It Was a Failure For the Ages
Tom Mulcair could be found recently riding home with Justin Trudeau on the jetliner reserved for the Prime Minister and his entourage. Coming back from the Paris UN Climate Conference, the leader of the NDP was likely sitting in the corner with the little support staff he has left. Rachel Notley was trying her best not to get any of his recent failure’s stench on her otherwise impressive first year Alberta NDP Government.
Three and a half months ago, if you were to ask who was going to be high-fiving the pilots on the recently painted and retrofitted Hercules grade airplane, you would not have been faulted for inverting the roles. In late August, I’m sure Tom Mulcair went to sleep with dreams of the speech that he as Prime Minister was going to be able to deliver in Paris. An opportunity to come out as the progressive that he tried so hard to hide in the election. Instead, he was likely on Justin’s plane, because the NDP will have to take all the free flights they can get over the next few years. The image of Tom Mulcair looking at Trudeau the Younger and fading further and further away from relevance is one that is not too far off the mark.
And, if they aren’t careful his party and their provincial cousins could be following very quickly.
The Road Ahead
The NDP find themselves in an unenviable position. If you noticed a significant shift in their messaging during the election, you’re not the only one. The deliberate push to the center and some would even say the right, was not well received by many of their long time supporters and financial backers. Combined with the losses of Megan Leslie and Peter Stoffer, who could have easily carried the Interim Leader mantle until some much-needed rebuilding occurred, the NDP is left rudderless with a lame duck leader at the helm, who will only serve as a reminder of how poorly the party did in the last election
The NDP doesn’t have a Bob Rae to fall back on, and as such will have to rely on Tom Mulcair to serve as a de-facto interim leader. A tough task for someone who merely two months ago was interviewing for the job of Prime Minister. Mulcair will have to walk a fine line in the house. His relentless attack style that gave him so much momentum must now be subdued during question period. Increased attacks on a Liberal Government platform that turned out to be far more progressive than what the NDP presented will only work to ostracize further, the voters who flipped Liberal last election.
This week the Newfoundland Liberals ended the long dynasty of Danny Williams, efficiently collecting the anti-conservative votes, save for two NDP seats. There are some hard truths that the NDP need to learn, and I am sure that long time Dippers will be the first to tell me that these are things that they already know. For any NDP brand to survive through the next election cycle, there are a few things that every branch needs to embrace and implement today. In two years, the brand needs to be ready to be what Canadians have always wanted it to be and in reality is the only form that they could ever hope to enjoy true success.
Embrace the Constructive
You’ve lost; you were beaten by a younger, hungrier, better-looking version of yourself. It’s tough to hear, and as someone who’s been cut from his share of hockey teams, I can assure you that realizing that was especially difficult, coming to the necessary epiphany that I was the one who didn’t have the skills needed to tilt the balance was even harder. Yes, sometimes the decks are stacked against you, but you need to have the situational awareness to adjust your effort level accordingly, this was the primary failure of the 2015 NDP Federal Election Campaign. Trudeau’s Liberals embraced the 3rd place position and played the constructive opposition more often than not. Liberal pressers would criticize the Harper Conservatives while also highlighting the blanket negativity of the official opposition. As a progressive party, it is hard to be the official opposition. Progressives, especially the center block of Canadian voters dislike a party that merely attacks. The term my 83-year-old grandmother used in a description of both Tom Mulcair and New Brunswick’s NDP Leader Dominic Cardy was Abrasive. Conservatives can be abrasive because they own everything that comes along with that brand, the benefits, and the consequences.
So as the third party, or as a voice outside of the legislature, the correct maneuver is to redefine what it means to be opposition. Offer a constructive alternative, be a party of ideas that can help the current government, offer them up for free, and allow yourself to define the narrative for your party for the next few years. On the one hand, you can be the hard workers who did their best to contribute to success in challenging times, and if the governing party chooses to ignore you which (at least provincially) is the most likely case. You can go to the next election standing on the ground that your party is the only one that can truly leave partisanship behind for the greater good. Unless of course the government of the day succeeds in balancing the budget, growing the economy and raising the standard of living. In which case, you never had a chance.
Empower the Outsiders
Let’s face it, power is a corruptive force. Even the illusion of it can cause people to become cloistered and closed off to the world. Tom Mulcair’s style of politics clashed with the traditional social Democrats in the party. Jack Layton’s team held a fundamentally different approach than the pragmatic Mulcair. The result of combating ideologies caused a philosophical divide in the party. This schism allowed Mulcair to be more efficient in his role in Ottawa, but ultimately hurt his ground game in the election. Causing him lose both long held and newly acquired seats to a robust G.O.T.V. Liberal effort.
People in the know here in New Brunswick, refer to this phenomena as “The Back Room.” This back room consists of a small group of cabinet ministers, advisors, and officials that run the government. It’s something that alienates voters and often comes up in political commentary. In Ottawa, the duo of Telford and Butts will have as much, or more say, in the direction of this government than any elected MP that isn’t named Trudeau
So, be the party that reaches out, hold town halls, publicize any policy workshop. Allow for the inclusion of voices that don’t necessarily agree with you. Repeat this process, until you’ve become the party that works openly and with the people. It’s not going to be easy, and it is going to be poor turnouts and empty halls more often than you’d hope, but it is the only way to build a brand that can stand apart from the traditional two parties.
This is likely the hardest item on the list. When a driven person has a vision, and let us at least give the politicians credit for being driven. It is incredibly hard for them to allow that vision to fall into the hands of others, to shape and mold into something new. Occasionally party leadership will have to take some unilateral actions; however, if a party can engage genuinely and include a broad swath of the public in their decisions, justifications and reasoning will be more readily accepted and embraced.
Start a Farm Team
Rebuilds are a hard theory to swallow, especially in professional sports. When you get thumped as thoroughly and as completely as the NDP brand has over the past few years, except in the Alberta election, you have to blow it up and start developing from the draft. A real focus on this will allow you the opportunity to find a Crosby or a Toews. This takes commitment. Which means the dedication of resources that could get you face time with the press, will now be used helping a current member get elected to the health or education board, or a municipal council.
This development will not and should not result in any immediate boost or growth for the party. When the next election rolls around, and of the 30 members you helped get into local office, you may have 20 running for you provincially or federally. This is where you will see the profits of your steadiness.
The NDP has one thing going for them that you don’t see in most of the other parties. It is a party of outsiders. Tommy Douglas fought for national health care, believing that the deck of the day was stacked in favour of a small group of medical and political professionals, and against the best interests of everyday Canadians.
So the decisions are now left at the feet of the New Democrats. They can keep trying to beat the Liberals and Conservatives at a game that they have created and mastered since 1867, or, they can double down and attempt to break away from the trench warfare, that they are just not equipped to withstand. If I’m right, then worst case scenario, the Liberals move to a similar strategy, in which case they’ll be back on more even footing in the fight for the hearts and minds of Canada’s progressive voters.
Whatever the decision, the New Democrats will without a doubt be the most exciting party to watch over the next cycle. The NDP, like the Liberals in 2011, are fighting for their existence. Without the benefit of a Trudeau Wild Card to play, it’ll take a lot of work and a lot of vision to recover, it may, in fact, be the blow that finally moves Canada in line with our American cousins’ two party system.