What is the matter with the NDP? An analysis of how they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and why their initial reactions to that are so worrisome.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been watching the NDP reaction to the events of Oct 19, 2015. Now, I need to point out from the outset that I am not a NDP partisan nor supporter, and in this last election I was a Liberal partisan, unlike in prior elections, but that was because Trudeau sold me on his vision and its AND his ability to defeat Harper and not because I am by nature a Liberal partisan. My pre-Harper default setting was unaligned swing centrist voter that literally voted NDP, PCPC, Lib, and even once Green depending on the election cycle and based on local as well as national considerations. I want this understood because I am more concerned with the overall health of our political culture and the process side of things than I am who is necessary running it. This post is not because I want to rub salt in open wounds, it is because I am really concerned with what I'm seeing.
I've always, since my earliest years of beginning to understand the world of politics onward thought the NDP provided a very important and valuable role in our political discourse and culture, even at the federal level when they never seriously considered for government. They prevented the binary dialogue which I saw in the US which made it too narrow in my view. I saw the voice of the NDP bringing a very important progressive element to the dialogue which helped keep us a more compassionate society than we might otherwise have been, and I was grateful for that. I saw how they actually practiced what they preached even when it could be politically damaging for them, and so I trusted them to prevent the rise to power in Canada of one of these right wing extremists I saw starting to gain power in the US from the late 70s onward.
Now, that started to change for me with the election of Jack Layton to the leadership and watching his shifting of the party from a principles first to a seats first expediency mentality. I've made many comments about that in the past as well as referenced at this blog and I will not pretend I haven't. Indeed, I hold Layton responsible as the man most responsible for the rise of Harper to the PMO and his majority, although on the majority front the man I blame right behind, and not by much behind is Ignatief, so it isn't just the NDP side I've had issues with where the rise and maintaining of Harper as PM is concerned. I'm putting this up front because I will not have someone claim I am trying to hide where I have been when I do this dissection. I try to be fair honest and accurate with the facts in my comments, and this is not going to be a pleasant read for any NDP supporters, especially Mulcair supporters.
Ok, now that that is out out the way, lets get to it.
First off, lets go back to the beginning of the year. Back then after a near 2 year high in the polls Trudeau was starting to slide, which gave the NDP some room grow and replace the Libs and especially for Mulcair to replace Trudeau as the agent of change placeholder and focus until the election campaign actually started. Trudeau's trouble looked to have begun with the aftermath of the Parliament Hill shooting. Then came bill C51. This was the moment that caused so many soft Lib voters to back away and take a second look at Mulcair and the NDP as their vehicle to remove Harper in the next election. While the polls did not move all that much for the federal NDP until after the Notley win, I submit it was ground that had been prepped by the C51 fallout for the Libs and how it had allowed Mulcair to look not just the more progressive voice but also the true principled defender of our democracy especially against Harper who looked increasingly not just dictatorial but tyrannical in his reaching , not least being C51.
Note I said that this prepped the ground for the Notley win to cause a significant increase in the polling support for the NDP as the main anti-Harper vehicle. This is important to a point I believe is crucial in understanding what came next. Ironically enough I also note that the Notley win and the decision by Mulcair I believe prepped the ground for the slide of the Mulcair NDP in the election came within the same month. May 5th was when Notley had that surprise majority win in Alberta which made the idea of a federal NDP government suddenly seem not so outlandish nor impossible a goal. Yet it was also in May that the Consortium debate negotiations discovered that Harper was unwilling to participate, and instead of holding Harper to account for it Mulcair, within 24-48 hrs no less, sided with Harper and said he would not be at a debate without Harper.
This is something I believe was a critical strategic mistake by Mulcair, compounded by the willingness of the NDP machinery to support the line of reasoning behind it. Specifically that Mulcair felt that since he was after Harper's job there was no point to a debate without Harper being present. This was something I pointed out in many blogs and news sites was a reason that if any prior LOO had given to a prior PM trying this stunt would have had the then third place NDP up in arms about how inherently undemocratic it was, how this was collusion to shut out the third voice in Canadian politics, that this was something to be opposed on both moral/ethical grounds and practical grounds, and they would have been entirely correct to be doing so. Yet I got this reaction of "meh" fromthe Mulcair/NDP partisans on this front, or that I was making a mountain out of a molehill, that this really wan't something that would have much real impact, epsecially with other debates being schedualed.
Obviously I profoundly disagreed from that initial point onward. This was revisited in the public mind at the beginning of the campaign in August, when Mulcair ended up pulling out of the Consortium debate he had agreed to, and then in late August pulled out of the Women Issues debate he agreed to the year prior and had made much of at the time being the first to commit to it, instead substituting interviews as his "compromise" solution. He used the argument that since Harper wasn't coming therefore he wasn't going either. I think part of the problem for many with this specific example was that it is hard to believe anyone ever seriously expected Harper to show for this debate, it was not a demographic that his support came from, the kinds of women that tended to support Harper were more of the old REAL women variety than those who would have been following this debate. So it seemed to me and I suspect many others that Mulcair was fine with no Harper being there back then to still participate, but since then things changed because of how he was now the frontrunner instead of the third place person and now suddenly it was a bad idea for him, not the practice of a principles first honourable person, not at all. Having this come back up though, and over something as I believe obvious as this was being about expediency over principles at the start of the campaign was something that had an impact.
I prefer to liken that impact to the support of Mulcair and the NDP being the solid ice with a dusting of snow to keep the visibility of the ice opaque upon which they stood. With this debates issue that was a heavy blow, heavy enough to set into that ice very deep cracks yet the surface showed little to none of this at the time. After all, I believe that much of what got Mulcair the lead was his positioning as Captain Canada and defender of democracy with the C51 issue and the stance he took combined with the Notley win suddenly making him and his party look like a real potential governing contender. So having Mulcair not only aid and abet Harper in his avoiding the Consortium debate (as it turned out just the English one in the end, still though that was the one with the widest viewership by far of them all) but argue that only Harper mattered was something that ran deeply counter to the message of being defender of democracy.
This is important, because I believe a lot of the anti-Harper sentiment in the wider public came down to how much Harper was undercutting our core democratic beliefs and how we governed ourselves. So for Mulcair who was trying to get ready and positioned to ride the clearly gathering anti-Harper wave in the electorate to do something which ran so profoundly counter to that sentiment, and to have his party defending it in an equally profound counter to that premise AND to what everyone would have expected the NDP principled position to be were they the third party this was being done to gave a lot of second thought grounds for those that were currently in the Mulcair camp.
Still though, this by itself was clearly not enough to be the cause of what we saw happen. No, I believe that was a three part event on one issue, and it was the second great impact on that metaphorical ice I mentioned earlier. That blow caused the cracks to become fissures and for the water to start ring, the surface to start breaking up, and the NDP support to start sinking. This was not, btw the Niqab issue, I believe that has become a comfortable fable that the NDP uses to pretend they died on a noble hill, albeit a fable mainly created and enabled by media pundits at the time and afterwards.
No, that triple event was this: Right before the economic debate the NDP announced it was going to provide their costing document to show how they were fiscally responsible and could be trusted to managed the finances of the federal government. Yet the roll-out was poorly managed and presented, and then worse, it became known that the numbers the NDP was using in their, as Kevin Page called it Swiss Cheese costing document, were based on the assumptions used by the Harper government in the last budget, a series of numbers and assumptions that reality had already shown were WILDLY overly optimistic by this point and therefore unreliable. That week between those two elements were a real rough ride, but they weren't what I believe was the true shattering event.
No, that was the promise of Mulcair to run in his first government a balanced budget even after all the spending announcements he had made, even after it was clear the basis for his numbers were suspect, and after they had just bungled that costing roll-out. That was something many people found suspended disbelief one step too far. Then that left the chance for Justin Trudeau to roll out what I believe was the first political equivalent of an 8 count punch on Mulcair and the NDP, one they never really recovered from, that willingness to run a modest deficit for targeted infrastructure spending to try and get the economy running better and as a part of an actual jobs program. Then to make it worse Mulcair joined Harper in attacking Trudeau for that policy announcement.
This I believe is at the core of what caused the NDP slide from being seen as the vehicle of choice for the anybody but Harper vote. Of course there are other elements in the demise of the NDP in this campaign. Things like Mulcair sounding a lot like Harper on tone, especially where Trudeau himself was concerned. That was a bad move for someone trying to present as the anti-Harper AND it ran counter to that last message Layton left his party. There was the purging of those candidates not sufficiently pro-Israel for Mulcair that happened at the beginning of the campaign causing some problems within the NDP core base. Mulcair not joining Trudeau on the F35 cancellation policy also didn't help, nor, did his initial trying to straddle the divide on the Niqab at Citizenship ceremonies when hit with it in the debates.
There a lot of additional minor reasons that helped to further make the NDP seem like the wrong choice for most of the anybody but Harper vote, but that wasn't all that happened here. Something else that needs to be taken into account is the Liberal campaign itself. We know that the Libs got a bit over 4 million more voters than they did in 2011. We also know that roughly 200k came from the CPC , and about 1 million came from the NDP. That left almost three million more than were new voters that went to the Liberals. That was not just about being anybody but Harper, that was about things like generational change. It was especially about IMHO the decision of Trudeau to follow the "Sunny Ways" approach to campaigning even when he and his party were in third place and looking like they might be out of the running. Whereas once the NDP started sliding they went harder and more negative against Trudeau and the Libs, that contrast was pointed and I believe possibly the fatal blow.
So now we come to election night, and the Mulcair speech. I literally was left speechless and with a sense of deja vu. I say that because I watched the coverage of the Ontario Provincial election night speeches of the three leaders, and I remember listening to Horwath talking as if she had this great victory on her hands instead of what was arguably an electoral disaster. Now I was hearing Mulcair talking in the same manner, almost as if he was in a minority government balance of power situation instead of being reduced to the third party rump of Parliament again, albeit with the 2nd largest rump they ever managed, yet a far cry from where they started in both seat count AND where they were at the beginning through the first half of the election campaign itself. While I understand and accept the need to keep the spirits of your supporters up in the wake of such a defeat, you also need to show you understand at least something of what just happened to you and the reality you now face, and that was totally lacking in both tone and substance in that speech.
Then for the next 2 weeks Mulcair stayed out of public sight, even one place he should have shown up for, which I believe was the first anniversary of the Parliament Hill shootings (not the place to stay "closeted" I submit, especially given how Harper had acted in the heat of that moment last year) . He didn't need to do more than simply attend, he didn't need to answer questions or anything involving public speaking but he should have been there as he was the LOO when this happened and was still a party leader even after the election, and one claiming to still be there for the long haul. Instead he sent a deputy. I said then that was a mistake, and not just for the day either. One of the long term image issues the NDP has always had was on security issues, and showing this apparent disrespect was something that could be used against the NDP down the road later, ESPECIALLY if Mulcair stays on as leader
So now we come to present day. The day after Trudeau officially became the PM. On that day is also the first time Mulcair speaks in public (sorry dancing for This Hour Has 22 Minutes while funny doesn't count in my books) and what does he say? He says he and his party are the reason Harper lost, mission accomplished/check that box. That only he and his were any real opposition to Harper and his government. This was NOT the tone he needed to be setting, he needed to be show in that he understood the message the voters had for him and his party, and that he and his would start fresh at working hard to regain their trust. This triumphalism is more cognitive dissonance in action, not smart IMHO.
So now we come to the bottom line. Why did the NDP crash and burn, and was it the responsibility and/or actions of the Leader, or was it forces beyond his control as he and so many NDP voices have been arguing as they say Mulcair should stay on. From where I watched it all unfold, I cannot unerstand how anyone can look at what happened and not place primary blame/responsibility on Mulcair and the campaign team he put in place.
One point which I have not yet mentioned but which I believe is one of the more telling incidents early in the campaign was with the purge of the NDP candidate for Kings-Hants here in NS. When that candidates defenders rightly pointed out that his position was entirely consistent with the NDP policy convention set position, Brad Levigne came out and said that it wasn't the policy convention that defined but the campaign platform,which was was disappeared from NDP websites some weeks earlier in July. Now granted Kings-Hants being Scott Brison's riding was a long shot at best, but still. Something a lot of people forget is that the NDP policy conventions are supposed to by the Constitution of the NDP itself be the final say on what the policies of the NDP itself are, and that it is not the purview of anyone, not even the leader to make arbitrary changes to them without following the policy convention process to do so with. So this action by Mulcair and Levigne ran counter to core NDP practices and principles, and I think for many that were still in the loyal base was a signal of concern for them as to where the Mulcair NDP really was going and what it was. The way Mulcair handled his former comments praising Thatcher probably didn't help in this respect either, but I count that as a secondary irritant rather than a primary motivator.
I placed that point where I did because it underscored just how much this campaign was being run by Mulcair himself by his wishes and beliefs in what should be important and what the NDP stood for. This Israeli policy clearly was from Mulcair directly and not something that organically grew within the NDP but imposed from the top down. This campaign was about Mulcair even more than it was the NDP, and we saw the result. How that means Mulcair should not be wearing the onus for this result is something I find very difficult to grasp/understand. I personally thought he should have come out election night, owned up to what happened, made clear he would not be leading the party in 2019's election campaign but staying on as interim leader while the party organized over the next period of time a leadership race to replace him with. This way the stench of that failure would attach to him and not the party and allow it the best chance of moving forward and redefining itself back into something seen as acceptable to the voting public again.
I understand about how the federal NDP like to not be overly bloodthirsty towards a failed leader in a bad election result. I also understand that this was historically speaking a strong finish for the NDP in terms of seats. However, when you take the context and reality of what the NDP came into the election campaign into account, that indeed for halfway through the election campaign itself they were in that statistical tie with the other two parties, and then ended up with this result, then it is impossible to see this other than as a massive failure and setback of profound proportions. It also needs considering that some of the new NDP seats were as a result of anti-Harper voting just as the Libs got in other ridings, so the true core of the NDP cannot be assumed to be this seat count nor the votes they got.
As well it needs remembering what happened here in Atlantic Canada. Most of the ridings the NDP lost were not ones where there was much risk of a vote split with the CPC running up the middle. What happened here was as much a repudiation of Mulcair and his approach of running the NDP and what it was standing for as it was making sure Harper was removed, as well as finding in Trudeau the message of hope and true Canadian spirit we had long been missing. There was also clearly some distaste in the arrogance and sense of entitlement that Mulcair exuded for so much of his time as LOO and as NDP leader, and especially in his decisions around the debates for the elections. I would be very surprisedif this was the vibe only in my region to this point.
The bottom line is this defeat was AT LEAST as much the direct responsibility of Mulcair and the decisions he made, and the way he campaigned, pure and simple. That this fairly obvious reality is being studiously ignored by Mulcair and NDP MPs both outgoing and remaining I find a very troubling matter. The NDP needs to take a very hash and strong look at what happened in the light of reality and truth, and the longer they stay behind these comforting fictions, things like the Niqab being the real downfall, that they were collateral damage and innocent bystanders to forces beyond their control, that it was all the evil media conspiracy out to put the Libs back in power, etc, the harder seeing and admitting these painful truths will become. THAT is why what I see worries me.
I fear the NDP is going to continue down this path of delusion. For two weeks now I've read defences against criticism as being how Libs are afraid of Mulcair's strong questioning in QP. Well, part of why Mulcair was so good in that was structural in terms of the position of LOO gives an MP, now I'll freely grant Mulcair made excellent use of it, but as the leader of the third party he will not have anywhere near the resources nor the number of party given questions to use that he was able to use to great effect against Harper, and I also suspect that his style will not work well against Trudeau either. It certainly didn't throughout the election campaign.
I want a healthy strong NDP to come out of this mix, I think they once provided a powerful voice and service to the health of Canada. However the NDP of the past decade, first from Layton and then Mulcair was built on the premise that they could replace the Liberals as the option against the CPC, and part of that was moving to the center. That they as well as the CPC combined could finish off the Liberals as a national party and therefore become the only alternate for government. That project clearly failed, and failed MASSIVELY with serious long term negative impacts for Canada in terms of how it enabled the rise of Harper and his ability to stay in power for as long as he did. As Terry Glavin says here the NDP needs to discover who they are, who they represent as their base, and what their long term agenda as a political party truly is, and so long as they stay in this mindset and keep Mulcair on I simply fail to see this happening, not just to the detriment of the NDP but for the wider nation as a whole IMHO.
P.S. I may add further links as I track them down, this is only my first attempt at this after several years away so I am rusty, and a lot of the specifics I am referring to I know I've gotten correct but I would like to try and build this up into a better hypertext linked piece than it is at the moment. Please bear with me.