Progressives united, but who gets their vote?

Tim Harper / Toronto Star

The good news for the body politic in this country is that it is now flying on two wings.

The left side of the political brain has caught up to the right of the political brain and it only took a couple of years.

But realpolitik hovered as workers, thinkers and activists of the left gathered here on the weekend at the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit.

It had been only a couple of weeks since a group of workers, thinkers and activists on the right gathered under the older, better established Manning Centre. When they went home, there was no doubt for whom they will work and for whom they will mark their ballots in the autumn.

When this energized group from the left departed Ottawa, they were still looking at a progressive split when votes are cast this year.

The more than 800 (almost all white) activists who attended were primarily New Democrats, as one would expect of an institute which carries the name of NDP icon Ed Broadbent, who, along with current leader Tom Mulcair, addressed the summit.

Their numbers, however, included left-leaning Liberals, Greens and those “not tethered to any political party,’’ said Broadbent executive director Rick Smith.

“The left can often be fractious,’’ he said, “but here people check their weapons at the door.’’

This institute was not even born when voters last went to the polls, but it has already likely outgrown its modest summit site at a downtown Ottawa hotel.

Sponsorship of the summit was heavy on unions, but also included Loblaw, Rogers, CN, Air Canada, WestJet and Telus.

Its news service, Press Progress, built on The Progress Report model from the successful U.S. Centre for American Progress, is gaining readership and credibility.

There is no reason activists from the progressive centre-left shouldn’t be able to fill a hockey arena. If they are defined as NDP, Green and Liberal voters, they represent the majority of Canadians and this is where this progressive party takes on a late-winter pallor.

They may have checked their weapons at the door, but in British Columbia, Greens are poised to take votes away from New Democrats, in Quebec there will be a spirited battle between Liberals and New Democrats and more NDP strength in Ontario could end up electing Conservatives.

Delegates heard from Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, who told them that labour rights, social justice and economic justice cannot be isolated.

“That’s why labour must lead the progressive fight,’’ he told them.

That’s fine, except in a country in which the Conservatives have often targeted unions and try to tar the NDP as being beholden to “big union bosses,’’ almost one in three unionized workers in this country favoured the Liberals and 26 per cent backed the Conservatives, according to an EKOS Research poll this month. Only 23 per cent would vote NDP.

This poll is no outlier.

Trumka is also the embodiment of the push and pull in the progressive movement, a strong unionist who ultimately had to back construction of the Keystone pipeline.

The summit also released an extensive study by David McGrane of the University of Saskatchewan that showed voters under 35 are more progressive and left-leaning than older voters, seeking government that would create jobs, spend more to protect the environment, increase corporate tax cuts and resist tax cuts of their own if it hurt public services.

That would be encouraging if they actually voted. The 18-34 age group is the least likely to vote. Had their support for Jack Layton actually translated into votes in 2011, Canada could have made history.

If there was one message coming from the weekend, it was that the so-called progressives have to dial down their incessant attacks on Stephen Harper, punch through a barrier and start talking more about the government and the country they want.

Conservative Tim Powers, vice-chair of Summa Strategies, told them their overreach in attacking the prime minister was their biggest downfall, and Anna Greenberg, a well-known Washington pollster, suggested using “positive, forward-looking’ language rather than trashing the government of the day as a better way to get their message to the people.

Doubtless, they left here buoyed and ready for the good fight, but perhaps they should ignore a poll by EKOS released as they were meeting.

It shows a bit of a surge for Mulcair’s New Democrats and a sag for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, putting the two parties only five points apart — or as Conservatives like to call it, the perfect split for re-election.