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Why the NDP is the Vehicle of the Stupid, Not Smart, Left

04/03/2014 01:22 EDT | Updated 06/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Looks like Canada's dejected former NDP premiers club just got a new member.

On Tuesday, Michael Harcourt, the 90's-era New Democrat boss of British Columbia, announced he could no longer, in good conscience, remain a member of the party he led to victory 23 years ago.

The NDP, he declared, had grown too dogmatic on environmental issues at the expense of job creation and economic growth.

I'm tired of being part of the "you can't log, you can't mine, you can't drill wells for gas or ranch" set, he said.

So now he isn't.

In leaving, Harcourt joins one of his own successors, fellow B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who quit the NDP in 2004 to run as a Liberal in that year's federal election, plus Ontario's Bob Rae, who of course wound up leader of the Liberals, after jumping ship in the early 2000s. Like Mike, both men claimed to find their party unelectably extreme and strategically senseless -- and collapsing under the weight of its own ideology and incompetence.

For a party that could really use a few more elder statesmen, the NDP is starting to run desperately low.

One of my grand theories of Canadian politics is that the left in this country is essentially divided between a "stupid" and "smart" faction. These factions don't have terribly different views on most things. Both are firm believers in the benevolent power of government and the public sector. Both support a robust environmentalist agenda packed with green initiatives. Both push a culture of extreme permissiveness on anything relating to sex or drugs. Both believe in the usefulness of state-backed social engineering to coerce better behaviour from citizens. Both have no problem with raising taxes to fund all this -- so long as they target the right sort of people.

What separates the factions is simply how serious and pragmatic they are in pursuing these goals, and to the extent they're able to play politics in a capable and competent fashion to achieve them.

The Liberal Party, needless to say, is the vehicle of the smart left. The NDP, the stupid.

Premier Harcourt's home province provides an excellent case study, since BC is essentially a place without a viable conservative party --all post-1996 elections being fought between NDP and Liberal.

During their decade in power, the B.C. Liberals have presided over the creation of North America's first carbon tax and its first "safe injection site" for inner-city junkies, signed two self-government treaties with local First Nations, introduced a consolidated sales tax (repealed via referendum, albeit), raised taxes on big business and the wealthy, steadily increased medicare funding, and pioneered a bunch of public health initiatives, including tough smoking bans and the removal of junk food from schools.

A pretty progressive record, all things considered.

The B.C. NDP, however, has long refused to accept it as such. In their official propaganda, the B.C. Liberals are always described as a "right wing" party against whose policies the NDP must always take a contrary position, no matter how incoherent this winds up being.

In 2008 they opposed the Liberals' carbon tax -- a position which put them in awkward alliance with Stephen Harper -- and in 2009 they opposed the consolidated sales tax, too -- defying a broad and favourable consensus from numerous left-wing activistsacademics, and economists.

Since the B.C. Liberals already opposed the creation of the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline, the NDP had to prove their further-left bona fides by finding something else to oppose when they ran against the party in 2013. They settled on a considerably less controversial plan to twin an existing pipeline linking BC and Alberta,"an astonishingly stupid decision" in the words of Premier Harcourt and an off-puttingly radical move many believe cost them the election.

Indeed, the B.C. NDP has now lost four straight elections in a row. The party's in the midst of a leadership race, but its only two candidates are both tired waxworks from the 1990s. More and more, it's appearing the provincial New Democrats simply possess no real base beyond the narrow confines of what we might call "NDP World" -- militant union bosses, anti-everything eco-extremists, dogmatic staffers of the inner-city charity-industrial complex, out-of-touch professors in fringe faculties, and other assorted avant-garde types who define themselves by their alienation (if not hostility) to anything that reeks of society's mainstream.

Such individuals have passion, to be sure, but passion in the pursuit of policies impossibly utopian or nakedly self-serving is worse than just hopeless, it's unattractive. Particularly to people, as Premier Harcourt noted, who dwell beyond the bohemian apartments of the downtown core and work at unglamorous jobs that actually produce things and generate the wealth the central planning set is so eager to redistribute.

So long as the NDP -- not just in British Columbia, but everywhere in Canada (and let's be clear, there are few bright spots when we survey the nation's NDP landscape) remains a party entirely of, for and by the fringe-and-proud-of-it scene, it will continue to haemorrhage pragmatic brains and strategic cash to the Liberals, the party run by "smart left" entrepreneurs, doctors, journalists, scientists, lawyers, and others who despite their progressive sensibilities, remain firmly grounded in the real world.

Harcourt is no oracle. Vaughn Palmer wrote an excellent column in yesterday's Vancouver Sun exposing the sheer fickleness of his defection given how enthusiastically and unequivocally he backed the B.C. NDP in the last provincial election -- even their "astonishingly stupid" pipeline stance. In his many, many post-retirement Official Statements on this-or-that, the ex-premier's always come off as unjustifiably self-important, and desperate to remain loved and relevant 18 years after resigning in scandal from a fairly awful government.

Yet his tough talk to his now-former party -- like similar scolds by Bob Rae, Ujjal Dosanjh, and countless other New Democrat apostates -- remains worth heeding just the same.

Important messages are often delivered in imperfect vessels.

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