Sunday, August 27, 2006

The NDP's Strategic Dilemma

The NDP is ensnared in a long-term strategic dilemma that was rendered more acute by the outcome of the last federal election and the role played by the NDP in the campaign. Jack Layton calculated that by pulling the plug on Paul Martin’s Liberals and by helping shape the central issue as Liberal corruption, he could hold the existing NDP vote and add to it. What the NDP feared above all was what party strategists referred to as “the demonization of Stephen Harper.” The NDP desperately wanted to prevent a panic among progressive voters that could drive them to vote Liberal to stop Harper from taking power.

Throughout the campaign the NDP insisted that a Harper government was no more to be feared than a Martin government. In its national advertising and in Jack Layton’s national tour, the relentless target for abuse was the Liberals. Only in a few cases in Saskatchewan and B.C., where the NDP was locked in races against Conservatives, did Layton take on Harper directly. National reporters found Layton unwilling to say anything about Harper beyond a pat statement that “the Conservatives are wrong on the issues.”

The consequence of Layton’s disciplined, tightly scripted campaign was a tactical victory. The NDP seat total increased from 19 to 29. In my view, this was a Pyrrhic victory, a strategic disaster.

Jack Layton forecast on election night that the election of more NDP MPs guaranteed a more progressive Canada in the form of tangible benefits for working families and seniors. Since Stephen Harper formed his government in early February, Layton has been proved stunningly, embarrassingly wrong. The Harper government has turned out to be more insistently, stubbornly right-wing than anyone predicted. Most people assumed that the truly reactionary colours of the Harper government would not be revealed unless and until the Conservatives won a majority in the next election.

On childcare, Harper did exactly what he said he would do---he scrapped the national program. On the Kelowna aboriginal accord, the Conservatives have scrapped a historic deal that had been years in the making. On relations with the U.S. and on foreign policy issues, Harper has aligned himself with George W. Bush more overtly than I thought he would prior to winning a majority. He has led Canada into the Anglo Sphere, the new Gang of Four, with the U.S., the U.K., and Australia far more overtly than a Martin government would have. Anyone who now imagines that if Harper wins a majority he will not decimate the social state in Canada has not been paying attention.

When NDP strategists are confronted with the stark fact of how reactionary Harper is, they respond in one of two ways: some still insist that Harper isn’t really so bad, although this cohort is diminishing in size; and some claim that the Liberals would be just as bad if they were still in office. Both of these positions put the NDP in an awkwardly defensive position vis a vis the Harper government. Instead of saying loudly and clearly what progressives want to hear---that this is the most reactionary government in Canadian history, and that it must not be allowed to win a majority, the NDP speaks in muted tones, opposing the government only on specific issues, but never providing a clear critique of what Harper is about. They still don’t dare do so because of their fear that such a critique will push their voters into the arms of the Liberals.

In the next election, if the Liberals choose one of the progressives---Gerard Kennedy, Bob Rae or Stephane Dion as leader---the NDP will be relentlessly reminded of its role in the last election and of its less than forthright opposition to the Harper government.

NDP strategists need to step back from the immediacy of the political wars to remember why their party exists and what it needs to do. Tommy Douglas was right when he said that the people need a party of their own and ought not to allow themselves to be fobbed off with switching back and forth from one capitalist party to another.

There are two problems here, though. In its battle to replace the Liberals as one of the country’s two major parties, the NDP has watered down its socialism almost to the vanishing point. Secondly, there are times in history when truly reactionary political formations come along. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is such a formation. While thankfully, it is not overtly racist in the manner of the far right parties in Europe, apart from that it shares all of the views and instincts of a far right party. Harper himself, as his speeches and writings reveal, would be very much at home in the Republican Party and in the American neo-conservative movement. To blur the differences between this political formation and a run-of-the-mill liberal capitalist party, as the NDP has done, is a blatant denial of the truth. The Harper government threatens all of the societal innovations the NDP and the CCF before it have inspired.

How then should the NDP promote its own interests as a party while acknowledging the nature of the Harper threat?

Necessarily (and not conveniently), there have to be two aspects to this, strategic and tactical, and they will not always fit together in easy harmony. Strategically the NDP should see itself as a movement-party dedicated to promoting the interests of working people and the interests of Canadians as autonomous actors, as free as possible from the constraints imposed by the American Empire. Winning people over to the NDP’s point of view is often, but not always, in line with the tactically optimal way to win more votes for the party. The tension between building the movement and winning converts on the one hand and winning votes on the other, has existed right from the beginning. The campaigns of the party establishment to replace the Regina Manifesto with the Winnipeg Declaration in 1956, to suppress the Waffle in the early 1970s and to contain the New Politics Initiative a few years ago were all episodes in a decades old effort to make vote winning the paramount, almost exclusive, legitimate activity of the party.

The historically successful drive to drain party membership of any real political content and to vest almost all power in the hands of the leader and his or her operatives has had the effect of making the tactics of each election campaign the only thing that really matters. And since the success of leaders is judged almost wholly by how many seats they win, ambitious NDP leaders have reached the not surprising conclusion that the party will tolerate virtually anything as long as it promotes the winning of more votes and more seats. In the hands of Jack Layton, the consequence has been the two most right-wing election campaigns in the history of the party.

The trouble with short-term tactical victories, cynically won only by systematically hiding the truth from Canadians, is that they lead nowhere. Ed Broadbent’s attacks on John Turner in 1988 helped re-elect Brian Mulroney’s Tories and opened the door to the ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Five years later, Broadbent’s record seat total was followed by the winning of only nine seats by the NDP as Canadians rushed in their disgust to throw out the Conservatives. What will happen next time out when a sizeable number of NDP voters switch to the Liberals to throw out Harper?

When David Lewis and Tommy Douglas decided in the autumn of 1970 to oppose Pierre Trudeau’s blatant disregard for civil liberties when he proclaimed the War Measures Act, these NDP leaders were not thinking about votes. Polls showed that ninety per cent of Canadians were on Trudeau’s side. In the short-run, what Lewis and Douglas did bled support away from their party. In the long-run, however, the NDP not only stood up for civil liberties when it was crucial that someone do so, the party gained respect and support for the stand they took.

That is how the NDP should see the coming electoral contest. The party should make itself the vehicle of a national campaign, inside parliament and out, to expose the Harper government for what it is and to drive it from power. If things go well, the Liberals will replace the Conservatives in power, hopefully with a minority government. This does not mean that the long-term goal of the NDP is to elect Liberals, but rather to truly act as the tribune of the people, warning of the dangers ahead and advocating progressive alternatives.

Such an approach may elect more or fewer New Democrats in the next election. But that is not the crucial question. What matters most is speaking the truth to the nation. Over the long-term that will allow the NDP to turn the tables on the Liberals. If the Liberals want to claim to be progressives, let them act consistently as progressives. Let them join with the NDP in the struggle against the neo-conservative Harper government. If they want NDP votes in some ridings to defeat Conservatives, let them offer Liberal votes in other ridings to elect New Democrats, something they have never done.

Building a people’s party and movement is a dynamic process in which some tactical victories are not worth winning. What does matter is that the NDP must earn the trust of Canadians over time that they will never shy away from speaking out on behalf of working people and the nation. That is the road to electing the first people’s government in Canadian history. It is a day that will come. Look what has been happening in Latin America.

20 comments:

Mike said...

You guys planning on taking responsibility for your own troubles anytime soon, or will we keep getting tripe like this?

Really, give it a rest. The Liberals lost because of scandal, a shitty campaign and a gaffe-w-week election. Clean up you own hose before you worry about the NDP.

We'll do fine thanks.

Mike said...

er, that shoudbe 'house' not 'hose'...I don't wnat to leave a wrong impression.

:)

Harrap said...

A Few thoughts

If we had a system of proportional representation, then we wouldn't have to worry about this vote splitting.

Jack Layton's stance on crime in the 2006 election could have been lifted right from the Conservative platform.

I'd really put the blame on both the NDP and the Liberals for muddling the issue -- Martin must have known that his tactical scaring of progressive voters would allow Conservative MPs to come up the middle and be elected in areas of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

The NDP's expelling of Hargrove on the tactical issue also reflected a refusal to deal with this issue head on.

Koby said...

>>>> “Martin must have known that his tactical scaring of progressive voters would allow Conservative MPs to come up the middle and be elected in areas of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.”

With regards to BC, there is virtually no evidence to support this thesis and yet I hear it again and again and again.

What happened in 2004 in BC was that at the same time as Alliance/new Conservative Party lost its status as a Western protest party the Federal NDP partly regained its status as one stopped being weighed down by its provincial brethren. The Provincial NDP was horribly unpopular in 2000 and was reduced to two seats in the 2001 election (77 “Liberals” 2 NDP) (Some will no doubt take issue with the suggestion that NDP was once upon a time a de facto protest party in BC. However, its rise from 23 percent in the 1974 election to 37 percent in 1988 and its sudden collapse in 1993 when a viable protest party emerged suggests that it was just that.) As a result, for the first time since the 1988 election Federal voters returned to the NDP in droves.
The NDP’s share of the vote went from 11.3% in 2000 to 26.5. On the flip side of things, the Alliance/new conservative Party share of the popular vote dropped by 13.7.

Liberal support, meanwhile, was about the same 2004 as it was 2000 (27.7 vs. 28.57) and as always did not exist outside of Vancouver and Victoria. It went down to 27.6 in 2006.

That said, in 3 key Vancouver ridings Liberal support was up substantially 2004. In Burnaby the Liberal share of the popular vote was up by 7.84%. In Vancouver Quadra it was up by 8.57% in North Vancouver it was up by 7.52. The Liberals maintained these gains in the 2006 election. In all three of these ridings if you add the PC 2000 vote to the Liberal 2000 you get virtually what the Liberals ended up with in all three cases. There is also evidence that the Liberals picked up the old PC vote in White Rock and in James Moore's riding. That said, the White Rock was reconfigured for the 2004 election and there is evidence that Liberals lost whatever PC vote they might of picked up in 2004 to the Conservatives in 2006. As for Moore’s riding, PC vote was not very large to begin with and so the Liberals did not gain much in picking up those supporters.

The only BC riding that it could be argued that the Liberals gave to the Conservatives in either election was New West Coquitlam in 2004. Then again this probably had more to do with Liberals running former union man Dave Haggard there then because of any party strategy.

leftdog said...

The risk that Canadians face (especially progressive Canadians) is that we could end up with a two party system. Unfortuantely that is not working well for reasonable people in the USA. The beauty of our system is that while Harper does have a government with 36% support, he simply cannot commence or risk the social engineering that would be inevitable if his hold on Sussex Drive results from a majority victory. None of us should be too anxious to race towards a two party system. At the moment the 64% of Canadians who do not support the Tories spread across 3 or 4 other political entities. So what? I have no problem with Canada entering its 'Italian parliamentary phase' for awhile if it will keep the Right from majority. Because frankly, god help us all if that should happen.

Koby said...

The problem with the NDP is that they have not set readily comprehensible bench marks that people can get behind. They have forgotten their roots. The fight for a 5 day week, for 8 hour day and for universal health care has been replaced by nebulous claim that they are helping working Canadians. Worse, the NDP loves to put a dollar figure on its various initiatives and deals. The so called NDP budget was a great case in point. I do not know how many times I heard both the NDP and Conservatives banter around the 4.6 billion dollar figure. All this did was scare bejesus out of the average tax payer and play into media storyline that the NDP is a tax and spend party.

I would love to see the NDP get beyond the following two policies, but with happy Jack at the helm I am not holding my breath.

I would love to see them support 4 weeks paid vacation for all Canadians, a la the European Union.

I would love to see them support dental care being included as part of health care.

davidt said...

I am so sick and tired of Liberals thinking that they can lie to the Canadian public about being left wing and have anyone believe them.

Sure Mulroney cut social services by 20% but the Liberals cut social services buy another 40% on top of that. Thank God they are left wing, eh?

How about the Liberals having Canada's emissions rise faster than George Bush's American. And the Liberals signed Kyoto! What a bunch of liars!

How about deep integration? The "left wing" Liberals were big fans.

How about tax cuts so targeted at the rich that 77% of the total went to the top 8%?

And thats not even mentioning sky rocketing university and trade school cost.

That was the only other option for a left wing voter! Do you right wing Liberal class warriors think anybody is going to believe this tripe?

The Liberals will have people believe that they had an elaborate 160 month plan that was only moments from fruition in which they were going to supply everything from daycare to Kyoto but then at the last moment the left wing hating NDP destroyed everything.

The Liberals are better at implementing a right wing agenda than the Cons because they are insulated by their left wing rhetoric. And sadly people listen to what the Liberal party says rather than what it does.

The NDP should do everything it can to educate the population about your lies and hard right record.

Its not Jack ruining the "left wing" Liberal agenda that has made the Liberals angry, its that the NDP has figured you out and we are making sure that others will figure you out.

leftdog said...

koby for one second, do you believe that your bit of advice for the NDP is going to assist in ANY way to stop the perilous road we are on with the Conservatives under Harper? It is ludicrous to think that the promise of 4 weeks vacation is going to change anything at all. In Alberta, the standard is 2 weeks of paid vacation, yet every seat is held by Harper's minions. We need to articulate a strong foreign and domestic policy that engages Canada. The nonsense of lefties dabbling with the Liberal Party is truly annoying. I welcome our multi party system. I also believe the old saw that says Liberals talk like NDP'ers when they are oppositon and then govern like Tories when elected.

Koby said...

Any honest NDPer will admit that the party has effectively been marginalized by the other major political parties and by a right leaning media. For most people this would be cause to rethink party strategy and put forward ideas that are well established, readily digestible and have an appeal because they apply universally, but Layton and NDP brass seem to think otherwise. Jack et al do not seem to care that outside of political junkies, some media figures, and a minority of party faithful virtually no potential voter would be able to say what policies last election were unique to the NDP. Canadians heard a hell of verbiage about how the NDP was going to bat for average Canadians, but that is about it.

Speaking of verbiage, the NDP claim to by a socially democratic party and at least 4 weeks vacation is the norm in every other socially democratic country; so what the hell is taking them so long? It is time they made an effort to keep up with the Jones, that is the Europeans, or drop the socially democratic pretense. They are a generation behind. The same goes for dental care. The NDP should be saying that if the Germans, Brits and Fins etc etc can do it, so can we.

“We need to articulate a strong foreign and domestic policy that engages Canada.”

And what the hell would that be? Do you mean more green policies for example, that do not get reported in the press and virtually everyone in Canada is ignorant of and even fewer support. http://www.ndp.ca/page/3855 If it gets reported in the Globe and Mail, or any of the Canwest or Sun media papers this is how it will be reported: the NDP’s environmental plan has everything the Liberals has, but it is more expensive.

Anyway, under Layton the NDP have measured success in terms of the number of seats they have won. In previous times the NDP measured success in terms of how many of their policies became accepted by the vast majority of Canadians as good policy. Canada benefited from the latter. No one in their right mind was claim that Canada is a better place because the NDP won 10 more seats than they did in 2004.

Anonymous said...

Bravo J Laxer

Anonymous said...

Très bien pour l'article M Laxer

leftdog said...

koby - if the 'intellectual left' perhaps put their reading down, helped sell a few memberships, maybe helped put up a few signs, did some phoning, you would do more to advance the cause of social justice, social democracy and democratic socialism then you are achieving by articulating the shortcomings of Mr. Layton and the NDP. Indirectly, you are part of the problem. I can give no 'bravo'.

Koby said...

Layton and company do not have a clue how to sell policy. They are even worse at coming up with polices that do sell. Indeed, how and god’s name is someone going to sell this in a 1 or 2 minute conversion with someone in the street or on the phone http://www.ndp.ca/page/3855 ? It is just not going to happen. The NDP can learn a thing or two about the Conservative's 5 priority strategy. They could also learn by looking at what NDP policies have been adopted in the past and what policy’s socially democratic European Party’s have adopted and how they have sold them.

The NDP is close to becoming a party Canadians know nothing about. Sooner or later they will stop wondering and forget them altogether.

leftdog said...

I fear a 2 party system as the Americans have; the politics of ignorance and reaction always seem to trump the politics of vision and logic. In this era of the web, newstalk radio and an ever complex world situation, we are witnessing the phenomenon of 'uninformed opinion' having and holding the same weight as 'informed opinion'.

Some recent polling shows that the majority of Canadians think that we are continuing with our traditionl role of peacekeeping in Afghanistan! Harper and the Right are using weasel words like 'peacemaking' to describe the mission. This is what progressive thought is up against in the 21st Century. If progressive rational thinking people do not find a way to immediately bond and cooperate, I fear the consequences. I mean really , what is on the horizon ... an American attack on Iran? If yes... all bets are off and we will fully enter the era of global insanity.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone mention the Ontario government of Bob Rae's NDP?
As long as capital/corporations run things electoral politics are (with minor exception) meaningless.
Rae caved into the corporate agenda because "Bay Street" read him the "Riot Act".
Would a federal NDP government be any different? No.
Laxer is right when he states that the NDP no longer talks about socialism (did it ever?)and that the party is mainly interested in the number of seats/votes it gets.
Since 1961 the party has been moving right.
The Regina Manifesto has been dead for decades.

Anonymous said...

The NDP's dilemma is that they are a party of idiots led by an idiot that has his head jammed right up Olivia Chow's ass.

Anonymous said...

I must say James, and I intend to democratically seed my comment at the appropriate posts throughout your site, that your recent rants regarding the NDP are bizarre, and the group of Liberal losers you have supporting them are a laugh. They often, as with the ill-informed Lib who did not seem to realize that that the NDP was the ONLY party to vote against the government on all three confidence motions, seem determined to find some obscure moral justification for voting Liberal while pretending that doing so makes them still progressive.
Well, to paraphrase your recent rubbish in the Globe, that it simply a fiction.
One could go over the same old tired but true territory that the Libs ran the most right wing government since the end of the second war when they felt no threat from the left. (The 95 budget being one of the great disgraces of modern Canadian political history... but hey as long as they are not Tories in name I guess you don't care if they are Tories in deed).
One could point out that, your silly attack at Layton to the contrary, the ONLY reason the NDP had to try to work with Rona Ambrose as environment minister was due to the fact that the Libs had refused to vote against her as environment minister when the NDP proposed a Bloc backed motion to do so. (But to you and other Lib apologists it is always tactical when the Libs betray promises, the public trust, etc...when the NDP do anything tactical to advance the interests of Canada's socialist movement it is somehow a "betrayal". This is hypocritical crap, two-faced, and pure proof that the real objective is to serve as an apologist for the Libs. How about ONE SINGLE article critical of Lib positions and self-serving actions. Till I see one I must say that your whole line is a little hard to take seriously.)
One could point out that the Libs have consistently put short term political goals ahead of the interests of the Canadian working class, native peoples, women, gays, even your own personal bugaboo of nationalism (never did renegotiate that free trade agreement did they?), but you only ever seem to notice what you perceive as the NDP putting their political interests first. Well, political parties exist to win elections to advance the interests they support and while you seem to accept this when the Libs do it (and I will come back to this) you reserve all your scorn for the NDP. Why not stop pretending, just join the Liberal Party.
Why not? Well you would lose all that left wing credibility you feel you have built up. So, without having actually done anything politically for years you take cheap shots, dripping with psuedo-leftist sanctimony, at the only political movement that makes this country worth living in, heaping scorn in the process on tens of thousands of actual activists who are the real bulwark that keeps this country out of the union to the south.
One could point out that while you say that the NDP was duped by the Tories, it was really your tired old vision of a 70's nationalism that has duped you into supporting Libs at the expense of Canadian children, social programs, NDP provincial governments, transfer payments, health care, the environment, etc...out of the vague belief that doing so would somehow bolster Canadian nationalist interests by keeping the Tories out of office. Well done. All those who stayed silent during the Liberal majority years as they ripped the heart out of the post war consensus and damned a million Canadian kids to poverty on the backs of fiscal responsibility sure managed to keep this country strong by getting so enraged by the NDP standing up to this same regime after 13 years. Frankly maybe a few too many years of academics has made you lose touch and forget why we are fighting this fight. In this new era your old lines of demarcation are particularly wrong.
One could say all these things, and more (and I will be happy to follow up on any brave bloggers who are so certain to change the world glued as they are to their laptops and poli-sci classes)but in fact the most obvious indication that your approach hides a whole tapestry of hypocrisy can be exposed by bringing up your own son.
Michael, if I am not mistaken, ran against Jim Karigyanis ( I may have got the name wrong, but we all, sadly, know who I mean) in Scarborough in 2000 ( I think he also ran for the party in 2003 provincially). He did not do well, but hey, why should you Lib lovers care? But he did run hard against one of the ugliest, pro-life, pro-death penalty, anti-gay, mean spirited and plain old useless Lib MPs out there. A man even the Star said was a horrible MP. By your own logic he either should not have run, or he should have only attacked his Tory and, at that time, Alliance opponents, despite Jim K.'s disgraceful record.
Were he to run again against Jim K. would you support him? Wouldn't doing so aid the Tories?
This is the huge flaw in your logic. Many great NDP candidates, like your own son, are undermined and destroyed by the strategic voting logic. While you may say, hey I didn't mean it to apply to "bad" Liberals, in the public’s mind it always will. And well you may say, my son had no chance so go ahead and vote for him, your logic defeats many candidates who did have a chance like Sid Ryan. Instead, what you have to live with, as Dion affirmed by once again proving Lib gutlessness and allowing a free vote on the gay marriage issue, is that you have laid with a group of people who, unlike the NDP, will tolerate the Jim Ks, the Tom Wappels, the Dennis Lees and the countless other right wing, anti-gay, pro-life, pro-death penalty and, on a constituency level, useless MPs that populate the Liberal ranks.
Which brings us to a final point. For all your crap about the NDP putting seats first, when the time came to stand up for gay rights the NDP threw Bev Desjardins out of caucus even though this doomed them to lose a seat they otherwise would certainly have won. The Liberals, in a policy reasserted by Dion, tolerate all levels of such bigotry in their ranks so as to keep a few seats here or there safe for vile, bigoted candidates who will, in the end, vote for a Lib Budget. What a principled bunch of folks they are!
Frankly, I would rather vote for your son.

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Polly Tix said...

So often it's said that the NDP suffers from there not being any leftwing media--and I agree (who wouldn't?). So what is the NDP going to do about it? What CAN it do, now? Remember that once upon a time a couple of brash young Canadian entrepreneurs bought the Sherbrooke Record (or Register, whatever it was called), for not too much money (relatively a song, it's said): if they could do that for their own capitalist reasons, why couldn't the NDP, back when nearly all people still read newspapers, have at least bought itself a newspaper, somewhere, and built on that? If the NDP is serious about power or about promoting socialist ideas as part of a movement (even one resigned to never getting power, just acting as a sort of farm team for ideas for the Liberal Party to adopt when they it suits them or they think they'd better), why doesn't it, or given today's circumstances, why hasn't it, worked hard to gain some media ownership? Once upoon a time, the NDP had solid union support, AND unions were solid. Now the workforce is ever more fragmented and un-organized, if not actually unemployed. Has the NDP's opportunity, if ever it had any, come and gone?

As an aside, I must agree with the others who've written about all the European benefits not enjoyed here: This needs more publicizing! (oh, but the NDP doesn't own any media, does it?)

Seriously, is the NDP serious? I know there are dedicated people in it, but I've often had to wonder whether the party as a whole cares much about politics or, certainly, power. It's all very disheartening.

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