The NDP needs to start over and rediscover its roots
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/01/2016 (2453 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Surprisingly, there is barely a whisper (save for Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo) among NDP ranks calling for the resignation of leader Tom Mulcair, in spite of the party’s disastrous performance in the last general election.
And if the NDP is to become anything like a significant political force in Canada, a few fundamental changes are needed — likely impossible under Mulcair.
It may otherwise be a footnote in Canadian political history, but the problems with the NDP are epitomized by what happened in the Manitoba riding of Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley during last year’s federal election.
In the midst of the campaign, the NDP candidate in that riding — party stalwart Stefan Jonasson — was asked to step aside after it was uncovered he had likened the misogynistic attitudes of an Orthodox Jewish sect to those of the Taliban.
Jonasson’s comments, although colourful, were entirely within the realm of rational debate about women’s rights.
Alas, his name now stands among other disgraced also-rans who were asked to step aside in the middle of their campaigns for legitimate reasons.
The Jonasson incident deeply disillusioned NDP rank and file and voters alike in the riding of Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley. So much so that when the votes were counted, the party’s stand-in candidate ended up registering a paltry six per cent of the vote.
This was — stressing the past tense — a riding that had been slowly built up for almost two decades.
In 2000, the NDP placed an embarrassing fourth with only 7.8 per cent of the vote. Its total gradually increased to 10 per cent in 2004, 12 per cent in 2006 and 18 per cent in 2008. In 2011, NDP support in the riding edged above 20 per cent, good enough for a second-place finish.
Undeniably, Jonasson’s dismissal all but erased two decades of organizing, door-knocking and hard work that went into gradually shifting political values in the riding of Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley.
This episode should give pause to party delegates when they review Mulcair’s leadership in April.
On a macro level, it shows the NDP’s current leadership operates under strict, centralized policy-making and messaging.
The NDP of today has ostensibly little or no tolerance for any dissonant — never mind divergent — views from the official party line, even when that debate, as in Jonasson’s case, is entirely consistent with some of the values at the very core of the party.
In other words, the NDP is no longer a grassroots party. And this may prove to be a fatal shift for an organization that has historically relied — arguably more than any party — on a highly motivated and mobilized base. These days, NDP supporters are asked for money and little else.
Throwing Jonasson under the bus was probably an easy decision for strategic reasons, too. That’s because Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley happens to be in a province that, in spite of the NDP’s western origins, has little tactical interest for the party.
Manitoba, along with several other regions, did not factor into the party’s master plan. Mulcair stressed during the campaign the NDP only needed to add 35 seats to its previous total to form government. While the claim was disingenuous, it revealed the purely arithmetic nature of the electoral strategy: to hold its existing seats, including its Quebec bastion, while adding a few dozen (in the Greater Toronto Area and British Columbia). The communications people would take care of the rest.
Tough luck if you were running somewhere else. Had Jonasson been a candidate where it mattered to internal strategists, the NDP would certainly have put some sort of effort to stand by his side. Instead, they find themselves with a dead riding and an ever deeper hole in Manitoba.
Rather than focusing solely on incumbent ridings and regional or “strategic” gains, the NDP needs to focus on building its base across the country. In other words, the party needs to support, and learn from, ridings exactly like Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley instead of blowing them apart.
On the strategic front, however, Mulcair’s refrain continues to be precisely the opposite. The NDP, he asserts, still has a foothold in Quebec and has a relatively strong, although weakened, caucus in Parliament.
Again: pure arithmetic. And meaningless at that.
Voters saw very well how in a single day — Oct. 19, 2015 — a party could plummet from government-in-waiting to third-party status. There are no indications the NDP’s slide will not continue further under current leadership, especially when its best effort at forward thinking is to state the obvious.
Rather than making facile and fatuous statements, the NDP should be asking itself fundamental — existential — questions.
What does the NDP’s strength in Parliament actually mean for the health of the party? What are the strong riding associations that have built up the party across Canada that might have a chance of winning next time? And if not next time, which ones may win in two, three or even four elections? Which riding associations are essentially dormant, and how can these be supported?
Where in the country is the party’s culture and brand weak, and how can it be strengthened? How can the party reinvigorate its base? What can the party do, while on the sidelines, to engage progressive Canadians and shift public perceptions and political values?
These are all questions the next NDP leader needs to ask himself (or herself), the party and the public at large. This is essential to renew and reinvigorate the party in a meaningful way.
For now, the NDP of Tom Mulcair is highly centralized, controlling and out of step with the kind of inclusive, bottom-up and open politics that is likely to draw interest in the future.
Stephane Allard holds a master’s degree in political studies from the University of Ottawa and writes on literature and politics. A former Manitoban, he lives in Gatineau, Que.
Updated on Monday, January 18, 2016 10:25 AM CST: Corrects dates