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NDP nice - but boring
Straight Goods, March 26, 2006
No breakthroughs, no spirited public debates, the appearance of dynamism rather than real dynamism. What did the NDP achieve?
Jack Layton is such a likeable and energetic guy. During the recent election campaign I just wanted to cheer him on with all the gusto in my heart. A shout of “Go Jack, go!” by itself could make me feel good. There were moments, too, particularly when Jack was embracing or standing with his wife, Olivia Chow, that had a touch of Camelot to them – Camelot on the Danforth.

The NDP, moreover, increased the number of seats it held in the House of Commons, from the 19 it won in the previous election to 29. People talked about how well the NDP did, maybe not with a buzz of excitement – all the excitement or dread was about Harper coming out on top – but at least with conviction.

Why am I, then, a longtime supporter of the cause – a lifetime supporter of the cause! – shrugging my shoulders?

Well, for a start, the NDP’s popular vote hardly increased at all, from 15.7 per cent in 2004 to just 17.49 per cent, although the party had an extraordinary political window at hand, what with the fallout from the Gomery Commission and then Martin’s and the Liberals’ campaign ineptness. At one juncture, early in January, the Liberals seemed to be in free fall. Jack was also much better known this time, and the media treated him with gentleness. This didn’t make much difference.

The NDP’s popular vote in BC and Ontario, where they managed the extra seats, followed the same general pattern, increasing by only one or two points. Saskatchewan was a washout, embarrassingly so – a big fat goose egg in seats just like 2004, in what was once the CCF-NDP heartland. In Quebec, the party remained just a shadow. Meanwhile, the Liberals fared much better than anyone expected in the circumstances.

This was supposed to have been the “breakthrough campaign” for the NDP. That’s how it was touted internally. If only hyperbole and Jack’s enthusiasm could make it so.

Still, that’s not what left me shrugging. I can take disappointing election results. What got to me was that behind the NDP’s tactical manoeuvring and multi-million dollar budget, Jack and the campaign didn’t do anything in the only sense that matters – shifting the country’s political culture from its right-wing drift. I kept wanting Jack to say something, anything, that would get a real debate going about our society and the future – that would deliver us from a mish-mash of promises by each party that drowned us all in detail – that would provide context and help Canadians look at themselves and their politics in a different way. It was worse than waiting for Godot. It was as if the NDP weren’t campaigning at all, just going through the motions. Indeed, that’s exactly what the NDP was doing - going through the tactical motions, with Jack acting the political technician and turning the party into a sagging bag of boredom.

The NDP was boring, quite without inspiration. Now, boring is all right if you’re a default party like the Liberals – and, in places like Alberta, the Conservatives - that everyone votes for if there’s nothing grabbing their attention or they can’t be bothered thinking. For a minority party, however, it’s perdition.

Worse, it means surrendering control of the political culture to the other side.

The epitome of boredom was Jack’s repeating mechanically “seniors, young people, working families,” or a variant, in one of the leadership debates. I squirmed because, while I’m all in favour of seniors, young people, and working families, the message was pedestrian and flat, and Jack’s repeating it like a wind-up doll was so contrived. We all can guess at the reason for it. Polling probably showed that the NDP or its policies generated a positive response in those categories or to that language, at least in their targeted voting pool, and the apparatchiks managing the campaign, being apparatchiks, both seized on that and dumbed down the delivery of the corresponding message. You can’t really say, though, that they made Jack do it, since Jack is the boss. He did it to himself.

Why? Maybe he’s just a miscast municipal politician. More likely it’s because of a conceit that, by force of personality and enthusiasm and with a few more members in the House, he can leverage better elections results. At least, that’s what he talks about. To the public, in the campaign, he stressed how his small caucus had made a difference and, with added numbers, would make a bigger difference. Internally he sees adding members to the caucus as a way of creating larger presence and, the assumption goes, a further advance the next time around. The tactical premise, and it’s an apparatchik’s premise, is to carefully study the entrails dug up by the pollsters and, focusing on those entrails, finesse election campaigns. The possibility of taking advantage of an election campaign and its relatively level playing field to engage the Canadian public in debate – to use a campaign not just to solicit votes but also to shift political perspective – is excluded.

The tactical premise, in other words, is passiveness and caution, albeit with a dynamic face – the appearance of dynamism rather than real dynamism.

There are just a few problems with this. Following that path, you end up adapting to where majority public opinion happens to be rather than challenging the public to think differently, to the point where, if you did by chance get into power, your freedom of action would be drastically limited.

Even in its own misconceived terms, the tactic isn’t likely to work. We already have a case history of how it plays out, with Ed Broadbent in the 1980s. As Ed became more and more popular, and the possibility of a breakthrough seemed at hand, he also became increasingly cautious. The party pollster and the apparatchiks became ever more important in this scheme of things. However, right-wing economic ideology was on the ascendant, and the caution meant that no political party in the country was challenging it, giving that ideology an open field. In the end, the NDP, rather than becoming government or even opposition, was marginalized by the ideological push to the right.

It’s true that in Broadbent’s last election battle, 1988, the party won 43 seats, but only because the campaigns in Saskatchewan and British Columbia abandoned his original strategy, which was swayed by polling, and focused on fighting the Free Trade Agreement instead. The impressive 1988 result in seat count, together with the Sturm und Drang of the FTA debate, overshadowed what was really happening to political and economic perspective in the country at the time and hid the deep flaw in Broadbent’s approach.

The similar approach, this time with Jack Layton, didn’t work in 2006, either. The NDP is still in third place federally and a distant fourth in the number of seats, and the two largest parties are still the right-wing parties, with the Liberals in practice almost as right-wing as the Conservatives.

Jack’s energy and likeability only mask how routinized and lacking in courage the NDP has become. Meanwhile, notwithstanding Stephen Harper’s cosmetic makeover, the political culture of the country has moved incrementally even further to the right.

What else can you do but shrug?

Go to Part 2 - The will to challenge power is missing

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