While I am sure that there are a bunch of people on the right of my party saying “we need a more centrist leader who will pull an Andrea Horwath and call big business and the investor class ‘job creators’ and promise them tax cuts instead of tax increases” or “we need a more centrist leader who will pull a Mike Harcourt and demonize people in poverty and throw tens of thousands off social assistance into the streets” or “we need a more centrist leader like Dominic Cardy who will attack Liberals and Conservatives for being willing to negotiate with native protesters instead of tear-gassing them.” I’m confident a bunch of other members of the party’s far left will take those clowns on.
Instead, I want to take on those who claim that Tom Mulcair’s leadership moved our party dramatically to right and that this cost us the election. I’m not saying our leader is perfect or that some of his decisions were not errors that cost us seats but a dose of realism is needed here.
One of the curious things I find about the anti-Mulcair left is their belief that highly ideological oligopolies are not capitalist, agenda-driven actors but are instead rational honest brokers in a global system that, if not fair, is stable, non-arbitrary and rationally profit-seeking. In the world of the anti-Mulcair left, the media are fair and unbiased reporters of news who would naturally treat a position or statement by the NDP in the same way as they would an identical one by the Liberal Party. In the world of the anti-Mulcair left, international banks, bond-raters and investor groups rationally react to changes in government policy without regard for what kind of social contract it creates or what party is implementing it and who their friends are. In the world of the anti-Mulcair left, the preamble to a party’s constitution shapes voters’ understanding of the party, along with the platform and policies.
That’s not to say that they believe these things all the time. They believe these three preposterous notions only when criticizing the NDP. The rest of the time, they think about these things like sociologically-informed socialists.
The story, with many of these individuals, is that if only the NDP had started announcing that we would plunge Canada back into deficit for at least three years before the Liberals made that announcement, we would not have been caught flat-footed and painted as centrists because we wanted to balance the budget. In order for this claim to make any sense at all, at least two of the crazy premises I enumerated above would have to be true.
But let’s be realistic. Liberal Party shill media, CBC and the Atkinson Foundation papers (the Toronto Star et al), would not have praised us doing this and “distinguishing ourselves as true progressives” – half the nation’s provincial premiers would not have leapt to our aid – they’re Liberals. Paul Martin, the 90s austerity czar would not have talked about how it is sometimes reasonable to run deficits and been featured in newspaper spreads about how we were being “serious” about the economy – he’s a Liberal! Here is what would have actually happened: our vote wouldn’t have collapsed in the final ten days because it would have collapsed in the first ten days as Liberals sold a deficit-free, fiscally responsible future for our nation, based on a highly conventional campaign narrative.
Other than Greg Selinger, the most hated premier in our nation, no government, no newspaper and no TV station would have greeted such a position with anything other than derision, eye-rolls and “same old NDP” rhetoric. The Liberals would have run on our balanced budget platform and surged into first place with it immediately as Liberal and Tory think tanks, finance ministers and governments piled-on the old “the NDP can’t run a corner store” narrative.
Instead, efforts to paint us as financial wingnuts and maniacs fell so flat that Tory Twitter trolls stopped using the “SpeNDP photo memes the party built them for the campaign.
By campaigning for a balanced budget, Tom Mulcair didn’t just force the Liberals and their allied media to adopt a much riskier, much tougher strategy and prevent a major poll-slide at the campaign’s outset, this strategy kept us in the lead for the first half of the election. And not only this help us look more financially credible, it provided us with a political narrative for why we needed to raise corporate taxes, something we struggled to narrate when the nation was in surplus and we didn’t care about borrowing.
But even if we leave aside the question of optic. Even if we decide that the Atkinson Foundation are an unbiased news source with no agenda of their own, that right-wing media like CTV would treat an NDP deficit promise identically to a Liberal deficit promise, that Paul Martin is no more or less credible and beloved than Floyd Laughren, there is another problem: it is completely insane for a socialist government to run large deficits in this day and age.
As I stated during the campaign in a full-length piece about this, it is grossly irresponsible for socialist and social democratic governments to subject themselves to punitive credit downgrades by Standard and Poors and their ilk. It is no longer the 1960s; the interest you pay on your national debt is not determined by bean-counters actually guessing the likelihood of you paying people back; it is determined by the global capitalist class based on an ideological agenda that is wholly opposed to new state-run social programs like a national childcare system. Any new money you try to make available through borrowing can always be clawed back immediately through a punitive bond or credit downgrade. Unlike Liberals, socialists and social democrats don’t have a bunch of friends on Wall and Bay Streets to stick up for us when we try to launch a new program. Unlike Liberals, we don’t plan to pay the financial sector back for new social programs through P3s and cutting them in by contracting them out.
So, if we wanted to be responsible and honest, we would have to have promised a balanced budget anyway, irrespective of the strategic acumen of the choice. In a thirty-five day election campaign, Mulcair’s balanced budget promise would have been hailed as the masterstroke to deliver and NDP minority government. Sadly, and I do fault our party for this; we were the most flat-footed of the national parties and were unable to adapt following the Liberals’ surprise deficit stimulus scheme.
The next criticism of Mulcair’s campaign was that they were non-specifically too right-wing and not ambitious enough. This is simply false. Day after day, long after this course of action ceased to be remotely advisable, our leader kept making new progressive policy announcements that amounted to the most comprehensive social democratic program our party had since 1993. In 2008 and 2011, we back-burnered our national childcare program. But in 2015, we placed it front and centre and offered an actual plan for getting it done, not vague expressions of principle. In 2006, 2008 and 2011, we back-burnered proportional representation after backing down on our demands for it in the Paul Martin face-off of 2005. In 2015, for the first time, we put forward a plan to make this election the last unfair election in Canadian history, ditching previous prevarication in the form of commissions and referenda. And, in 2015, we actually ran against an unfair trade deal for the first time since 2000, after running scared on trade during the Layton years.
As I have said elsewhere, people who accuse Mulcair of turning the party right are really upset not about NDP policy but about the inferior pedigree of the members we are now admitting into our private club. The fact is that we ran on the most left-wing platform in a generation. Any criticism the NDP left can make of Mulcair’s platform could be made more strongly of Layton’s last three. Like it or not, the reformed Thatcherite and ex-Liberal cabinet minister turned us left. Because that’s how lost and unprincipled we have been for much of the past generation.
Finally, there is this rubbish about the party’s constitution and how Mulcair backed us moving the word “socialism” from one paragraph to another. I don’t know why he did this or why we voted to do this. Given that this preamble has a long track record of total failure to, in any way, restrain our party from enacting right-wing policies, who cares? Neither the public, our member nor our parliamentarians and legislators has ever paid the slightest heed to the preamble of our constitution. So why would this have anything to do with our failure on the campaign trail?
The reason so many in our ranks are seeking to lay all the blame on our leader for the problems of the campaign is that he remains, for many New Democrats, an outsider. Not only can we blame him for this loss. We can, while we are at it, heap blame for all the centrist triangulation and sellouts that preceded his leadership, exonerating ourselves, our provincial governments and our sainted former leader for a generation of concession and cowardice.
This campaign was never going to be a slam dunk. We were never the natural or inevitable successors to Stephen Harper’s Tories. We were a group of interlopers who, through a combination of our good luck, Liberal bad luck and some smart choices, became the Official Opposition. By choosing a former cabinet minister for the most right-wing government to have run Quebec since the Quiet Revolution we thought we could allay the natural fear and disdain the heirs to Ontario’s Family Compact and the petro-fortunes of the West. And we did, a bit, but not enough for that tolerance to end the moment the Liberal Party of Canada once again became a going concern.
Did our leader make mistakes that increased the size of our defeat? Sure. Did head office staff make errors in our campaign strategy? You bet! But there have been more than half a dozen elections in which we have lost ten points to the Liberals over the course of the campaign and, in only three (1945, 1988 and 2015) of them did we start in a strong enough position for that not to call our very survival into question.
Also, contrary to the claims that were made after 2011, our transformation into a bilingual, truly national party with a solid base in both English and French Canada has been real and lasting. The Orange Wave could have been a flash in the pan, a one-time thing but instead, our leader and his team poured energy into people like Ruth Ellen Brosseau who transformed from an absentee paper candidate to a respected incumbent returned with a twenty-point margin. I can’t think of any other leader who could have done this as well as the one we have.
I wish our lucky streak had continued through this election and that we had a campaign that was more nimble and less pointlessly obsessed with discipline and control. I wish our leader had shown more of his combative personality and not let himself be so managed. I wish we had stopped saying “middle class” until my ears bled.
But let’s work with our leader to build a stronger campaign for 2019. And let’s thank him for a hard-fought, principled, social democratic campaign.