During the pre-election debates, I cringed whenever NDP leader Jack Layton took pains to distinguish himself from the Bloc. It was an approach destined to ensure this week's predictable NDP shutout in Quebec.
What was the point, I wondered, of Layton's continued insistence that Gilles Duceppe's party is separatist while his is federalist?
Instead of drawing a line in the sand, it would have been much smarter for Layton to emphasize what his party has in common with the Bloc: its social policies, the source of much of the Bloc's appeal.
Quebecers are by most accounts the most socially and economically progressive citizens in Canada. They should be flocking to the NDP, but they aren't. And the reason is a combination of ideological blindness, English privilege and bad strategy.
The truth is that the major social division in Quebec is not between separatists and federalists, but between a business class that is primarily federalist and fiscally conservative and the rest of the province.
This latter sector is mixed on the issue of sovereignty but includes a large number of people who feel increasingly alienated and disempowered by the rightward policy drift of distan governing elites.
The most powerful bloc of federalists in Quebec vote Liberal or Conservative not because they are federalists, but because they want a strong federalist government with policies they consider business-friendly.
The NDP is not going to find many supporters among this group, and yet, quite futilely, it is primarily this group the party has targeted.
While a great many Quebecers outside of the political and business class might like the NDP's social policies, the party, by positioning itself under Layton as Liberal-lite, winds up alienating this group by promoting the same concept of centralized government Quebecers feel marginalized by.
The NDP needs to realize that its real rivals in Quebec are not the Liberals or the Conservatives, but the Bloc Quebecois. Besides its social democratic bent, the Bloc also focuses on local in this case provincial concerns.
What the Bloc's rhetoric of provincial autonomy speaks to is not so much ethnic nationalism (though it's true that this has been a dark underside of the separatist movement), but the desire among Quebecers to feel part of the decision-making process.
In staying with its old message of strong centralized government, the NDP has allowed the Conservatives to capitalize on ordinary people's sense of separation (excuse the word) from the political process by proposing its own solutions for their empowerment.
Most Quebecers don't care whether their politicians are from Quebec. They'd be happy with politicians who understand Quebec.
Wanting more local control is not necessarily the same thing as being separatist, though one might feed the other. Until the NDP realizes this, it will continue to be a non-presence in Quebec.
Jason Kunin spent the first 23 years of his life in Quebec and has campaigned several times for the NDP.