As a former musician, NDP Leader Wab Kinew knows that when you need to win over a skeptical audience, you fall back on a medley of your best-known tunes. In this election campaign, that means offering voters policies and pledges that are well within the playbook of the NDP nearly two decades ago.

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This article was published 6/9/2019 (993 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

As a former musician, NDP Leader Wab Kinew knows that when you need to win over a skeptical audience, you fall back on a medley of your best-known tunes. In this election campaign, that means offering voters policies and pledges that are well within the playbook of the NDP nearly two decades ago.

Increased funding for health care and education, more money for social and economic programs in the north, pro-labour policies such as a $15 minimum wage and enhanced investments in infrastructure. And just a tip of the hat to fiscal policy with a pledge to balance the budget in four years by cutting "discretionary spending" and introducing a surtax on the wealthy.

In a campaign where PC Leader Brian Pallister has been forced to defend his austerity agenda over the past three years, Kinew is trying to offer what could be called the "anti-austerity agenda."

Kinew is selling it as a balanced approach that looks and sounds identical to the strategy used by former NDP premier Gary Doer to dominate Manitoba politics in the 2000s.

Doer had the luxury of an overheated economy that produced huge annual revenue growth, which in turn allowed him to spend more to satisfy his core and yet remain mostly in the black ink, which stole thunder from fiscal conservatives.

Doer thrived by mixing equal amounts tax cuts and spending increases to build a big tent of support that proved impenetrable for the Liberals and Tories. Doer had the luxury of an overheated economy that produced huge annual revenue growth, which in turn allowed him to spend more to satisfy his core and yet remain mostly in the black ink, which stole thunder from fiscal conservatives.

Applied in this campaign, the Doer "balanced approach" is not likely going to return the NDP to its glory. It’s only been three years since the party imploded under the combined weight of horrific fiscal management and bitter internal fighting. Offering a steady diet of its greatest hits is hardly going to convince voters the party is ready for another chance at governing.

However, this election is not really about the NDP vying for government. This is the election where Kinew and his party need to shore up core support and win back a handful of seats lost to the Tories in the 2016 election, or face the political abyss.

A recent Probe Research poll conducted for the Free Press and CTV News Winnipeg showed that a significant number of NDP voters who left the party in 2016 are still not ready to return to the fold. In that context, spinning a couple of goldie-oldies might just be the ticket to stabilizing the party’s core. However, supporters and candidates who think the NDP has nowhere to go but up should be cautious. This party is still looking for a safe port in the storm that hit it in 2016.

That election left the NDP with only 14 seats, down 21 seats from the election in 2011. With the loss of seats also came a loss of campaign donations and expertise, as the supporters and organizers who helped sustain the NDP through 17 years in government decided to move on.

In this campaign, Kinew has a modest but still daunting challenge: hold on to the seats he has, and add a few seats to show some progress. Seems easy enough, but Kinew may find that even getting back to the totals from the 2016 election will be a challenge.

In this campaign, Kinew has a modest but still daunting challenge: hold on to the seats he has, and add a few seats to show some progress. Seems easy enough, but Kinew may find that even getting back to the totals from the 2016 election will be a challenge. The NDP is already down two seats from 2016 even before voting starts.

The NDP lost St. Boniface in a byelection after former premier Greg Selinger retired. The party effectively lost the Maples when it expelled MLA Mohinder Saran. New Democrats will be hard-pressed to win back both of those seats.

That’s the glass-half-empty view. On the positive side, the NDP has one clear advantage: it doesn’t have to be competitive in all 57 ridings.

When you are a governing party with a large caucus of MLAs, you tend to focus more on defence to protect your seats, particularly when trying to sustain a majority mandate. Late in the campaign, when it’s time to shift strategic resources, governing parties have difficult decisions to make.

As a party with no chance of winning the campaign, you’re almost entirely on offence. And because those offensive efforts will be focused on a handful of seats, it’s unlikely you’ll stretch financial and human resources too thin.

In addition to protecting its 12 seats, the NDP will look for comeback wins in places such as Thompson and possibly Brandon East, although Kinew has not spent a lot of time in that riding. There is optimism related to seats such as Union Station, Transcona, St. Vital, St. James and Fort Garry, some of which have seen significant changes because of boundary redistribution. The Maples is a toss-up, as is Tyndall Park, where two sitting MLAs — the NDP’s Ted Marcelino and Liberal Cindy Lamoureux — go head-to-head.

To some, the NDP campaign appears to be a retread of past platforms. However, to borrow from the annals of popular music, Kinew and the NDP may be playing the same old song, but it has a different meaning now, since all of the voters who carried them to victory are gone.

Before, it was about getting and keeping power. This time, it’s about survival.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.