There is a random element of luck when it comes to party leadership. The NDP were fortunate to find Layton, but his rivals in that contest were much weaker. In 2006 all the Liberal contenders had significant drawbacks. Many Liberals now think Bob Rae would be their best option; he does have the strongest skills as a performer among the potential alternatives in the Liberal caucus. However, the same Bob Rae demonstrated bad political judgment as Ontario Premier in the early nineties, not a good predictor of success in the 21st century.
The Liberals may find a way out of their current doldrums and a leadership change might serve as catalyst. However, the Liberal party is in crisis and it is possible that this will present an opportunity for the NDP to break out of the confines of third place. The Liberals need to identify their areas of strategic and demographic weakness and do something about them, but there is no evidence of that happening. So it is fair to describe the Liberal Party as being in a multi-dimensional crisis.
The current political context gives the appearance of being the opposite of the nineties, disunity on the centre left in contrast to Conservative rule. But the mere fact that this reversal has happened should make us cognizant of the possibility that things could reverse themselves again. Can the Conservatives make a transition to a new leader and maintain their unity when the time comes? What does the future hold for the Greens, who do not yet have a real foothold in Canadian politics despite rising environmental consciousness? My impression is that the unpopularity of some provincial regimes, for example in B.C., is causing damage to federal counterparts. In the particular case of B.C. it is to both Liberals and Conservatives because of the peculiar character of Gordon Campbell’s regime.
A merger between the NDP and the Liberals would probably be impossible to bring off in current circumstances. The two parties have long and independent histories that would almost certainly preclude it. It is also likely that a new left wing party would be created at the time of the merger. Perhaps many New Democrats would move to the Greens and make an effort to move it to the left.
When the British Labour Party split in the early eighties and four prominent Labourites left to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the new party recognized before the next election that to survive they had to develop an alliance with the Liberals who, as a struggling third party, were receptive. The new SDP-Liberal Alliance fought a couple of elections as a tactical alliance and then decided in 1987 to merge. However, as this brief history of the UK Liberal Democrats notes:
The winter of 1987-88 saw a lengthy period of tortuous negotiations between the two parties. The new party's constitution and even its name were the subjects of intense discussion, as was the question of whether an initial policy statement was needed and, if so, what it should say.
Those who see merger as an easy, almost mechanical path to ousting Harper I think are mistaken. In most cases governments defeat themselves, and the disaffected public turns to the most obvious alternative. It is currently the Liberal Party, but the NDP is not so far behind and has a broad enough support base that they might be able to make that leap from third to first.
While one can detect many signs of Liberal decline, it is not clear that the party’s fate is certain to become decline and fall. Politics is about possibilities; the Liberal crisis has created possibilities that could break open the status quo in Canadian politics. However, the complexities of politics, and the growing uncertainties facing the Canadian and world economies, make the future path of Canadian politics opaque.