In the aftermath of Tom Mulcair’s crushing repudiation at the NDP convention, the party is entering a period of self-reflection and reinvention that it has never experienced before.
The pent-up pressure for this process was demonstrated dramatically in Edmonton by the humiliating rejection of a leader in a fashion unprecedented in the party’s history and the (cautious) embrace of a radical vision that should prompt memories of the original Regina Manifesto.
The delegates saved their party from oblivion.
The NDP has paid a staggering price for the politics of its last two leaders. Jack Layton was more in tune with the social democratic roots of the party than Mulcair, but he launched the shift to a strategy aimed at achieving power. The inevitable result was to water down social democratic principles and move the party to the centre.
It also led to political opportunism. Instead of continuing to force Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government to pass progressive legislation by threatening to withhold support, Layton defeated the Liberals in 2005, believing the resulting election would be the next step toward power. Instead it resulted in the election of the most destructive, right-wing government the country has known.
The next move in the party’s new “we can win” era was even more opportunistic and set the party back at least one, and probably two, election cycles. Choosing Mulcair as leader, in spite of ample evidence of his conservatism, demonstrated the willingness of convention delegates and the party hierarchy to abandon principle. The party asked in return only that Mulcair “deliver” Quebec. The quid pro quo was tilted dramatically in favour of Mulcair, an ambitious Liberal obsessed with internal control who broached no criticism from any quarter. It was a bad deal for the party.
One lasting impact of the politics of opportunism is the sacrifice of the party’s ethical core for the dubious promise of power. But without ethics and the politics that result, achieving power is pointless. When the end justifies the means, the means – the way power is achieved – redefines the ends. The art of persuasion detached from ethics is just propaganda, and politics detached from ethics is reduced to strategy and tactics.
That is what has happened to the NDP. The party has been using public relations firms for years, of course, for TV and other advertising. But in recent elections these spin doctors have effectively taken over campaigns, deciding which policies get emphasized and which ones get shuffled out of the deck.
Hijacked by ‘professionals’
The perspective of this class of political operatives was perfectly captured by Charles Demers in The Tyee: “They can’t get enough of the panel shows that parse strategy and tactics without ever really getting into who will be affected by a particular set of policies… In this West Wing view of the world, triangulation and chess-playing are everything; the possibility of genuine political feeling among people who aren’t already players is precluded.”
Reflective of the professionalization of NDP politics are two of the most prominent campaign organizers behind the recent electoral catastrophes nationally and in B.C., where the NDP blew a 20-point lead and lost its fourth election a row. What troubles me about Brian Topp (now working as chief of staff for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley after leading the BC NDP campaign) and Brad Lavigne (a senior campaign advisor in the October federal election) is who they associate with when not running NDP election campaigns.
Just a few months before the start of the 2013 B.C. election campaign, Topp, who placed second to Mulcair in the NDP leadership race, announced that he was co-founding a public relations firm with two other political operatives. But these partners were not NDPers – one was Ken Boessenkool, a former aide to Stephen Harper and later chief of staff for Liberal Premier Christy Clark until he was forced to resign for inappropriate behaviour. (The other partner, Don Guy, was a Liberal.)
Boessenkool has been one of the country’s most aggressive right-wing political staffers, working for governments dedicated to opposing everything the NDP has ever stood for. (When Topp left the firm in 2015 he was replaced by another prominent NDPer, Jamey Heath, who was communications director for Layton’s leadership campaign.)
Before the federal election campaign, Brad Lavigne was a vice-president of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, one of the world’s largest public relations firms and a symbol of the darkest aspects of corporate and political damage control and manipulation of public opinion. It’s perhaps most infamous for its work creating public support in the U.S. for the first Gulf War. In 1990, Hill+Knowlton helped arrange testimony at the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus by a “witness” (actually the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter) who claimed she saw “Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die.” Her testimony was later found to be unsubstantiated.
I am not suggesting that either of these political operatives has gone over to the dark side. But their respective decisions betray a stunning lack of awareness about how they might be perceived by progressives, and about the core belief of the NDP that capitalism is immoral. What were they thinking?
Perhaps the most important message of the election disaster is that the NDP has to de-professionalise itself and find its way back to the moral imperative that informed the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation 84 years ago.
A time for reinvention
That means reinventing the party so that it actually engages its members and supporters in ways that build trust in both directions. The control of the party and election campaigns by a small, unaccountable elite has produced the opposite effect: the party does not trust its own supporters to get behind big ideas when it counts – at election time — and supporters don’t trust the party because it too often betrays their values.
There has never been a better opportunity to reinvent the party. The convention delegates’ support for the Leap Manifesto marks a return to a desire for big ideas. Perhaps even more significantly, it shows an openness to a different political culture, one the NDP has traditionally viewed with suspicion. The manifesto, after all, came from people who have no loyalty to the party.
There is a passion in social movements that drives people’s commitment to the dozens of causes they support. Ethics is at its heart, and the convention delegates would not have embraced the Leap Manifesto if the party’s standard list of mildly progressive policies had satisfied them.
Until now, Canadian politics have seemed to be operating in a parallel universe. In the real world, we face impending global catastrophes from climate change, environmental destruction and grotesque inequality; in the parallel universe of politics we have the status quo and tweaking the system. In the election campaign, the two barely touched each other, let alone overlapped.
We can only hope that the delegates understood this glaring dichotomy. The party leader and his apparatchiks were not willing to be bold and take risks, so the most dedicated activists in the party have, tentatively, decided to do so.
The big test now is what will actually happen in the riding associations across the country, authorized (encouraged?) to debate the manifesto. Will the debates actually happen and more importantly, will there be a reaching out beyond the party membership, to social activists, in such a process? That would be virtually unprecedented, but if the bridging of the cultural gap between party members and civil society activists and organizations is to continue it will be essential.
The delegates took a risk in embracing even the watered-down version of the manifesto for debate. That risk deserves to be rewarded by those outside the party who have been hoping it will change. Bridging that cultural gap is a two-way process, and both sides need to commit to it.
This article originally appeared on TheTyee.ca.