Uniting Canada's left-of-centre political parties has leapt from being a suitable subject for idle chat over cups of fair-trade coffee to a matter for serious discussion by a pillar of the NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY. Lorne CALVERT, Saskatchewan's NDP premier, a guarded politician hardly given to rash speculation, sketched the case for bringing New Democrats and Liberals together in a wide-ranging conversation with Maclean's editors and writers. Asked about the strength of the NDP brand nationally, Calvert volunteered that Canadian politics might be evolving toward something closer to the two-party U.S. model. "If that is the case, where is the natural party to bring together the centre and left-of-centre?" he said. "I think an argument certainly can be made that the New Democrats may be the natural place for that coalescing to happen."

Calvert did not propose formal steps for bringing together New Democrats and Liberals under a single banner. "I don't know if I'm here to propose merger," he said. Still, he noted that the uniting of the right, when Stephen HARPER orchestrated the marriage of the old Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties, changed Canadian politics. And the premier made the case that the NDP need not be viewed as a junior partner in any future move to join forces with the Liberals. He praised Jack LAYTON, the party's federal leader, for broadening the NDP's base. "So there may be an opportunity," Calvert said, "for the New Democratic Party to capture some of that which is left-of-centre and build on it."

That upbeat appraisal of the NDP's stature in a possible realignment on the left will strike most Liberals as eccentric. Recent polls show the federal NDP far behind. A Léger Marketing poll conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 4 gave the Tories 38 per cent support nationally, the Liberals 31 per cent and the NDP 14 per cent. As well, the NDP's claim to being a mainstream voice of the centre-left has been challenged in recent years by significant defections. Former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae joined the LIBERAL PARTY to run in its leadership race last year, calling for "progressives" to unite by voting Liberal, and denouncing the NDP for ascribing to a simplistic "private sector is bad, public sector is good" instinct. Although Rae lost, Stéphane DION, the new Liberal leader, is widely thought to have considerable appeal with left-leaning voters, especially with his emphasis on environmental policy.

Calvert's comments come as a new book by a former top NDP strategist is stirring up debate among the party faithful about its future. Jamey Heath left Layton's staff after last year's election to write Dead Centre: Hope, Possibility, and Unity for Canadian Progressives. But the unity his subtitle holds out hope for wouldn't come under what he calls the "corroded, directionless hulk of the Liberal party." He argues the Liberals have not only abandoned core convictions, they've lost their key electoral bastion - failing to win a majority of Quebec seats in any election since 1980. His conclusion is that the NDP is better positioned to form the core of a left-of-centre coalition.

Liberals won't be buying that, of course. But the key thing about Heath's book, and Calvert's comments, is not their point about who should lead a uniting of the left. It's the fact that they see it coming. "These are interesting times," Calvert said, "to be a federal New Democrat." Or a Liberal, or even a Green, if the feeling that they need to find a way to unite continues to spread.

Maclean's February 26, 2007