Thinking Outside the Left-Right Spectrum: The 2015 Canadian Election Highlighted the Different Ways that Parties can be Left Wing

The results of the 2015 election where a surprise too many. At the outset of the election some questioned the continued relevance of the Liberals. The logic went that the Liberals, as a centrist party, would continue to get squeezed in the middle of the political spectrum by a Conservative party that had moderated over the 2000s and an NDP that was rapidly becoming a centre-left party. Instead the Liberals performed a dramatic escape act. While shifting to the centre-left of the political spectrum they simultaneously developed a unique platform that set them apart from the NDP. Throughout the campaign Justin Trudeau was able to draw distinctions between his party and the NDP on issues including middle class tax cuts and deficit spending. The 2015 election highlighted the complexity of the political spectrum. It showed that there are multiple policy options on the centre-left of the political spectrum, and that the distinctions between types of left policies have important implications for the voters that parties appeal to.

There was, throughout the election, a problematic characterization of the NDP as to the right of the Liberal party. Much of this was the result of the NDP’s promise of balanced budgets. Such a characterization missed the extent to which the NDP was the only party that promised significant welfare state expansion. Between the party’s commitment to $15 a day daycare and a government pharmacare program, the NDP committed to what would have been the largest expansion of the welfare state since the Pearson government. The party added to that by promising to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Though the Liberal party was right to point out that this would have only affected a limited number of workers, it is the best a federal party can do given the control that provinces have over labour regulations such as the minimum wage. It is problematic to promise to fund long-term welfare state expansion by deficit spending. These are programs that are expected to last beyond economic downturns and therefore which must be funded by sustainable sources of government revenue. Deficit spending cannot provide that because deficit spending is only sustainable as a response to short-term economic downturns. The balanced budget commitment the NDP was a product of their commitment to long-term welfare state expansion, not a sign that the party moved towards the right of the Liberals.

The Liberal platform was different from the NDP’s in a couple of important ways. Like the NDP, the Liberals promised wealth redistribution but they did not promise to redistribute wealth by expanding the welfare state. Rather they committed to changes in the tax code that would increase taxes on the wealthy while decreasing taxes on the middle class. To the extent that the Liberals promised to increase government spending, it was to fund investments in infrastructure that would need a great deal of up front investment, but which would not require sustained long-term government spending. Because the Liberal expansions in government spending were largely designed to be one-time commitments, they could be funded through deficit spending.

The different commitments of the NDP and Liberals benefit different sets of voters. The NDP’s expansion of the welfare state is most beneficial to low-income voters. These are the individuals who are most likely to have difficulty paying for prescription drugs or finding affordable daycare. On top of this, low income voters benefit less from middle class tax cuts because they already pay less than in taxes than many in the middle class. Liberal commitments, by contrast, offer greater benefits to the middle class than to low income voters. The lack of a commitment to welfare state expansion by the Liberals is less problematic for voters with higher incomes because they are likely to be able to afford some of the costs of day care and prescription drugs or have workplace benefits packages that help to pay for those programs (this is not to say that there are not many middle income voters that would benefit from affordable daycare or a national pharmacare program, just that they benefit less than low income voters). The Liberal tax cuts also benefit middle income voters more than low income voters from the Liberals’ middle class tax cuts because they have a larger amount of income in the middle tax brackets in which the Liberals are cutting rates (for more on this check out this article). The differences between the NDP and Liberals are thus important because of the extent to which they benefit different sets of voters.

These differences have two important implications for future elections. The first lies in the problems it creates for strategic voters. The differences in policy between the two parties mean that it is important not to consider the Liberals and NDP as interchangeable. For voters sympathetic to the NDP, voting Liberal to keep the Conservatives out of power may offer some protection against welfare state cuts, but it cannot lead to the kinds of welfare state expansion and low income support that the New Democrats offer. For voters sympathetic to the Liberals, the desire to see the benefits of wealth redistribution spread more evenly across middle and low income voters may make the Liberals a much more attractive option when compared to the NDP. This does not mean that voters should never strategic vote, the Conservatives are likely a worse option than either progressive party to most progressive voters, but it does mean that the two parties should not be seen as equally preferable options. Voters on the left should be carefully considering the types of left wing policies they want to see and thinking about which of the NDP and Liberals best reflects their interests and values. Voters should be carefully weighing the costs of strategic voting against the costs of ending up with a set of policies that might be left-wing but which do not fully reflect their interests of values.

The second implication of the differences between the Liberals and the NDP is that competition on the left of the political spectrum may indeed be sustainable. The 2015 election may point to a clear voting base for each party. For the Liberals this base is likely to be middle income voters who stand to benefit largely from government wealth redistribution through an increasingly progressive tax code. For the NDP that base is likely to be low income voters who benefit more from the expansion of the welfare than from middle class tax cuts. The need for the NDP to hold on to continue to offer programs that reflect the interests of their base is likely to limit the extent to which they can co-opt Liberal policies. The NDP can move to the centre by moderating their demands for welfare state expansion (and they can make that expansion universal so as to benefit middle class voters), but they cannot co-opt the same types of middle class targeted policies the Liberals did in 2015 without alienating their base. In contrast, the Liberals can use the kinds of policies they committed to in 2015 to ensure they are always more popular than the NDP amongst a certain set of middle income voters. When this base of support is enough to put them past the NDP in the polls, the Liberals can additionally benefit from strategic voting by progressive voters scared of Conservative governments, as was the case in 2015.

In many ways the 2015 election was a competition between two progressive parties, the Liberals and the NDP, to replace the Conservative government. The competition between those two parties was not just about partisan difference, it spoke to the different ideologies and policies that are favoured by each party and their supporters. The differences between the two were very real and important. The distinctions between the NDP and the Liberals in 2015 also expose the problems with conceptualizing elections purely as a competition between the left and the right and of trying to distinguish between parties as being more or less left-wing. There are different kinds of left wing policy that have different implications for different groups of voters. The distinctions between the Liberals and NDP in the 2015 election may well indicate the kinds of policy divides that will distinguish the two parties from each other well into the future.