TORONTO, ONTARIO - A recent Angus-Reid survey on the Federal political parties in Canada has gotten relatively little attention. The headline result is hardly surprising--the Conservatives continue to hold a party-preference lead with 35%, with the Liberals trailing at 27%, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) at 19%. What's interesting, though, is that they also looked at what would happen if the latter two left-of-center parties merged (the New Liberals?)--and the results are not necessarily what one would expect, and very dependent on the leader of that new party.
On the surface, one might think that a Liberal-NDP merger would simply combine their support to create a solid 46% preference, well ahead of the Conservatives even if some modest defections from the combined party from purists took place. That isn't what would happen at all, according to the survey. If current Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff were to head the party, it would only poll at 34%, with the Conservatives up to 40%. That might sound like centrists amongst the Liberals abandoning the new party because of its history with the NDP, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
If current NDP leader Jack Layton led the new party, it would actually be ahead in the polls at 43%, leading the Conservatives at 37%, not that far from the simple combination prediction. Furthermore, the combined party is strong in much of the country in this scenario, including a 10-point lead over the Bloc in Quebec. One could make the case that this is the baseline for Liberal-leaning voters that could not stand the influence of the NDP--marking that group as only something like 2-3% of voters.
So what's going on with the Ignatieff-as-leader numbers? It's not having NDP defections because a Liberal would be leading the combined party. With Liberal Bob Rae as leader of the new party, there's a 38% tie between the new party and the Conservatives. Considering that Bob Rae has significant baggage in Ontario as a result of his time as premier and is hardly a "generic Liberal," this implies that the generic NDP defections would be less than 8% (and one would not expect them, for ideological reasons, to run to the Conservatives).
It pretty much has to come down to individual leadership. Whether because of Conservative advertising or his own actions, Ignatieff is not positively viewed by the electorate, and that clearly matters to voters more than the ideology of the party that he leads. On the other hand, Layton is apparently viewed quite positively (at least by those leaning left). I've long held that political leadership is important, and this poll seems to demonstrate that quite strongly.
While a Liberal-NDP merger or even formal coalition is far from likely at this stage, the Conservatives have to be taking note of this poll. I could imagine that we might start seeing some negative advertising directed at Jack Layton. This would be a dangerous game--Layton has publicly spoke about his ongoing battle with prostate cancer and any negative advertising would be seen as picking on a physically weakened man who is widely expected to only lead his party for one more election.
A far more interesting topic may not be who would lead a combined Liberal-NDP alliance if it formed tomorrow, but who would lead it in the future after Ignatieff, Layton, and the other current players move on. Could it be Liberal Ken Dryden? The NDP's Thomas Mulcair? There will be a search for leadership in Canada, whether for the Liberals and NDP individually or as one, as well as for a new Conservative leader someday. The country will only benefit if competent and effective leaders emerge.