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Why a leftward tilt is hobbling Michael Ignatieff

Conflicting polls mask an emerging truth: As all parties contemplate a possible spring election, the numbers show the Liberal Party under Michael Ignatieff successfully draining support from the New Democratic and Green parties, just as it hoped to do.

But it is paying a price, as John Manley Liberals defect to the Conservatives, increasing the chances that a spring election would return Stephen Harper as prime minister with a strengthened minority, or possibly even a majority, government.

Pollsters are accusing each other of shoddy methodology and other evils, as companies such as Ipsos Reid and Harris Decima come up with differing assessments of the level of support for the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP federally.

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But there is something we can learn from these polls. Taken as a bunch, they reveal that Conservative support has increased in recent months, Liberal support hasn't gone down or up very much, and support for the NDP is declining.

Why is that happening? Here's one possible explanation:

The Liberals accept that core Conservative support of something like one-in-three voters is rock solid, so if the Liberal vote is to grow it must come from convincing soft New Democrat and Green voters that only Michael Ignatieff can prevent Stephen Harper from remaining prime minister.

Accordingly, Mr. Ignatieff has shifted his party to the left. The Liberals oppose Conservative plans to purchase the F-35 stealth fighter. They would reverse the Conservatives' most recent cuts to corporate taxes. They oppose the Tory crime agenda. A Liberal government would invest in home care, child care and other social programs.

This shift is working. Most polls suggest that the NDP's support has declined since the last election from the high teens to the mid-to-low teens.

Except it is the Conservative, not the Liberal, numbers that are going up. Could some voters be leapfrogging from the NDP straight into the arms of the Conservatives? No. Something else is happening.

Jean Chrétien's Liberal government began the process that led to the choice of the F-35 as the next generation of fighter jet. Paul Martin, as Liberal finance minister, launched the program of gradually reducing the corporate tax rate.

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There are a great many voters who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative. In the past, they have supported the Liberal Party, in part because it won elections and in part because these voters distrusted the strain of social intolerance they detected within the Progressive Conservative/Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservative parties.

We could call these people Manley Liberals, in honour of John Manley, the former Chrétien cabinet minister who is currently the head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

Many Manley Liberals will have noted that the Liberal Party no longer wins elections, and that it reversing many of its own former policies.

As it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Harper is keeping whatever socially conservative tendencies he might have in check, the temptation for Manley Liberals to switch to the Conservatives grows.

In sum, what we have seen in recent months is the drain of some support from the NDP and Greens to the Liberals, but an even larger drain of Manley Liberals to the Conservatives.

Unless the Liberals can reverse that drain, the outcome of the next election will not be what they're hoping for.

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Which prompts a parting question. If you're an NDP MP in a rural riding where your support for the gun registry has you in Conservative crosshairs, or you're a Liberal MP in a suburban Toronto or Vancouver riding facing a massive Conservative campaign to unseat you, why would you agree to bring down the government over the budget?

Why wouldn't you tell your leader and caucus mates in no uncertain terms that with the polls showing the Conservatives as the only party that is gaining ground, it would be suicide to force a vote now? Why wouldn't you let the budget pass, and live to fight another year?

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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