A second read of Paul Wells’ election post-mortem singles out this detail of interest: all but re-elected in his institutionally-Liberal Toronto Centre riding, the mission of Today’s Bob Rae was to travel the country, presumably on the Liberal central campaign’s dime “to swing some NDP votes back to the Liberals.”
It would be both fair and exceedingly polite to describe Mr. Rae’s mission as a failure. Rather than depressing NDP numbers, the effect of Rae’s campaigning as a Liberal - or perhaps just his not having been a New Democrat - for the first federal election since his disastrous term as Ontario premier, revitalized his former party.
Born of the 2004 election, but carried faithfully ever since, Liberals from the party leadership all the way down to phone canvassers are wedded to the notion that voters who support Jack Layton are doing so solely out of some misplaced dissatisfaction with the Liberals. Like an angered lover, these voters can be wooed back with flowers, and a capable suitor promising to change.
But the NDP-held ridings Rae visited like Halifax all stayed comfortably with Jack Layton. And of the seats he visited in the Liberal desert of the west, like Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar and Burnaby-Douglas, Rae’s mission was to deny the NDP seats the seats it was targeting by handing them to the Conservatives, a perverse feat he accomplished in Saskatoon.
But where the Liberal strategy failed most interestingly is in Ontario.
New Democrats have been on a long climb back from the wreckage the party was left in after Rae’s four years as premier. It was impossible to be a New Democrat in Ontario without being admonished of the Rae government. More than Grant Devine Tories in Saskatchewan, or Glen Clark in BC, or Sponsorship Liberals in Quebec, Bob Rae weighed on the party like lead.
But after dogging the federal party through an incredible five federal elections in the province of Ontario, the hangover from Bob Rae finally broke in this election. Jack Layton’s NDP not only won as many Ontario seats as Ed Broadbent, he surpassed the 1984 highwater mark of 14 by winning more Ontario NDP MPs than ever before: 17 in total.
Futher evidence of the full-recovery of the New Democrats in Ontario are the results in Northern Ontario. If it could be said that any part of the province retained a nostalgia for the Rae years it was here. Yet the Layton New Democrats all but swept the region, keeping Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins and adding long-held Liberal seats like Sudbury, Algoma and the two Thunder Bay ridings.
Among the problems with the Liberals’ anti-NDP strategy were these two: first the false presumption that people who were in Jack Layton’s column were “dying to vote Liberal” and second that New Democrat supporters would be open to an opportunistic appeal from an opportunistic politician whose “curse” had dogged their party for over a decade.
Meanwhile, outside of the GTA, the Liberals won only two Ontario seats. The “curse,” it would appear, has found a new host.