Out of the midst of some of the most cynical and depressing politics I have ever witnessed, conventional wisdom among the media elites and pundits has it that Jack Layton and the NDP acquitted themselves pretty well.
With Harper hyperventilating over vote timing, Martin bribing every bribable entity in sight and Duceppe looking like a wolf getting ready to feast on the chickens, Layton called for calm and exhorted all parties to make Parliament work. Alone on the high road, even Martin took note of Layton’s applause, and started moderating his own partisan rants.
The deal the NDP stuck with the Liberals to support the government in exchange for budget amendments was also given a glowing verdict by those in the know. Above and beyond another demonstration of constructive behaviour, Layton was able to draw attention to his priorities in a way 100 speeches on rubber chicken circuit, never could.
On a broader front, there are other factors as well that conspire to give the New Democrats a lift in voter assessment. Outside of scandals, social issues – an area of traditional NDP strength– dominate the public opinion agenda. Concern and unease over the status quo is voiced most vociferously among the young, the old, the poor and women – all constituencies that have shown a historic tendency to gravitate towards the NDP when the conditions are right.
Similarly, Layton in many ways is viewed as the most well-rounded and complete of the four political leaders. He has avoided any hint of dishonesty that stains both Harper (over his “hidden agenda”) and Martin. He is seen as significantly more personable than the Conservative leader and more principled than the Liberal leader; more charismatic than any of them; and is believed to hold values that are every bit as resonant with the voters as are his opponents’.
These factors have generated unprecedented levels of second choice for the NDP. Liberal voters are about twice as likely to cite them as an alternative to their first choice, and by a smaller margin even more Conservatives prefer the NDP over the Liberals.
So why have the NDP been mired at the 17-20 percent level in the polls?
It seems that their tactic have been so successful that they have been embraced by their supporters and they are starting to mouth them back to the pollsters. NDP voters are now far more likely to believe that the government is doing at least an adequate job, that the country is on the right track and that now would not be the right time to change governments. Indeed, attitudinally, these voters are beginning to look significantly more like Liberals than Conservatives …or the B.Q for that matter. While this may be no surprise for many, in fact this can spell big trouble for the NDP.
Opposition parties – regardless of political stripe – are sustained by unhappiness with the status quo and a desire for a change – that is why they identify with the opposition rather than the incumbents. When they lose this predisposition, they soon lose their opposition outlook and end up supporting the government. If the NDP positions the PCs and the BQ as their enemy, it is only a matter of time before their supporters come to view the Liberals as their friends. That is what is happening right now and it is happening in no small measure because of the tactics the NDP have adopted.
Together Paul Martin and Jack Layton have spun an attractive political web. In time we will know who is the spider and who is the fly.