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A Coalition: Still the Only Way Out

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Harper survived a stretch of stumbles because Grits and New Dems let him

When will the Liberals and the NDP get it? Without some kind of accord between these two parties, the country is locked into a kind of political version of the movie Groundhog Day–doomed to repeat the same depressing, cynical and destructive politics day-in, day-out until our democracy is so damaged that no one will bother voting.

There are policy areas that civil society organizations need to focus on to expose the Harper Conservatives–their economic policy, the tar sands, democratic reform, Harper’s security-state obsession, jets and jails, and climate change. But it is absolutely clear that, barring some serious, deal-breaking corruption scandal hitting the Harperites, nothing is going to change any time soon.

The archaic first-past-the-post voting system is not just undemocratic, it is profoundly anti-democratic in a system that now has five political parties with proven staying power.

Harper seems almost to have given up broadening his base. Instead he keeps overfeeding his existing 30 per cent until they are bloated with law-and-order fast-food, attacks on women’s rights, pro-Israeli policies and cheap populist tricks like efforts to deny convicted killer William Russell his military pension. It is a formula for permanent stalemate so long as the current batch of leaders is in place.

If Michael Ignatieff and his much-diminished Liberal Party aren’t yet able to see reality at this point, I don’t know what would do it. Harper has done his best to self-destruct over the summer and early fall with the long-gun registry defeat, his miscalculation on the long-form census, and his humiliating rebuff at the UN, while Iggy was flipping burgers and kissing babies. Still no change–it’s as if the summer and early fall hadn’t happened.

Ball is in NDP’s court

The only way that the Liberal leader will ever be prime minister will be as the head of a minority government with critical support from the NDP (and the Bloc). But the classic minority situation–governing without an accord on a play-it-by-ear basis–is not in the cards unless the Liberals can convincingly reverse the current polling numbers and break the 36 per cent mark, driving the Conservatives below 30. Harper is determined not to let that happen, which is why he pays such obsessive attention to his base.

But the Liberals have become such a sorry shadow of their former self-confident selves that expecting anything approaching political intelligence from this quarter is a false hope. One way Liberals might be forced to recognize their new reality is through a grassroots campaign aimed at convincing them to support proportional representation (PR) and some kind of pre-election accord with the NDP, as a precursor to PR.

Given the state of social movement and labour organizations, such a campaign is unlikely.

That leaves the ball in the NDP’s court. But here, too, there seems to be a kind of willful denial of reality. Nothing the NDP does gets them even to where they were in the last election. They have proven no more capable of taking advantage of the Harper missteps than the Liberals and they would, by most recent polls, lose seats this time around.

The NDP operates politically as if it were the 1980s, moving schizophrenically between attacks on the Liberals and attacks on Harper, ignoring the historical shift that has permanently changed the political landscape and deciding, apparently, that any talk of a coalition is poison. The New Democrats keep trying different mixes of disparate policies hoping to find the magic recipe that will get them past 16 per cent. The most recent example is a campaign–including radio ads–to get people angry over home heating costs.

Home heating? Are they kidding? Sixty per cent of Canadians say they are a couple of paychecks from financial disaster, they are over their heads in debt, many are just a couple of percentage points away from a mortgage default, work stress is so severe they have no family lives, their kids are obese from eating junk food, advanced education is beyond their means and they are terrified at the prospect of the global changes they know are coming–climate change, another economic meltdown, peak oil. And the NDP expects people to rush to their party over heating costs?

Take a page from Harper: Thump on values

The problem is there is no magic combination of policies that will bring the growth the NDP is so desperately looking for. You would think after decades of working their politics in a basically social democratic culture and failing to make progress they would try something different.

It turns out they are. But their reaction to this continued failure is to move precisely in the wrong direction. Just as capitalism is proving to be a global catastrophe and dominated by a class of unrepentant sociopaths, the NDP is suddenly tightening its embrace and moving away from its traditional values. How so?

While it may only be symbolic, the party is re-writing its preamble. The one being relegated to the historical dustbin declares the need “to modify and control the operation of the monopolistic productive and distributive organizations through economic and social planning, … where necessary [through] the principle of social ownership.”

If that isn’t a reasonable and intelligent NDP response to the current state of the global and Canadian economic crisis, it should be. Instead the NDP is running from the very values and principles that make it relevant in a world entering a period of permanent crisis.

Study up on political psychology

The NDP and those who run its campaigns would do well to check out a remarkable document produced by a coalition of environmental and development groups called “Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values.” The author, Tom Crompton, speaks as if directly to the NDP: “[A]s our awareness of the profound scale of these [global] challenges and the difficulty of addressing them grows, we tend to rely ever more heavily upon a set of issue-specific tactics which may actually militate against the emergence of the systemic and durable solutions that are needed.”

Crompton draws on a number of ground-breaking studies on political psychology that demonstrate people do not vote based on facts–like a set of policies–but on the basis of their social identity, which is molded by values that are either extrinsic (individualistic) or intrinsic (relationship-focused). Crompton talks about the need for progressives to challenge those values that now dominate the public discourse by strengthening intrinsic values: “…empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships–both with one another and with the natural world.”

If the NDP followed the advice of Crompton and created a new politics rooted in a moral imperative, not in tactical maneuvering on home heating, and called for a coalition that could advance those values, it could expose the Harper Conservatives as selfish and cruel while truly challenging the Liberals to reverse their drift to the right.

But right now we are travelling inexorably down a road where only Harper actually appeals to values rather than facts (which he happily ridicules). The opposition, trying out new facts and finding they don’t work, retreat and inadvertently reinforce the values that Harper promotes. There is no happy ending at the end of this road.

Murray Dobbin’s writing also appears on his blog, The Tyee and

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