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What If the Liberal Win Is About Parties But Not About Policy? (Culture and Institutions in Canadian Politics – Part III)

In recent days, left and labour activists have been piling on the NDP criticism bus, offering their views on how we lost over half our seats in last week’s election. This is a good thing to be doing right now, with the election campaign still fresh in our minds. But I have to say that I am, for the most part, pretty disappointed by the criticisms I am hearing. Already, they are converging into two or three themes and various bloggers and columnists are turning into a fairly bland chorus that rehearses a series of predictable points about the NDP’s air game, mainly involving niqabs and balanced budgets.

It is only in one paragraph of a recent post-mortem by Bill Tieleman that we begin to see some serious thinking when he indicts the NDP for “an inability to pivot as circumstances changed during the election.” What many critics of the NDP campaign are quick to forget is that the Liberal Party’s messaging and general scheme of running as a centre-right challenger to the Tories fell flat in the first half of the campaign, as our safe frontrunner campaign seemed to steamroller over a shrill and fickle Trudeau. And so, at the midway point, Trudeau and his campaign pivoted.

Nor was this pivot graceful. To any remotely serious observer, the Canadian public was treated to a fight between a centre-right war room run by Gerald Butts and a centre-left Ontario government that proceeded to derail Butts’ narrative and replace it with their own. The conflict between the “run right” strategy of Butts and the “run left” strategy of Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne broke into public view on July 26th, when the Ontario government’s forces defeated the central campaign’s at the Eglinton-Lawrence nomination meeting, as star candidate and Tory defector Eve Adams went down to defeat.

For the next month, Canadians watched Trudeau vacillate between presenting himself as a “true progressive” in rallies and other appearances with Wynne and her allies and Trudeau as Keystone XL shill, childcare foe and general proponent of business interests in other campaign events directed from the war room. But on August 26th, the logjam was broken. Butts and Trudeau’s other advisors recognized that the Wynne strategy was superior and the fateful promise of three consecutive deficits was trotted out. Thenceforth, Trudeau followed the New Brunswick and Ontario Liberal formulas for majority wins by tearing up their party’s original platform, mid-campaign, and replacing it with a progressive one, once the NDP had staked-out fiscally conservative turf.

While most New Democrats have used a policy-based optic for analyzing this turn of events, one that either defends NDP fiscal conservatism (as I have done twice) or upbraids the party for renouncing Cold War Keynesianism, nobody seems to have focused on the thing that really made the Liberals the superior adversary here. Nobody seems that interested in why and how the Liberals were so much more flexible than we were. Because their ascent to first place was not content-based. Had we, the New Democrats, promised three consecutive deficits, the Liberals would have wheeled our Paul Martin to attack us as “tax and spend socialists” whose “reckless policies” would inevitable lead to future austerity, like the strong medicine he had to apply to the Canadian economy in the 90s.

What allowed the Liberals to become the choice for the majority of anti-Harper voters was not a specific policy difference between us and them; it was an organizational difference that rendered one party nimble and the other flat-footed.  And that is going to require some unpacking that will probably span a post or two.


Let us left- and labour-aligned activists consider for a moment just how disinterested we are in the system of labour that undergirds our election campaigns, the systems that mobilize and focus the labour of people to produce political outcomes. Why do we insist on maintaining this blind spot, on not considering the possibility that how we locate, mobilize and compensate labour in our campaigns does not just condition the total amount of labour we can use but how we make decisions and what we think is important.

The reality is that a political party is not made out of policies or ideas. It is made out of human beings and their labour. Indeed, the ephemeral character of policy, once a party is elected, should signal this very obvious fact to us. Policy is just a thing made out of people’s labour; the labour itself is the underlying, ontological reality of politics.

Since Jean Chretien’s election finance reform of 2003, Canadian politics has been on an unexpected and bad track: professionalization. Every political party, the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives have embraced this direction, developing an economic structure similar to that of the Screen Actors’ Guild, a steep, monetized pyramid with desperate penniless careerists at the bottom and “stars” at the top, with money flowing based not on need or utility but structured to conform with the hierarchy.

This shift nearly killed the Liberal Party, which has, historically, been based on “big man” systems of gifting and reciprocity. It was only in the Liberals’ rediscovery of this system over the past three years that they were able to ascend to their traditional place in Canadian politics, once again able to out-gun the progressive, professionalized modern labour structures that Stephen Harper and Jack Layton built.

In the NDP and Tories, one’s ability to exert power based on one’s professional rank, represented in one’s salaried remuneration by the party. In the Liberals, one’s ability to exert power is based on one’s ability to engage in gifting and the dispensation of favours. This doesn’t just make the Liberals able to mobilize more labour, more effectively with better morale. It also makes the party feel more trustworthy to Canadians, especially younger and newer Canadians. A labour system underpinned by generosity is not just more effective; it is more appealing.

I will say more about how this works in my next post.

2 thoughts on “What If the Liberal Win Is About Parties But Not About Policy? (Culture and Institutions in Canadian Politics – Part III)

  1. Davide says:

    Nice – but the reason the Liberals were able to stake out that territory on the left (Kathleen Wynne is obviously in the process of performing an about-face, see the sale of Hydro One) is because NDP candidates first decided to move to the right, lured by dreams of a majority government.


    What is the point of a democratic socialist party once it rejects socialism? Why should we vote for the “new” neoliberal NDP when the Liberals have occupied the same political territory for decades? That’s where the NDP lost a million votes. Look at what’s happening in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn and even in the US with Bernie Sanders. Socialism isn’t an anchor, it’s a rocket. The NDP might want to hop back on the bandwagon, because it’s about to take off.

  2. Doug Kellam says:

    So where’s part two? Don’t leave me hanging, Stuart!

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