Largely unnoticed on this side of the pond, Canada has just been the subject of one of the most surprising election results the western world has seen for a while. The Tories finally broke through with 167 seats, 12 over the 155 required for an overall majority. The night truly belongs to them. Though an overall Tory majority is not the greatest surprise, given several years of minority rule and a weak opposition, the real shock has come from the left in Canada’s fourth general election in seven years.
Jack Layton, the New Democratic Party (NDP) leader who is recovering from a broken hip and a recent skirmish with cancer, has taken them from fourth party in parliament with 37 seats through to being the official opposition with 102, only 65 behind the Tories.
On his way, he has all but wiped out the Bloc Quebecois, who lost 45 of their 49 seats to the NDP, and watched the Liberals, a party which has dominated Canadian politics for much of Canada’s history, lose over half their seats to collapse to just 34.
This is even more worrying when you consider that in 2000 they were in government with 172. Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader, even lost his own seat.
Many in Canada will hail this result as a fundamental redrawing of the political landscape. The Tories (Conservative Party of Canada), now with an overall majority for the first time, will feel liberated after years of frustrating, minority government.
They will also feel somewhat vindicated by the Canadian public. Many labelled prime minister Stephen Harper as undemocratic and even “almost despotic” after twice in two years submitting requests, granted by the governor general, to shut down parliament. In doing so he likely avoided a no-confidence motion and a tricky investigation into Afghan detainees.
The Liberal collapse may be a watershed moment for the NDP. What will be more influential however is how Jack Layton proceeds from here. He may well reshape Canadian politics for decades. With a right-wing government, combative union backers and a parliamentary party made up of rookies he has many reasons to push left and hard.
Despite this, he should go for the centre ground. Canada often defines itself by its free healthcare and welfare programmes that contrast with their more prominent neighbours to the south. However, they remain a nation of liberal-minded centrists with a strong entrepreneurial streak. Layton should go for the middle ground whilst playing on left-of-centre themes that are also strong symbols of Canadian identity such as free healthcare.
If he plays his cards right Jack Layton could establish the NDP as a real opposition and likely next government of a country with the world’s second largest oil reserves. With a liberal resurgence looking unlikely, Layton getting it wrong could lead to the Tories being dominant for many years.