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David Cochrane: Can Earle McCurdy save the NDP?

03/08/2015 04:54 EDT | Updated 05/07/2015 05:59 EDT
Newly elected NDP Leader Earle McCurdy says he is getting ready to campaign against "Tweedle Dwight and Tweedle Davis."

The way McCurdy sees it, there isn’t much daylight between the governing PCs and the front-running Liberals and he needs voters to come to that same conclusion if the NDP is going to make gains in the next election.

“When you vote NDP it feels really good,” McCurdy said in his victory speech Saturday in St. John’s.

“Shake off the shackles of same-old, same-old and do something that is going to make a difference around here.”

McCurdy gives the best speech of the three party leaders. He is funny, fiery and can deliver a clever turn of phrase. But lifting the NDP from its traditional third party status — and recapturing some of the momentum lost in the great caucus fracture — will take more than words.

Managing issues, changing perceptions

The party likes to say (repeatedly) that it is the only party talking about issues that really matter to people. That may be true.

But a recent poll by Abacus Data suggests those same people don’t trust the NDP to manage those issues.

The Abacus poll has voters listing the economy, health care and the provincial deficit (in that order) as their top priority issues.

But the NDP ranked last of the three parties as best able to handle those issues. Just one per cent of those polled trusted them to best manage the economy, nine per cent to manage health care and just five per cent to reduce the deficit.

The NDP has never ranked consistently high on economic issues. But the party has made the defence of health care its top issue and just nine per cent think the NDP can actually do a better job than the PCs or the Liberals.

The NDP may talk a good game. But the public doesn’t trust them to implement the game plan.

This is McCurdy’s great challenge. How does he change those perceptions of the NDP and win the public’s trust? He doesn’t provide a fresh new face to the electorate. After years at the head of the fisheries union, McCurdy is a household name in Newfoundland and Labrador.

He also comes from a trade union background, so he isn’t likely to move the New Democrats away from its labour dominated politics.

Tactical and nimble skills will be needed

But McCurdy is a shrewd operator. He would not have survived as the helm of the FFAW for as long as he did if he wasn’t tactical and nimble.

The early indications is that McCurdy is going to go hard at Liberal Leader Dwight Ball and try to flush him out on exactly what his policies are.

The NDP believes that Ball is growing in the polls by saying nothing specific and reaping the benefits of a foundering government.

McCurdy seems determined to lash “Tweedle Dwight” as he calls him directly to “Tweedle Davis” and highlight just how similar the two dominant parties are. The idea being that if people truly want change, they will turn to the NDP.

“It seems to me that whenever the rights of workers and ordinary people are on the line the Liberals and the Tories are as one,” he said.

He is already using the plan to reduce the legislature by eight seats — at the expense of rural Newfoundland — to rhetorically bind the Liberals to the PCs.

“Bill 42 demonstrated very quickly what we already knew,” McCurdy said. “There is very, very little difference between the two old-line parties.”

But there are several critical differences between the two “old-line parties” and the NDP. The biggest is party infrastructure. The PCs and the Liberals have active district associations across the province.

The NDP has never had close to that level of organization and currently have fewer than a dozen properly functioning district associations. This organizational weakness was on full display in the recent string of Liberal byelection wins in which the NDP struggled to find candidates or gain a foothold with voters (the lone exception being Sheilagh O’Leary’s solid — but still third place — finish in Virginia Waters.)

Before that electoral breakthrough

In many ways, the NDP is back to where it was before the 2011 provincial election breakthrough. They are a distant third in the polls and lacking the province-wide infrastructure to mount a truly provincial campaign.

The caucus fracturing not only robbed the party of MHAs, it also led to the defection of many of the young progressives who ran for the party in 2011 and delivered strong second place showings.

Those people have largely followed Dale Kirby and Christopher Mitchelmore to the Liberals or simply left the party. Politics is about ideas. But campaigns are largely about organization. And the NDP lag way behind in that department.

This, however, is where McCurdy’s fisheries roots can help. He has a network of contacts across the province who can help paper over the lack of district associations.

It isn’t a solution to the NDP’s chronic organizational deficiencies. But it’s a start if that network can be properly mobilized -- even with an election set for this fall.

“A week is a long time in politics,” McCurdy said. “Well, we’ve got eight or nine months, so that’s an eternity”

McCurdy is quick on his feet. He can hone in on issues and will be a formidable debater.

McCurdy knows the NDP won’t form government in this election. His goal is to be the official opposition. But, with the Liberals on track to form the government, that goal raises one more big question for the party — is the Tory floor still higher than the NDP ceiling?

If so, Tweedle Dwight and Tweedle Davis will continue to dominate politics. And the NDP will remain in its rhetorical Wonderland.

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