal Party after all absorbed both Social Credit and the Conservative parties on its way to power. Its roots in fighting “the socialists” go back to the firebombing days of BC politics in the forties and fifties. For BC New Democrats, local Liberals are more contemptible than Tories, as they are so successful at campaigning from the left, and then governing from the right. The toxic partisanship of BC politics makes it dangerous for any political figure to suggest “supping with the enemy.”

One might expect Ontario’s more placid political culture to be more fertile ground for a new political vision. Not likely, given the painful history between the two prospective partners over the past half-century. First the CCF and then the NDP often played footsie with the Conservatives provincially, to the detriment of their common enemy. Most famously, Stephen Lewis first shoved the Liberals into third-party status and then supported a Tory government for much of the mid-1970s. The experience of a government of Liberal/NDP cohabitation in the 1980s was only slightly less bitter for the Grits.

In David Peterson’s view, Bob Rae got far too much credit for the success of their Accord government, and then the uppity socialist defeated him and became premier! Friends of Rae did little to enhance the relationship in bragging that Rae had “first created, then destroyed a Liberal straw man.” David Peterson and some of his ministerial colleagues and their allies have never given up their contempt for Rae and what the New Democrats did to them. Peterson vigorously attacked Rae’s presumption during his campaign for the Liberal leadership. Not much changed in the ensuing two years. The McGuinty Liberals are more sanguine about New Democrats, confident of their own legacy and prospects. Having been reduced to a rump non-party by the resurgent Liberals, watch Ontario New Democrats, about to launch a provincial leadership campaign, carry the torch of vengeance highest.

There is an additional reason why these two provinces will be the central obstacle to unity, in contrast to the prairie provinces, which will be far more likely to welcome it. It is their record in government. The Ontario NDP was elected by accident once, and many of its activists regretted the surprise almost from election night on. The Rae government did not end happily. BC New Democrats like to joke in defence of their abysmal factionalism, “We’ve been in opposition for most of the last 50 years — there’s no reason to stop now, just because we are in government.” Partly as a result, none of the BC NDP’s experiences in governments has ended happily either. Their most recent defeats by provincial Liberals have kept the mutual enmity well-stoked.

For many Ontario New Democrats the idea of power, with its necessary compromises and setbacks, is not worth the candle. It is more fun and less painful to shout from the opposition benches, and claim every inch of social progress as a result of your jeers. After they endured the painful political consequences of his time in government, the defection of Bob Rae is a source of anger to many party activists even now.

It is in Saskatchewan and Manitoba that one finds Liberals and New Democrats who understand governing, have a grudging respect for each other and know that power necessarily involves compromise. The only modern Canadian cross-partisan coalition was, after all, between Saskatchewan Liberals and New Democrats under Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert. Quebec and Atlantic Canadian New Democrats, having less history and baggage, are more likely to be open to discussion than Ontario or BC.

Many Canadian Liberals, like postimperial Britons, are having a painful time adapting to their loss of hegemony. For them the acceptance of their loss remains stalled in the early steps of grief. For Trudeau-era Liberals there is the embarrassing sight of the party’s recycling Trudeau campaign posters with Michael Ignatieff’s face superimposed; or the Entertainment Tonight celebrity promotion of Justin, the son and true heir, complete with his total lack of any real life achievements, except perhaps his recent election.

Many Canadian Liberals, like postimperial Britons, are having a painful time adapting to their loss of hegemony.

For the bitter survivors of the Chrétien/Martin era there is only the cold peace of Balkan civil war veterans. They offer thin smiles to each other in public, and continue their vicious crusades under the banner of new candidates. They are among the most angry at New Democrats for having sabotaged their hold on power, citing Jack Layton’s “pact with the Devil,” and alleging that he, not they, holds the responsibility for the Martin government’s defeat.

If you were a family therapy counsellor you’d never gamble your reputation on reconciling all these sad and bitter combatants. You’d take on these clients only in search of a long tail of future fee income. And it may indeed be a long process, with many setbacks before even a small prospect of success.

Beyond the baggage that each party carries there are formidable constitutional obstacles; this is Canada, after all. The curious legal structure of each party is a sort of Rube Goldberg device with cross-cutting federalprovincial and local responsibilities. Lifelong veterans in each family know how to manipulate the obscure boundaries and prerogatives of each level of the party; to outsiders they are baffling. For example, much of the Liberal Party’s failure to figure out how to do successful retail fundraising is a product of the chaos of internal rights and roles.

For New Democrats there is a trace memory of merger risks from its own history. Their party is an equally stitched together coalition of provincial, federal and riding-level organizations. When the NDP butterfly emerged from its CCF chrysalis several local and provincial resisters took action. They insisted on their authority, not the national party convention’s, and seized party membership lists and assets. In Alberta, they seized the party headquarters and defended their putsch during several years of legal battles.

This raises the issue of who has the right to make a deal with whom. The gruesome prospect of a future federal campaign with a “Real Liberal Party” candidate opposing that of the combined new party, or a “New Democratic Socialist Party” candidate razzing the sellouts from the new party, or even competing provincial parties, is enough to stop the hearts of party activists.

Maintaining unity in a merger process is complicated in the corporate world, where even the best deals shed valuable executives and their teams. Preventing the dissidents from setting up camp with their rump of followers under the old party banners is a genuine legal and constitutional puzzle. Sinclair Stevens and company gave up their claim to the real “Progressive Conservative Party of Canada” only after many years and many tens of thousands of dollars of legal warfare. That somewhat pathetic insurrection had less appeal than one with a powerful union, a former provincial leader and/or a wellheeled group of donors, such as this effort might well throw up.

The mechanics of the negotiation process are relatively simple, as is the agenda. Each side would select a small team of like-minded negotiators led by a party elder. Each side has a set of aspirations and must-haves. Each side has a set of red lines. But in contrast to Mideast peace negotiations between state parties, or the sometimes violent power-sharing negotiations recently in Kenya and Zimbabwe between political leaders, there are few sacred cows in the politics of the Canadian centre left. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the political spectrum covered by the Liberals and the NDP runs the gamut from A to B.

It is this absence of serious policy division that causes political scientists and Toronto Star editorial writers to throw up their hands and say, “What is the problem?” At the risk of sounding more cynical than intended, it is power, not policy, that is the barrier to success. Who cedes it and at what price is the real subject at the negotiating table. New Democrats will believe they deserve more as they are taking the risk of absorption by the larger Liberal machine. Liberals will feel they should hold more as that is what they have always done.

It might be useful to have a more public forum, as well: perhaps a series of open seminars on what a new party should stand for. While the public debate might be over acceptable carbon taxes or the role of unions, the real battle will be who gets what role in the new entity. That is all before one considers the contentious issue of a name.

There is virtually no prospect of a parliamentary deal, let alone a coalition, with this election’s results. The Liberals did not receive a sufficiently existential whipping this time to be willing to contemplate it. It is still easier to blame a gormless leader and archaic and increasingly irrelevant political tradition rather than a feeble and aging political machine. The New Democrats’ slim gains, set against their near-victory in so many ridings, will give strength to the “next year in Jerusalem” caucus. The numbers for coalition don’t add up, and the parliamentary partisan bottlenecks are likely to be revived; nonetheless neither party will see its fate as hanging on unity negotiations.

Only the more far-sighted and rational party elders on each side will see the brick wall that a divided center-left faces for the foreseeable future. It may take a future Harper majority to drive home the inevitably of a four-against-one defeat. It took the Conservatives three drubbings to drop factional foolishness and bargain seriously.

As political consultants tell ambivalent candidates: there are two buttons in political life; one is marked “pain” and the other “gain,” and there is no “should” button. Persuading the parties that there will be greater pain in isolation and more gain in unity will be the essential challenge for the negotiating teams. It is a difficult challenge, because second only to delusionary lottery players, no group in society suspends disbelief about its prospects for victory more happily than politicians. Like Monty Python’s legless knight, hopping on his remaining torso, shouting taunts at the encircling attackers, politicians will sincerely declare their imminent victory in the face of every portent of certain defeat. This bizarre suspension of disbelief is an essential defence mechanism for the frequent humiliations of politics. It can be hard to give up.

The odds for success are therefore not high, at least in the first round. There are no examples of a successful merger of parties of the left and centreleft anywhere among the parliamentary democracies. Even in the wider circle of developed democracies the phenomenon is very rare. Greens, Liberals and Christian and Social Democrats cooperate peripatetically in a number of European countries. Nowhere have they merged. Arguably there is less pressure to merge in a proportional representation system where each party can field candidates and win some success. In a first-past-thepost system, where winner takes all, one would think that the pressure to unite is greater. But the barriers of political culture seem to trump common interest.

Canada might be different. We have had at least a three-and-ahalf-party system for far longer than any other parliamentary democracy. From the 1920s to today our voters have rejected a purely two-party system. We also seem to have a much higher threshold of pain where minority governments are concerned. Brits and Australians observe our strange behaviour with great puzzlement, as their systems have strong biases in favour of majorities. So it may be that in this dimension of politics, Canada breaks the mould as well.

What then, would be the endgame for such a star-crossed venture? A quiet dribble back into the status quo seems unlikely, for the reasons cited above: there are certain to be true believers in the power of an united left who will try to keep the project alive, no matter how bleak the prospects. A more likely path is that one party blinks first, and storms out denouncing its partners as “bad-faith negotiators.” Even after such an explosion, a quiet return to discussions some months later is likely. As the best negotiators say, “It is hard to get the parties to the table, but it is harder for them to leave.”

Once the process is launched, as in the Northern Ireland negotiations or even our own endless constitutional wrangles, vested interests on all sides will attempt to keep it alive. If the principals can avoid the adolescent storm-out, and/or deliberate sabotage through leaks by embittered partisans, it seems likely that public pressure would nudge such a process forward. Although little research has been done on the subject — and it would be a useful enterprise for some foundation or university political science department to underwrite such an inquiry — it seems likely that many supporters of the four parties to the left of the Conservatives would happily trade brand loyalty for power.

The 50th anniversary of the last attempt to unite the centre-left is on the horizon. We will likely have had another election before it arrives, with painful results for those Canadians unhappy about a continued Harper reign. Maybe it is possible that in anticipation of another painful rerun of Campaign 2008, a new generation of leaders from a much wider slice of the democratic spectrum will have achieved what the New Party pioneers of the 1960s did not: a broad centre-left party of government with roots in every part of Canada.

What seems more likely, however, is that history and personalities will foil any initiative, and that a new generation of leaders will need to decide if Canadian liberalism and social democracy can ever be one political family.