A liberal dose of ruthlessness
The federal election campaign represented a classic prisoner’s dilemma for both opposition parties and their supporters: each had to choose between reinforcing the messages of a party with some important aligned interests, and turning against that party in order to pursue mutually exclusive benefits.
It’s worth examining how the choices made by the Liberals and the NDP led to the former winning a majority government — while also highlighting what it means in the Parliament to come.
The NDP, the Liberals and their supporters were all motivated in large part by their desire for a change in government — a sentiment shared by roughly two thirds of voters throughout the campaign.
But that number was never set in stone. After all, the Conservatives threw unprecedented amounts of campaign spending into their own effort to stay in power. And the Conservatives’ track record of poaching an extra couple of points on election day means that there was relatively little margin for error.
So the more resources the opposition parties collectively dedicated to challenging the Conservatives rather than each other in terms of both values and campaign strategies, the more likely they were to ensure that voters saw change as a necessary result of Monday’s election.
At the same time, the opposition parties also wanted to position themselves to win power in this and future elections. There, the benefit of being the sole defector rather than the sole co-operator was obvious: a party that directed its resources disproportionately to making the case against Harper while leaving itself vulnerable to attacks from the other was likely to suffer at the polls, watching its competitor take power as a reward for being relatively selfish.
And that’s largely how the campaign ultimately played out.
A three-party logjam to start the campaign was first broken when the NDP started to rise in the polls. At that point, the Liberals joined the Conservatives in a blizzard of attacks designed to pull the NDP back to the pack — while the NDP did relatively little to try to press its initial advantage, with election day still months in the future.
When the parties returned to a tie in the polls, however, the reversion to the campaign’s starting point was painted as meaning that the NDP had lost momentum compared to its previous heights. And the Liberals relentlessly trumpeted that narrative in telling voters to abandon the NDP in the name of voting strategically — even (if not even more strongly) in ridings where the Conservatives had no realistic chance of victory.
The end result was that the Liberals chipped away at the NDP’s support and swept to a majority government.
Meanwhile, the NDP saw many of its incumbents and star candidates caught up in the red tide as its reward for focusing more on the need for change.
To be clear, neither party’s campaign was free of some challenges to the other. But the decisive factor may have been the NDP’s reluctance to use a temporary advantage as a basis to try to squeeze the Liberals out of the picture — in contrast to the Liberals’ ruthless willingness and ability to do just that in return.
The good news for the millions of Canadians who wanted change is that there was enough co-operation on all sides to achieve the shared goal of removing Stephen Harper from power.
But now, all parties will face the question of what they’ll do with the new-found freedom from Harper’s rule.
We’ll find out soon whether the Liberals’ promise of change is all it’s cracked up to be.