Can the NDP be relevant?

Photo by Tomkinsr

A little over a year ago NDP elites thought they were heading for a their first ever stint as the federal government under leadership of a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister from Quebec, Thomas Mulcair. The party had surprisingly broken into the big time in the 2011 federal election, taking Quebec by storm and moving into the Official Opposition for the first time in Canadian history. Now, with a Quebec leader who could hardly be accused of being a radical, the party was everything the national media had said it should be: cautious, pragmatic, and eminently reasonable, particularly on the economy. Throughout the 2015 campaign Mulcair sent all the right signals to Bay Street about balanced budgets and restrained spending. How could they lose?

Easily, it would appear. Instead of the NDP it was a broadly upbeat but specifically vague Liberal party under Justin Trudeau that won office in 2015. What went wrong? Well, it was never really clear that the NDP were really that competitive to start with. It was only with the shocking victory of the NDP in Alberta in the spring of 2015 that the national party moved past the Liberals in the polls – they had been trailing them for years, ever since Trudeau became leader. Indeed, the Alberta NDP boost for the federal party quickly stalled once the federal campaign got started. And why was the federal party brain trust so convinced that a bland, centrist campaign would work federally when it had recently failed so spectacularly provincially in Nova Scotia, Ontario, BC and Saskatchewan? Given the torpid state of the Canadian economy and the growing absence of good jobs for young and old workers alike, why would a social democratic party back away from playing its strongest card, namely, that the economy just wasn’t working for most people?

It’s enough to make reasonably progressive people tear their hair out. We have terrible economic and social circumstances and a party that can’t seem speak to them in a clear and compelling way. This is not because the people who run the NDP are stupid or indifferent or venal. Instead, NDP campaigns look the way they do because are making decisions based on metrics about who is likely to turn out to vote, not solving the bigger problems. Put bluntly, poor and working people are harder to mobilize than the various strata of the middle class so all parties tend to go after the low hanging fruit. But without the electoral participation of the poor and working class, it is impossible for social democratic parties to champion policies that might make their lives better once in office.

There has got to be a way out of this seeming catch-22. There have been some encouraging campaigns in some unlikely places recently that the NDP could draw some lessons from. Bernie Saunders’ surprisingly competitive bid for the US Democratic party’s presidential nomination shows how creative fundraising and local organizing built around clear messages about inequality can resonate with a very broad public. Jeremy Corbyn’s principled and detailed plans for rebuilding union strength and defending the rights of working people more generally in the UK has inspired tens of thousands to join the Labour party, first to elect him leader and then again to defend his leadership against a Blairite revolt. We have seen some of this emerge within the NDP with the campaign to adopt the LEAP manifesto but it has largely failed to connect with the country’s marginalized electorate in all its diversity.

Despite the return of the Liberals as the federal government, everything is not as it was before. The Canadian party system remains highly unstable. The federal Liberals won a majority government on just 39% of the vote, the same as the Conservatives before them, suggesting both parties are weak and vulnerable. An NDP that could speak clearly about inequality and the capitalism that produces it could find itself suddenly relevant, particularly if they take seriously the need to actually mobilize the poor and working people into electoral participation. After all, it was something the party used to excel at.