Sunday, January 07, 2007
The NDP need to be Punished
I have long bemoaned vote splitting on the left. However, it would be shame if the NDP were to disappear. The NDP has a place in Canadian politics.
At its worst, the NDP is what is today under Jack Layton. Layton seems to believe that there is but one measure of political success in Canada and that is the number of seats one wins. Hence, the 2006 election was deemed an improvement on the 2004 election. It matters not that the NDP had more influence in the latter than it does in the former or that his give the Conservatives a free ride campaign helped elect someone so ideologically opposed to everything the NDP has stood for in the past he referred to them as the “devil”. 2006 was a 10 seat improvement and was thus an improvement. When confronted with the political consequences of such a campaign, Layton et al like to claim that Liberals and Conservatives are in reality too peas in pod and as such the switch in government did not matter. This only serves to undermine their credibility with voters – knowledgeable ones anyway. Leaving aside a history of cooperation between Liberal minority governments and the NDP and cooperation between Layton and Martin on the 2005 “NDP budget”, on a policy by policy basis Martin’s Liberal’s were closer to the NDP than they where the Conservatives and, as alluded to above, there is virtually no overlap between NDP and Conservative policy. The NDP fall back line that they are different from the Liberals in so far as they mean what they say and the Liberals talk a good game but walk right while in power is disingenuous to say the least. The NDP have never been a position to walk the walk and what successes they have come under Liberal governments. Indeed, while Layton would have Canadians believe that 134 Liberals helped pass an NDP budget, it is more accurate to say that 19 NDP MPs helped pass a Liberal budget. Paul Martin is the elephant in the living room whenever Layton implies that NDP and the NDP alone got “results” for average Canadians. If he had run an honest campaign, Layton should have claimed that the NDP will be in a position to fight for Canadians if and only if Canadians elect another Liberal minority government. Instead he helped toss the Liberals from power and in the process rendered his party impotent.
While NDP has at times tired to paint the Liberals and Conservatives as being the two peas in a pod, Layton is desperately trying to turn his party into a Liberal surrogate. The Liberals drone on about Kyoto, Kelowna and childcare and like a little brother trying to emulate his older brother so too do the NDP. As the “Natural governing party of Canada” the Liberals grab the headlines and like a little brother parroting his older brother the NDP get nothing more than the odd amused chuckle. After showing signs original thinking on Afghanistan, Layton’s inner child lost confidence in his own views and has subsequently backtracked; the NDP’s Afghan policy is becoming more muddled by the day and in the process more and more Liberal. Layton’s Liberal drag routine has met with some tactical success, but strategically it is doomed. Voters prefer an original to a knockoff and besides if forced to choose between two parties championing identical issues voters are likely to go with the party that actually has a chance of winning.
One of the problems with US politics is that two parties so dominant the political landscape that any other suitor is a complete afterthought. One consequence of this is that the political debate in the States is hopelessly narrow; it is focused almost exclusively on what is politically possible and what will have a positive impact at the ballot box. American politics is the calculus of pleasing corporate America enough that they are so kind enough to fund you, well all the while finding a message that will on the one hand appeal to one’s base and while at the same time be sufficiently appealing to fair-weather “independents”. Not surprisingly, pundits in the States spend more time assessing the political ramifications of such and such action and surprisingly little time assessing the merits of such and such an action or policy. The relevant frequency of US elections, a lack of party discipline, a bicameral political system, term limits and fixed election dates simply compound matters. They keep what the odds maker’s say newsworthy and a handicapping system from becoming too amorphous. The same would be so, albeit to a lesser degree, in Canada if the NDP never existed.
At its best, the NDP has provided an invaluable service to all Canadians; it widened the Canadian political debate and did so by historically being the most ideological of the major political parities. Parties concerned with the “art of the possible” are not infusing the political debate with new ideas with little chance of furthering their party at the polls. They are reactive. However, the catch 22 of such pragmatism is that such parties concede some of the field to those who are not so cautious. To use an evolutionary metaphor, the politically brave and ideologically pure help determine the policy areas to be discussed; the powerful and pragmatic determine what policies get accepted. Historically, the NDP were able to get “results” for Canadians in two ways. One, they played King Maker in several Liberal minority governments. Two, they were able to achieve successes at a distance by continually infusing the political arena with new policy ideas. Either way the Liberal party benefited. By infusing the political arena with ideas from a leftist perspective, the NDP shifted the political debate in Canada leftward, leaving Liberals and not the Progressive Conservatives as the “natural governing party of Canada”.
Things changed in the 1990s. The emergence of the ideological puritanical Reform party, Conrad Black and Canwest Global and series of electoral disasters for the NDP helped move the political debate in English Canada inexorably rightward. The news, in more ways than one, is no better today. The NDP’s chameleon act threatens to concede the war of ideas to the right on a permanent basis. If it were not for the Supreme Court, and George Bush's arrogance, stupidity, bullheadedness, the right would have controlled the political agenda in its entirety. That is one reason why some consider Harper a moderate. By mid 80 standards however, he makes Mulroney look like a raving pinko; Harper certainly thought the PCs a bunch a pinkos back then and that is why he left them to help found the Reform party. The left has no other champion except maybe the Toronto Star. The Liberals are certainly of no help. They are still adrift in a policy vacuum. They are still busy trying to fine tune a platform they ran on and lost in 2006. Meanwhile, there are legions of Conservative missionaries in the media. Pace Harper, virtually ever major newspaper backed the Conservatives 2006, as detailed in the McGill media studies, the Liberals received the lion’s share of the negative press in both 2004 and 2006 and then there is Sun media, the Conservative party’s PR wing. They have also not lost their ideological edge and by and large dominant not only the headlines but also set the agenda. However they Conservatives are much more pragmatic than they have were before. They will again release a well focused easy to understand platform.
Harper apologist, admirer, and all but outed closet Conservative Warren Kinsella claimed that the Liberals needed to spend some time in the penalty box last election. Let me propose a variation on this theme. The NDP need to spend some time in the penalty box. No longer we will progressives tolerate, Layton’s lack of vision, his lack of courage and his unwillingness to go after Stephen Harper with every ounce of energy. It is time the NDP, take a page from their provincial brethren and propose progressive, easy to understand policy proposals, such as increase an in the minimum wage. Such proposals have been the bread and butter of socially democratic parties since their inception. It is time the NDP put forth an agenda that that is in that tradition. Canada needs them to and quite frankly so do the Liberals.