Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Gerald Caplan's Post-Mortem
Is the NDP supposed to be a party of ideas and values or a party questing for power? A former NDP national director, Gerald Caplan, says the party faithful need to mull that over to chart a path forward.
No one doubted the integrity and honour of the CCF’s J. S. Woodsworth and M. J. Coldwell. But it didn’t help at the ballot box. The first leader of the NDP, their successor, was none other than the beloved Tommy Douglas himself. But Tommy got nowhere electorally and was replaced by David Lewis. Lewis, too often neglected now, was universally respected for his obvious brilliance and devotion to the ideals of democratic socialism, which no one ever articulated better. In two elections David did not win 18 per cent support. Then came Ed Broadbent, who did get 20 per cent once and was the most popular politician in Canada for some years – except at election time.
It became a cliché about Tommy, David and Ed that had they been leading one of the other parties, they would have swept the country. Everybody, but everybody, would have voted for them. But of course their being New Democrats was the essence of their being.
...Each of these leaders had her own specific appeal and his own particular characteristics – Tommy the grassroots hero, David the peerless orator, Ed the academic with the common touch, gutsy Audrey, effervescent Alexa. Beyond that, recall that each of their campaigns was different in umpteen ways – the issues, the mood of the country, the party’s program, its budget, its strategy, its organization. Add in now the different Liberal and Conservative leaders each faced, and the different strategies of each of these rivals.
Yet despite these endlessly different variables, and regardless who the leaders were, NDP support nationally almost always remained at 20 per cent or below, only once, in 2011, ever breaking out.
Isn’t there a lesson here: that whoever the leader and whatever the circumstances, the large majority of Canadians have not bought whatever the NDP was selling? Doesn’t it also logically mean that no other leader, and no better campaign strategy, would necessarily have given the NDP the victory it so deeply craved in last year’s election? Doesn’t it mean in general that despite Jack Layton’s one thrilling advance, Canadians have never been ready, and remain unready today, to take the NDP seriously as a potential national government?
Some New Democrats, looking at the hard evidence, have accepted the party’s role as the country’s conscience and not its government. Their critics within the party suggest this meant somehow deliberately eschewing government, as if they chose not to win. That’s just silly. The truth is that no CCF or NDP leader ever, not once since 1933, did anything but try to win as many seats as humanly possible. We know the results.
But what each did do, before Mulcair, was to steadfastly refuse to turn their party into one of the other parties. If Canadians want a moderate or conservative party, they know where to go. The NDP’s not for them. But who’s it for? For many years the answer was clear: new ideas, humane ideas, cutting-edge ideas, that their opponents often stole. Great. But beyond child care and pharmacare, what’s to be stolen from the NDP’s armoury today? On the biggest challenge of our era, extreme climate change, what side is the NDP even on?