While the Liberals campaigned from the left this election, the New Democratic Party swung right — a decision that cost them a shot at forming government. If Mulcair hadn’t betrayed his party’s socialist roots to score a win, they’d be in office now.
Or so goes the sentiment among leftist circles.
After all, the Labour Party of the UK is learning there is a demand for leftist politics as they bring Jeremy Corbyn to the front of their party. Blairite centrism and support for neoliberalism was a dud that failed to energize both party membership and voters at large. (Mulcair even made mention to Tony Blair as a model!)
All the same, it’s cold comfort for those of us whose upper lips curled at what Mulcair did with the NDP years ago. I should know, mine curled as far as any. But cold comfort is often as baseless as it is unpleasant. How does this analysis stack up to reality?
Did the NDP really veer right, and the Liberals to the left?
When Mulcair took the leadership of the party, the NDP changed itself from being based upon socialist principles to merely recognizing those principles as its historical roots. So at the height of their popularity, Mulcair shifted gears, a move many progressives and leftists agree spelled doom.
Heading into the 2015 election the NDP remained on top, however. If Canadians resented a turn toward the centre, they didn’t immediately show their displeasure. NDP fortunes improved through the opening stages of the election, all while Mulcair and his party held consistent to their platform — one of fiscal conservatism, to be certain, but with progressive policies.
The NDP, alone among the top three, raised the issues of our struggling health care and pharmacare. The much beloved Canadian health care system got little coverage from politicians. Under successive Liberal and Harper governments, the Canadian tax base has been eroded so that old social programs are no longer sustainable without immense increases in taxation.
Aside from that, the NDP pledged a $15 minimum wage, a national childcare plan, a promise to eliminate all student debt over seven years, a raise on taxes for corporations, and a much desired proportional representation electoral reform, among other issues. While Mulcair had diminished the vision of a left-leaning NDP, its policy proposals definitely still held left of center in today’s political spectrum.
Meanwhile, the Liberals’ much vaunted leftward swing is what really clinched the election for them, right?
But what are these left policies? Higher taxes on the wealthy and deficit spending? Those at least have the ring of left wing rhetoric.
However, is deficit spending inherently progressive or left-leaning? By now we all know that deficit spending is classic keynesian economic medicine for an ailing economy, but it’s not that simple. Harper’s Conservative government ran deficits to fuel tax cuts most of its years in office, and similarly the Liberals intend on using deficit spending to fuel middle class tax cuts. They also promised unspecific infrastructure spending, but tacked on the quantifier that they’d make clawbacks in the public sector to help pay for it.
Is that the bold left policy alternative that made the Liberals the star of the show?
And let’s be realistic — had the NDP promised deficit spending, would voters and the media have responded the same? Thanks to media reinforcement, socialist and left parties have a reputation as poor fiscal managers — so while Trudeau can get away with promising to deficit spend, could Mulcair?
Strategizing, holding to principle, and the media bias
The “leftward swing” of the Liberals was rhetoric amplified by its media supporters, in a nation where all national media outlets of note show a distinct favouritism for the Liberal-Conservative dichotomy. There was never any real substance to it, especially not in the face of the Liberal Party’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal which promises to violate every imaginable tenet of left politics. A deal only the NDP stood up vehemently against.
A quick look at the overall polls across the election show that the NDP held the fore the entire first half of the campaign. Instead of seeing a gradual decline as a Liberal left policy eroded NDP support, we see a tipping then a rapidly evaporating NDP position.
The niqab issue was the culprit at this time, where Stephen Harper’s government made a desperate bid to distract the electorate from real issues. It struck a chord among many Quebec voters, seeing NDP support drain away to Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, whose leader, Gilles Duceppe, was happy to join Harper on his desperate wedge issue.
While Trudeau casually sidestepped the issue, stating only that a Liberal government would not challenge the court’s ruling, it was Mulcair who took a principled stand in defence of these women’s right to wear what they want beyond the private security confirmation. During the French language debate, Harper and Mulcair were both animated on the topic.
The fact that Trudeau had a co-chairman who was an active oil lobbyist—advising oil companies on how to deal with his government once in office—hardly mattered. Harper had to be stopped at any cost.
The Liberals quietly stood aside, and for good cause: no votes were to be won in defending these women. Aside from that, Trudeau had already voted with Harper for the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act just a few months prior. It would be both bad political strategy and almost hypocritical when he was willing to support the rhetoric of racism Harper’s conservatives had just passed through Parliament with his aid.
It wasn’t a titanic rift then and there, but with our first-past-the-post system the loss of any amount of voter share meant the NDP went from presumptive victors to “anyone’s race”.
The media picked up with eager glee on the idea that Harper may yet win a minority government. Where Canadian media was on unfamiliar ground with the NDP in the lead, once the Liberals and Conservatives were back into the race for the top it was an all too familiar situation.
The media and Liberal Party banged the drums of Harper fear to the chant of “strategic voting” — a topic largely dead while the NDP were ahead — and the Liberals soared.
Even a Liberal scandal in full Harper style wasn’t enough to stop them. The fact that Trudeau had a co-chairman who was an active oil lobbyist—advising oil companies on how to deal with his government once in office—hardly mattered. Harper had to be stopped at any cost.
Elections are never simple matters, and there are always other issues at play. The notion of the NDP swinging right and the Liberals left wasn’t based on nothing. As Neil Macdonald put it, Trudeau ran on a promise of “ineffable change”; in a style reminiscent of Obama, it was low on substance and high on rhetoric.
The Liberals were master political strategists this election, and worked every angle to their advantage, with the help of media establishments that still recognize the party’s ridiculous “right to rule” status.
As a result, we saw a lot of people flock to the polls to vote for a progressive party with no understanding of what Trudeau actually promised them. (Someone send a memo to all the potheads: the NDP promised decriminalization the day they took office, while the Liberals made mention to potential legalization, which could take years.)
So, where does this leave the NDP?
Mulcair’s centrist move was not as bad as many make it out to be (myself in the past included), and it didn’t cost the NDP the election. The facts don’t back it up, as much as we’d like to use it to bludgeon the party back to its roots.
However, while a rightward swing wasn’t the issue that cost them the election, a return to form could be what saves the party.
These are dark times for the NDP.
While their popularity remains at a high, second only to the position they just exited, they have lost many of their most skilled and progressive voices from parliament. They also no longer hold the Official Opposition title — a mouthpiece which was invaluable in forcing some meagre recognition for their efforts from the Liberal-Conservative media dichotomy. It was hard for media to exclude Mulcair’s opinion when they were the defacto critic of government by law.
What they need is a stronger, more socialist perspective on events — a harder stance on progressive values to solidify their difference…
Worse still, supporters who came out in spectacular force to finance and canvas for the party in this election will be feeling drained. Defeated. Demoralized. This was their first real chance, and instead of winning they fell back a step and a half.
What they need is a stronger, more socialist perspective on events — a harder stance on progressive values to solidify their difference from the rhetoric of the Liberals and bolster the spirits of the defeated, and the far-left who may have already checked out.
The truth is that while the NDP still could have won this election on their left cred had it not been for aforementioned events — and the cold strategizing of the Liberal Party to take advantage of them — history shows again and again that when leftwing governments soften to the center to win elections, it’s a slippery slope.
As evidenced by the backlash to Mulcair’s principled stand on the niqab issue, holding firm on progressive ideals doesn’t always lead to victory, and the temptation to slip further into cold political strategizing is always there.
The loss this time might not have been because of that centrist swerve, but perhaps it will temper the party leftward and prevent that deterioration in the future.