The NDP’s Strategic Dead End
Despite the high spirits at the NDP victory party in Toronto on election night, it’s hard to fathom what there was to celebrate. Their popular vote increased only marginally, their seat total fell shy of affecting the balance of power and they failed to make a breakthrough in Quebec. Before an adoring, T.V.-friendly crowd on election night, Jack Layton claimed his party had earned the trust of millions of “ordinary Canadians.” Yet a more sober assessment might give cause to wonder why the party accomplished so little.
Some of the excitement at NDP election headquarters undoubtedly reflected local Toronto results: Olivia Chow finally broke through the Liberal machine in Trinity-Spadina after three tries, and CAW representative Peggy Nash took away a Liberal seat in Parkdale-High Park. By the end of the night the party has increased its parliamentary complement of MPs from 18 to 29, with further gains in Ontario and B.C. But the increase in seats masked a lack of movement in popular support. Compared to 2004, the party inched up less than two per cent in the overall popular vote (from 15.7 per cent to 17.5). Nor did the party make a breakthrough in Liberal-dominated areas of Quebec or Ontario, despite the clear desire of voters for alternatives.
With such a historic opportunity, what explains this rather lacklustre result? With the economy in the dumper for most of Canada’s working class; with working people feeling the pinch of government user fees and increased health and education costs; with home ownership increasingly beyond the reach of average income earners; with youth incomes at record lows; and much more - why couldn’t the party get more support? The answers lie in the party’s disastrous campaign strategy, itself a product of a much deeper problem: the party’s disconnect from both the voters it needs to represent and the activist social movements it needs to work with.
The NDP’s Election Strategy
NDP strategists appeared to believe that this election would finally offer them their historic chance to displace the federal Liberals, particularly as Liberal party fortunes began to slide in the latter half of the contest. Selling themselves as the “real” defenders of Canada’s social programs, Layton’s NDP promised to steer a “moderate” course on the economy, making some noises about corporate power but mostly amounting to a Blairite accommodation to the market and globalization. Gone were the allegedly controversial inheritance-tax proposals from the last campaign, as well as any real engagement with the economic problems facing “ordinary” Canadians.
Instead, the party mounted a sound-bite-heavy advertising campaign (“Give the Liberals the Boot”), while Jack kept to carefully scripted announcements of what were supposed to be effectively “media-proofed” policies concerning taxes, the economy and crime. Given the party’s increasing reliance on indirect methods of reaching potential voters either through advertising or media coverage, such strategies were seen by the campaign teams as simply an accommodation to the new reality of elections. And the results were striking. The party arguably ran its most “mainstream” and neoliberal campaign ever: no tax increases, tough on crime, a mainstream economist running for the party and no mention of social democracy, let alone socialism.
There was only one problem - it didn’t work.
Why the Strategy Isn’t Working
The NDP faces some key problems trying to displace the Liberals, particularly in Quebec. As we have seen this last election, Quebec federalists are simply too right-wing to vote NDP, at least in the places where the NDP might conceivably pick up seats. Most stuck with the hated Liberals or else embraced the new (and possibly anti-French) Conservatives rather than consider a left turn economically. Meanwhile the logical social-democratic constituency in Quebec is tied to the PQ and the Bloc, who both find the party’s strong centralism and dithering on the Clarity Act unacceptable. It would appear that no one is buying what the NDP is selling in la belle province, and without Quebec the NDP can’t hope to displace the Liberals.
Nor is the party making headway in traditional Liberal strongholds in English Canada, either. From the Maritimes to the west, the Liberals mostly held their ground, and even improved their performance in B.C. Where the Liberals lost seats in Ontario, they lost them to the Conservatives. Particularly telling was the enduring strength of the Liberals in Toronto, where they took 36 out of 44 seats in the GTA and all but three seats in the city itself, most by whopping 10-to-15-thousand-vote margins. Where Liberals supporters did appear willing to “lend” their vote, most opted for the Conservatives rather than the NDP.
The NDP’s media strategy was also deeply flawed. Trying to work within the media frame has never worked for the NDP, because the goalposts shift as soon as the party does, as countless NDP provincial governments have discovered. Carroll and Ratner recount in their recent book, Challenges and Perils: Social Democracy in Neoliberal Times, how the B.C. NDP discovered the hard way that the media cannot be fooled by moving to the centre. No matter what the party did in office, they got bad press. In 2004 the federal NDP got a bit of this treatment when the national media claimed that the public was deeply opposed to the party’s plan to tax inheritances over a certain amount. Though reporters never produced any evidence of public dissatisfaction with the policy, the claim was endlessly repeated as truth in subsequent media reports during the campaign, and in some academic treatments of the election. In this last election, the corporate media flooded their pages and newscasts with pro-Tory polls while systematically obscuring or distorting the state of Canada’s economy and society, ignoring evidence of declining standards of living, wage rates, etc. Why the federal NDP think they can work the media more effectively now than before is a mystery.
Jack’s promise of a modern, media-savvy party that would capture support from Canadians jaded with the Liberals and scared of the Conservatives didn’t produce results. Nor does the future look any more promising, as the Liberals renew themselves with a new leader and the Conservatives normalize their extreme right-wing agenda through a spell of minority government and a beachhead in Quebec. Increasingly the NDP seems to be looking for votes that are already taken.
Why Do NDP Deep Thinkers Opt for Such Lousy Strategies?
NDP strategy reflects a considerable level of pragmatic experience in running election campaigns. It is essentially their response to the broad changes in the organization of political campaigns and society at large over the past forty years. The mass party, with its reliance on a large and active membership, has largely given way to smaller, more professionally run organizations. Suburbia and television and the welfare state have all contributed to dramatically alter how working people live and interact with one another and with the political realm.
Parties like the NDP responded to declining memberships by successfully seeking state funds to buttress their declining position vis-a-vis their corporate-funded opponents. State funds solved one problem, but created another. There had always been a tension inherent in mass parties between the movement base and the leadership, as the former seeks to anchor the party to its constituency and its needs while the latter seeks more support from other groups. Neither members nor leaders could do without one another. Leaders needed party workers and member donations to run in elections and as such could never drift too far from the key tenets of the party faithful. But state funding freed up NDP leaders to chase the ever shifting political centre, which that only intensified the decline of working-class membership and activism within the party.
Ironically, today’s NDP has money, but its now predominantly middle-class membership and leadership has lost touch with those it needs to represent and the social movements it needs to work with. Strategically, today’s NDP pragmatically seeks support from the easiest voters to get out to the polls (i.e. the middle class) and employs the easiest methods of reaching them (media, advertising). What this means is that increasing numbers of potential voters are being left unorganized and unspoken for, despite NDP claims to act on behalf of “ordinary” Canadians, a fact that might explain the precipitous decline in voter turnout over the past three decades. Though today’s NDP leadership feels freer to compete, unencumbered by party members or links to a socialist legacy, their long-term prospects if they remain on this trajectory are dim. This election surely demonstrates their limited opportunities to expand into the middle class.
What Can Be Done to Alter This Course?
Left to their own devices, NDP elites would appear to be setting the party on a course for irrelevance. Some might say good riddance. But what happens to the NDP will not just affect its elites. Compromised as it is, the NDP is still showcased as a dangerous force by its enemies in the press and other parties, and it is still perceived as something less than the two major parties by the public. Its demise will only advance the marginalization of the issues important to working people.
But today’s NDP are not articulating the problems working-class Canadians are facing, they are not educating voters about where the problems are, and they are not dragging political debate onto a turf that can expose where these problems lie. Nor does it appear they will do so under their own compulsion. Instead - as always - they must be compelled to do the right thing by organized social movements. Just as state funding and other developments have weakened the links between NDP and the working class and social movements, we must find a way to re-link these groups, whether the NDP elites like it or not.
Here we need to be creative about how to reconnect working-class issues with working-class politics. This can’t just be about fighting within the NDP or hectoring the party from the extra-parliamentary Left. It has to be about building up independent working-class organization and communication strategies into a movement that can speak to the working-class majority in all its diversity. That means thinking creatively about how to make visible the politics we think need to be addressed, and giving voice to the difficulties working people are facing. This means breaking through the media’s lies about our current economic good times. It means organizing working-class people directly, increasing their capacities to understand their experience and what political action can be, and creating a situation where the NDP has little choice but respond.
Nobody has come up with model of how to do this that is relevant to Canada, despite some encouraging beginnings. But the need is pressing. If this last election is anything to go by, the extra-parliamentary Left appears to have little influence in electoral arena. And the results are clear: Without our anchor, the NDP moved - and will continue to move - even more opportunistically to the right.