Sunday, November 1, 2015

As Liberals and Conservatives look for success, Mulcair NDP embraces failure

By Fraser Needham

The NDP has become a very funny organization these days.

And by this I mean funny “strange” and not funny “ha ha.”

The NDP is one of the three main federal political parties in Canada. The other two, of course, are the Liberals and Conservatives.

The Liberals and Conservative are parties built to win elections. This is what they do. And, it sort of makes sense, as the whole idea of a political party is to win government so you can enact policy.

Leaders and their inner circles of these two parties must be seen as moving forward in order to keep their jobs. The leader and his team must be increasing their seat totals, share of popular vote and winning government within short time frames in order to maintain employment.

Anything less is seen as a failure and will not be tolerated by members and key stakeholders within both parties. It is simple as that.

Agree or disagree with him, by all accounts Stephen Harper was a pretty successful party leader until he lost the federal election earlier this month.

He united the right movement and formed the Conservative Party of Canada based on his own neoconservative values. Over the course of four federal elections as Conservative Party leader, he improved the party’s standing in each one. This includes winning two minority governments and one majority.

However, when Harper led the Conservative Party to defeat in the October 19 election, there was no debating that he would have to step down. The loss was a failure and Harper and his inner circle had to wear it.

Even amongst the former prime minister’s most ardent supporters, there was no question Stephen Harper had to resign and the Conservatives need to reassess and change gears if they are to be successful again. Closing in on just two weeks after the election loss, the party is already busy making plans to appoint an interim leader, plan for a leadership convention and is seriously looking at why they lost the election and what can be done to win back government.

The Liberals deal with the leadership issue in a very similar fashion to the Conservatives. If a leader and their inner circle fail, they are summarily punished without question.

After close to ten years of maneuvering for the Liberal top job, Paul Martin ended up being a bit of a bust when he finally became party leader. Martin was on thin ice when he only managed to win a minority government in the 2004 election and his gig was up when he was defeated by the Conservatives in 2006.

Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff both failed miserably as Liberal leaders and were promptly shown the door and now Justin Trudeau has managed to do what no party leader has been able to do for decades. He has fully united the party behind him and remade the Liberals into a truly national party once again.

For the first time in over thirty years, the party won the most seats in Quebec. The Liberals also won all the seats in Atlantic Canada and the most seats in Ontario, Manitoba and B.C. They even won four seats in Alberta. Trudeau took the Liberals from third place in the polls and number of seats when the election campaign began in August and finished with a convincing majority government by the time the election rolled around in late October. Based on his recent string of successes, it appears Trudeau will be around as Liberal leader for some time yet.

And then we have the good old NDP where success and failure are measured in totally different ways.

In terms of a long-term political project, the Federal NDP has been a total failure by most objective measures. When the NDP was originally formed in 1961 with the merger of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress, the goal was to create a working class, labour-oriented political party based on the British Labour Party.

However, more than a half-century later, this goal has never come to fruition. Historically, neither working class people nor unionized labour have ever voted for the NDP in majority numbers. And, as the party continues to drift right and try to dissociate itself from any connection to organized labour, it appears this goal will likely now never be realized. As NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair reminded us countless times in the last election campaign, the NDP is now a party of the middle class.

In pure electoral terms, the Federal NDP has also been a dismal failure. It has never come close to forming government and it took until 2011 -- 50 years after the party was formed -- to reach the status of Official Opposition.

In terms of policy, the NDP also has not had much success on the federal level either. Its predecessor, the CCF, was much more successful in influencing Liberal governments in the 1940’s and 1950’s in terms of social welfare reforms such as unemployment insurance, the Canada pension plan, old age security, formal recognition of trade unions and trade union rights and government funding for post-secondary education to name a few.

The NDP has never been as successful in this way. Perhaps the last great policy idea to come out of the NDP that had major influence on a national level is publicly funded Medicare and this policy was introduced on a federal basis a half century ago.

The last time the NDP had real influence on a federal government was under David Lewis over Pierre Trudeau’s minority Liberal government from 1972-74. However, since then, the NDP has remained a distant third party with almost no effect on either Liberal or Conservative governments.

It was believed in the 1988 free trade election that the NDP had a very decent shot at replacing the Liberals as Official Opposition or perhaps even forming government. The party again fell short in this historic election finishing third although gaining the most seats it has ever won up to this point in its history.

The 1990’s and early part of the millennium were very dark years for the NDP. The NDP was almost completely obliterated as a party in the 1993 election and fared little better in the 1997 and 2000 elections.

However, it is important to note the NDP maintained a loyal and committed membership and voting bloc in spite a number of electoral setbacks in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This is likely for a couple of reasons. While both the Conservatives and Liberals proceeded to endorse free market neoliberalism without question, the NDP held back, instead defending the social welfare state for its own merits and refusing to fall into the trap of arguing in favour of tax cuts as a means of stimulating the economy.

The party was willing to take principled stands on economic issues and this is why the NDP was still referred to as the “social conscience of Parliament.”

Around 2006, though, the party started to drift right. At the same time, the party began to see electoral success under late leader Jack Layton culminating in the big electoral breakthrough and forming Official Opposition in 2011.

Were those leading the party wise -- which they are not -- they would have realized the NDP’s success was largely due to an unprecedented period of Liberal dysfunction combined with the charisma of Layton and had virtually nothing to do with the center-right platforms the party was beginning to run on. The party could have held left or even shifted left creating a polarized political atmosphere as the Conservatives under Harper shifted hard right.

Had those in positions of power had some foresight they could have helped to shift the political landscape into a new and polarized one where it would have been very difficult for the Liberals to re-emerge. Instead and as we all know, the power brokers in the NDP decided to play it safe and try to replace the Liberal Party by becoming the Liberal Party. The hope was the Liberal Party would simply wither away of its own accord and the NDP would replace it as the other alternative the Conservatives.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Along came Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are now more united and re-energized than ever. The NDP, on the other hand, is more irrelevant than the party has ever been. The party hierarchy decided to run on the most right wing platform in NDP history in 2015 and they deservedly got trounced on election day.  

It is not surprising voters saw through the facade of the NDP trying to pretend it is still a social democratic party while running on a right wing platform. The only people who didn’t see through it are diehard NDP partisans and Thomas Mulcair’s campaign team.

The NDP's most recent election platform shows just how precisely those leading the party are out of touch with current realities. As much of the public has started to drift left after more than 30 years of neoliberalism and austerity, the NDP is moving right. Their campaign strategy is based on the Third Way, which is now more than 20 years out of date.

The Liberals actually get the current realities far better than the hierarchy of the NDP does. This is why both Kathleen Wynne in last year’s Ontario election and Trudeau successfully ran on center-left platforms.

In contrast, the brain trust of the NDP simply doesn’t get it. Bland and centre-right platforms have now led to the party getting routed in B.C., Nova Scotia, Ontario and in the recent federal election. It is likely the Manitoba NDP will lose government in the next provincial election and after a strange and bizarre set of circumstances led Rachel Notley’s NDP to form government in Alberta for the first time in this spring’s election, it is still too early to tell how the new government will fare.

After such an epic disaster in the federal election, one would have expected immediate changes in the NDP hierarchy as the party came to terms with what was clearly a failure. It is pretty difficult to put any sort of positive spin on the current mess. The NDP started in first place in the polls when the campaign began and with Official Opposition status. By the time election day rolled around 11 weeks later, the party finished a distant third place, shedding 51 seats and dropping to just under 20 per cent of the popular vote in the process.

One would have expected Mulcair to have stepped down as leader by now and key people on his campaign team to have been fired as the NDP reassesses and looks to the future. This is precisely what would happen in the Liberal or Conservative parties as these parties are interested in winning elections.

Things are not so simple in the NDP. It is coming up on two weeks since those in key positions of power ran the worst campaign in the party’s history and as of yet no one has been held to account. In fact, Mulcair is musing that he intends to stick around for a while and the vast majority of NDP partisans are fully behind this.

Not surprisingly, people in positions of power are not very good at taking responsibility for failure unless they are forced to. It is ego that got them to these positions and it is ego that will make them gloss over their own failures and try to spin them as successes.

So, in terms of political parties it is either the elected caucus, the membership or both that holds the leader and their inner circle to account when they fail. This is the way it works in both the Liberals and Conservatives.

However, once again, the modern day NDP is a different political animal. In the nearly two weeks since the election, nary an MP, past or present, has spoken out against Mulcair or his leadership team.

In fact, some long serving MPs that were clearly defeated because of the strategy, have actually spoken out in favour of Mulcair’s leadership rather than against it. This tells you a lot about just how weak the NDP caucus is that -- elected or defeated -- they are too afraid to speak out publicly against a leader that has failed so badly.

In terms of NDP partisans and the membership, delusion also rules the day. It is almost as if the 2015 federal election never happened. Under repeated questioning, you could probably get the partisans to admit the NDP finished third in the election but in their minds it was certainly not due to the campaign the party ran. The NDP’s epic electoral loss is due to other mysterious factors beyond the party’s control such as the mainstream media, voters being fooled once again by the Liberals, the niqab issue in Quebec (even though Trudeau came out harder on the issue than Mulcair), voters wanting change even though the NDP was in a much better position to deliver that change at the beginning of the campaign when they topped the polls, etc. These same partisans will never admit that the NDP did anything wrong.

If you look a little closer at who makes up the activist membership of the NDP these days, this should not be surprising. As those running the party have moved it further and further to the right, renounced its social democratic roots and done everything in their power to make the NDP different from the Liberals in name only, many, including myself, just couldn’t take it anymore. If we wanted to be in the Liberal Party, we would have joined the Liberal Party and we don’t want to be part of a political project that strives to be the just like them.

Those who have stuck around and joined would likely be equally at home in a religious cult. The hierarchy of the party rules with an iron fist and the membership is only too happy to comply. If those leading the party move the NDP right, the membership will defend it. If the hierarchy decides to break the party’s own rules and appoint a candidate, they will defend that too. If the leadership decides to jettison good candidates for making reasoned and legitimate comments on the Palestinian situation, the membership will also support it.

Increased funding for military and policing? Sounds good. Balancing budgets ahead of social priorities? Without question.

Basically the current membership will wholeheartedly support whatever direction the hierarchy of the NDP decides to take no matter how unprincipled, shallow or vacuous. And although Mulcair and his team are fully incompetent, they are smart enough to know if they pull the Tommy Douglas card every once in awhile and speak about Medicare every now and then, the membership will back them fully no matter how bad they fail.

Just ask Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. She led the NDP to similar disaster in last year’s provincial election and her leadership endorsement actually went up at the following convention.
So, it is clear that Thomas Mulcair and his cronies can keep their jobs as long as they want them. And as the NDP becomes more and more irrelevant to voters, it will remain highly relevant to those diehard partisans that have remained behind.

And why not? The NDP is now more or less a social club posing as a political party.

Fraser Needham is a freelance journalist living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He has been working and writing in Saskatchewan for the past 15 years. Aside from the Saskatchewan CCF/NDP, he follows Aboriginal issues and politics closely.

See also: Delusion continues to rule the day in Mulcair NDP

See also: Only those in the NDP can explain why Thomas Mulcair still has his job

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