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Does the NDP really want to win?

Friday, June 10, 2005

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

I’ve been an active member of the New Democratic Party for more than half of my forty years. I’ve run twice for the party in federal elections and I currently sit on the Executive of both the Ontario NDP and my local riding association. Thus, it’s fair to say that I tend to look at the party in a favourable light. My columns are often a reflection of that bias.

But, believe it or not, within the party I have a bit of a reputation for refusing to accept the party line without first asking some uncomfortable questions. It’s not that there’s any overt pressure on my to keep that criticism “within the family”, but more that I’m aware that there is no shortage of media coverage that is critical of the party. Instead of adding to that, I generally present the NDP as the party with solutions to whatever problem I’m writing about (which, for the most part, is something that I genuinely believe to be true). So, in keeping with my generally skeptical nature, I thought that it was time for me to share something about the NDP that absolutely drives me nuts.

I am so tired of the pervasive attitude in the NDP that the best we can do is to influence the government… rather than to actually be the government. Don’t get me wrong; I’m as pleased as any New Democrat at the concessions that Jack Layton was able to squeeze out of Paul Martin as a condition of supporting the recent federal budget. And, I’m obviously proud of a party legacy that includes medicare, pensions and social housing programs. But, my point is, how much bigger and better could the NDP’s legacy be if it ever became a national governing party? Doesn’t it make sense to at least aim for that?

Quite often, I’ve heard both media commentators and voters at the doorstep say, “The NDP may have the policies that people want, but they can’t win.” Well, why can’t they win? It’s because people who agree with their policies don’t vote for them; the vote Liberal. The party needs to convince people that we actually want to be the government and are prepared to be government before they will give us a chance to be the government. That means campaigning as a potential government, not as “a strong voice in Parliament” that will influence the Liberals.

It’s mot overstating the case to say that there is a historic opportunity now available for the NDP. The public is more disgusted with the Liberals than at any time since 1983/84. The difference between that era and today is that people saw the official opposition as a credible alternative government. That’s certainly not the case now, and that’s why the Liberals have bounced back in the polls. The NDP should be saying: “The alternative to a Conservative government is not yet another Liberal government, but an NDP government. The alternative to a corrupt Liberal government is not a Conservative government, but an NDP government. It's time to elect an NDP government.” The party’s main spokespeople won’t say that because they’re not convinced that such an election result is even possible. But, until they start saying it, it never will be possible.

Let me give you a couple of examples of how the NDP’s lack of electoral ambition has become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

a.. In the recent Labrador by-election, the NDP mounted only a token effort, despite recruiting a fabulous candidate and despite having many demographic factors in its favour (the party holds the western half of the riding provincially and came close to winning it in 1997). After the budget vote, when it became clear that there would actually be a by-election instead of a general election, Liberal and Conservative luminaries descended on the riding in force. But, not the NDP; no one from the NDP’s 19 member caucus visited the riding. My only conclusion is the party had not only conceded the election to the Liberals, but saw a Liberal win as “a good thing” in terms of the balance of power. That may be fine if the goal is merely to influence current and future Liberal governments, but I don’t think that’s enough.

b.. The NDP habitually uses a strategy of targeting “winnable ridings”, rather than campaigning all out in every seat. They poll only in those ridings, and they provide real assistance only in those ridings. This strategy is understandable if the party’s goal is to win forty to fifty seats. But, if the party is to have a chance to exceed that threshold, it has to build the capacity of local campaigns in at least half of the seats in the country. Voters in the NDP’s target ridings don’t know that they’re in a targetted riding. The polls that they read are national polls – that include results from all ridings, including those where the NDP has left its local campaigns to fend for themselves. That leads to counter-intuitive decisions such as voting Liberal to stop the Conservatives in places like Oshawa, New Westminster and Regina. In each of those cases, the Conservative won what should have been NDP seats. What happens when we concentrate our resources is that we set our own ceiling, and we set it far too low.

If the NDP is to be a serious option to the Liberals and the Conservatives we have to act like it. And, everything that I’ve observed over the past six months tells me that Canadians are desperately looking for such an option, but the NDP still shies away of presenting itself as a government in waiting. I hope I’m not going to be the only New Democrat arguing for a change in campaign strategy and, more importantly, a change in attitude.


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