The 2015 federal election solidified a few truths in Canadian politics. First, it showed us that we are still capable of ousting a party that no longer deserves to govern. Second, it proved we are willing to give a chance to a leader who is both inspiring and largely unproven.
And third, it revealed a hard truth about the NDP; the party can't convince voters to give them the keys to the country. Voters don't trust them to do the big job. In other words, it is time to rename and rebuild the party. After all, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada did it, and it gave them ten years in power.
Like it or not, the Liberal Party of Canada convinced a large segment of the Canadian public that they were now the voice for progressives. Justin Trudeau seemed a lot more modern and left leaning than Tom Mulcair, and voters looking for an antidote for a decade of Stephen Harper's conservatives made their choice.
The bad branding of the NDP isn't entirely the fault of the NDP, however. Try being Bob Rae after his reign as the NDP premier in Ontario came to an end. Rae was pillared by his political enemies, and his party became a laughing stock to almost everyone in Canada's largest province. Even to this day, the impact of the opposition's insistence that he was the most incompetent leader in the history of the country still resonates with many Ontario voters.
A rebranding of a progressive-minded party would be a positive development for not just the NDP, but for voters as well.
Many people will point to the 2011 election as proof the NDP's branding is not the problem. The party became the official opposition after securing the most seats in its history, surprising pundits and Canadians alike. But let's be honest what that really was; a declaration of the impact Jack Layton had on voters. Like Trudeau in 2015, Layton was the biggest reason the party was so successful, and several candidates rode Layton's coattails to victory, despite some not even campaigning in the election.
The presidential race in America is yet another barometer on how badly progressives are currently represented in politics. Bernie Sanders forced Hillary Clinton to profess progressive platform ideas early in the race, yet most Americans still view her as a centrist at best. Sanders has wrestled the base away from Clinton, leaving the party fractured going into the convention. This is an example of a party not nurturing its own core values, and while the party will survive, the brain trust behind the scenes are certainly going to be in damage control after the general election wraps up, no matter who wins.
Luckily for the NDP, unlike the Democrats south of the border, they can scrap their party's name and orange motif without much blowback. And they should. The party's image is irreparable, tattered from years of negative election results and cemented in a state of mediocrity. Mulcair ran one of the worst campaigns in modern times, gambling on a push to the centre while brandishing one of the most unsettling and inauthentic smiles the country has ever seen. Whether it was Mulcair alone or through the assistance of his handlers, the NDP were once again viewed through a lens of incompetence. The Orange Crush of 2011 is now completely eviscerated, and the party is in a familiar third place mindset with no clear-cut leader on the horizon.
All is not lost, however. A rebranding of a progressive-minded party would be a positive development for not just the NDP, but for voters as well. The new party, while it would need to promote some left wing mainstays like labor rights and fighting climate change, could also challenge its base to support a less ideological stance on issues like health care and the military.
Moreover, it could outflank the Liberals on issues like domestic spying or international trade deals, even as it finds room in the centre for tax policies and marijuana legislation. The party could view the right and left as a symbiotic relationship, becoming an ambidextrous party instead of an ideological one. This would require unity among the members, and if you were at the recent NDP convention you are fully aware of the lack of unity among the party faithful.
The convention featured a fractured base of passionate and practical progressives, both vying for influence in how the party moves forward. If both groups understood how much they needed each other, they would have something to build upon. Even if they do finally come together and compromise, they would still have to deal with a deflated orange shanty instead of a robust, inclusive big tent.
Of course, many lifelong members will dismiss the idea of renaming a historical party as needless fiddling. They will trot out Tommy Douglas and Layton as examples of how the NDP contributed to the Canadian political ether. But they will eventually notice that they are only speaking in the past tense, and if the party has a future it might be time to finally clean the slate.
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