Is the NDP becoming Liberal Lite?

A couple of polls showing the NDP losing support to the Liberals pose some pretty fundamental questions for the party and its small ‘l’ liberal leader Thomas Mulcair. Does the party follow the narrow political path of the two big business parties or does it reinvent itself as a movement party and tap into the deep dissatisfaction of Canadians about the state of politics and governance in this country?

The Harper Conservatives have mastered the techniques of the permanent election campaign – placing enormous pressure on the opposition parties to follow suit or find a way to counter them. Will the NDP try to replicate it (as the Liberals would like to) or will they, true to their radical roots, reinvent their approach and design a completely different “permanent campaign” model? The Conservatives have framed electioneering for the foreseeable future – if the NDP doesn’t respond with something new and imaginative it will lose.

Harper’s permanent campaigning involves narrow-casting – focusing not just on federal swing ridings but on polls in those ridings and on ethnic other key demographic groups. They do fundraising 363 days a year. Tom Flanagan, once Harper’s closest advisor, wrote: “They have produced a campaign equivalent of Colin Powell’s doctrine of ‘overwhelming force,’ applying all possible resources to the battleground ridings where the election will be won or lost.” It is extremely anti-democratic and in perfect keeping with Harper’s continuous assault on democracy on many other fronts – prorogations, sabotaging parliamentary committees, slandering and belittling independent watch-dogs, vetting all messaging from his office, and using the party’s millions to attack opposition leaders rather than their policies. It shares with his attack ads the same basic strategy: the use of fear and manipulation to keep his core supporters on side and to suppress any instinct other Canadians might have to engage in the political process.

But it is instructive to recognize that despite its sophistication, relentless application, and seemingly unlimited resources, Harper’s strategy barely keeps him in power. Given the metrics of a four party system Harper can keep winning majorities with 40% of the vote. And that’s basically all Harper wants – he doesn’t aim to capture a portion of the 60% who vote against him; he aims to convince as many of those opposition-party voters as possible to stay away from the ballot box. He doesn’t want to do anything to provoke them.

Finance Minister Flaherty acknowledged as much last week when he changed gears on the Conservative’s official view of balanced budgets. Announcing a later date for the balancing act, Flaherty stated: “…balanced budgets are not an end in themselves. They are a means to an end, and that end is a better, more prosperous future for all Canadians.” He has never said that before – but he knows that cutting spending by billions more would threaten Conservatives’ re-election chances.

But instead of listening carefully to this embedded message about who Canadians really are, Thomas Mulcair and the NDP decided instead to listen to the polls showing the Liberals (read Justin “He doesn’t really want the job” Trudeau) gaining ground at their expense. The result? A complete about-face on so-called “free trade” deals. Instead of highlighting three incredibly destructive investment agreements currently in the news they panicked – ending their commitment to get out of NAFTA, calling on the WTO to re-launch global trade talks and urging Harper to sign deals with India, Brazil and South Africa.

Here was a chance for the NDP to stake out ground that distinguished them from all other parties. Mulcair (who unfortunately does support “free trade”) could have used these deals (FIPA, CETA (the EU deal) and the Trans Pacific Partnership) to lambast their potential destructive impact on the country and argue against more such agreements. None of them have anything to do with trade – they are all about corporate rights, just like NAFTA and the WTO.

He could have used the fact that progressive public policy in both Quebec and Ontario are currently under attack by countries using investment agreements. The WTO has indicated that it will soon declare that the local content rules in Ontario’s Green Energy Act are an illegal barrier to investment – effectively killing that initiative. And Quebec’s moratorium on fracking is being challenged by Energy firm Lone Pine Resources Inc. which is demanding more than $250-million in compensation under NAFTA.

That Mulcair would back off the NDP’s historic position on these odious corporate rights deals demonstrates how vulnerable the party is to feeling obliged to move in the direction of being a second Liberal Party. Ironically, it is their historic 100 plus seats that has made them more cautious (reminiscent of their increased caution in 1988 when they were running second in the polls.) But the more they back off who they are, the more people will go to the real thing. And it’s not mostly about policies – it’s mostly about trust. Harper has managed to create a new political and government culture in which the default position of most citizens is distrust. If Mulcair wants Canadians to trust the NDP he has to take the party forward and not backwards.

He can’t do that by replicating Harper’s permanent campaign or the Liberals’ opportunism. He can only do it over the long term by reinventing the party at the riding level as a social movement party – active on issues year round, making it easier for people to engage in politics, educating its own members in the art of motivating people and tapping into Canadians’ essentially progressive values.

Those values have changed little over the years. It is Canadians’ expectations of government that have changed. The NDP’s future success depends on increasing people’s expectations of what is possible – not further decreasing them.

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