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Some Friendly And Free Advice For The NDP

10/27/2015 08:35 EDT | Updated 10/27/2016 05:12 EDT
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Here is some friendly, but unsolicited advice, for the NDP. As a leftish Liberal who joined the Party in 2011, believe me -- I know how horrible losing feels. Worse, like the Grits in 2011 but for different reasons, this NDP campaign should challenge some fundamental assumptions about the nature and raison d'être of the Party.

The NDP got thumped, there is no question. Yes, some of this was the unfortunate byproduct of a stampede toward Justin Trudeau's Liberals as "change" voters realized the Red Team was the best bet to dislodge Stephen Harper, but the NDP braintrust had sowed the seeds that would allow this mass abandonment to occur: there was very little in the NDP platform to be excited about for a progressive voter. Sure, the $15-a-day childcare was a proposal for an important problem, but the policy mechanism proposed was not the ideal solution, and the eight-year timeline was uninspiring. Ditto the almost-Potemkin village of a pledge around a federal minimum wage hike.

Whether Olivia Chow in Toronto's mayoral race or Andrea Horwath in Ontario's election, the NDP has consistently found itself burnt by attempts to move the Party's policy to the centre. The overall impression is one of placing political calculus ahead of principled policy, and for a Party once known as the "conscience of Parliament", that appearance must be very troubling.

Similarly, it's important to note that Trudeau did not merely swing NDP and Green support his way; his positive and progressive message helped boost voter turnout, and those votes broke Liberal. His policies excited new support; the NDP's did not.

In 2012, my friend Evan Hutchison and I wrote in The National Post: "Liberals can be proud of much of their legacy - but not all of it. It's long past time for the party to recognize this simple fact, admit mistakes and learn from them. It's time to offer Canadian voters a grown-up party." We advocated the Liberals should apologize for significant past policy wrongs -- such as centralization in the PMO, omnibus bills, the sponsorship scandal and the National Energy Program. Trudeau, early on in his leadership, either apologized or spoke to each issue in some sort of corrective manner. It was cathartic.

Likewise, the NDP should own up to its mistake and do four things to expunge the past decade of centrist drift where political calculations cost them the promised land in not simply the federal election but also in Ontario, British Columbia and Toronto and Winnipeg's mayoral races.

First, do not simply lay all the blame at Mulcair's feet. Call Brad Lavigne and the other strategists who led the NDP away from its principles to populist policy fluff onto the carpet. Their strategy of replacing the excitement of the Orange Wave with dour reassurance and musings about "solid public administration" rather than the fundamental change needed after the Harper era was part and parcel of this electoral debacle. (Author and activist Charles Demers has more to say on this important piece of the puzzle.)

Secondly, the NDP needs to move back into a space of positive, progressive and exciting politics. If you're in third place -- own it. Use it. The NDP has the option and frankly the privilege to be bold and earnest again. Leverage the Broadbent Institute and other progressive thinkers to craft a substantive, creative and leftist parliamentary agenda. Push Trudeau to do more and to be better. When Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are major figures in American and British progressive politics, surely Canada can handle a smart, activist social-democratic party. The country -- indeed the Western world -- has moved to the left; the NDP should, too.

Relatedly, Mulcair should not stay on as leader but he might make for a stabilizing, Bob Rae-type interim leader during a year-long leadership race that takes up most of 2016. A long race gives the NDP space to have searching, important questions and share interesting policy proposals. (The expense of a leadership race may be difficult for a third-place party but it is vital to have anyway.) Mulcair is the wrong leader for the rebuilding project the NDP has to make. His quotes praising Margaret Thatcher and advocating bulk water exports, his neoliberal tax and budget instincts, and his mercurial, abrasive style are simply wrong for the NDP's rebuilding.

Finally, finding an exciting, qualified, passionate and articulate leader who can sell this agenda is critical. The NDP has its stars (although they lost one of their best and brightest in former deputy leader and defeated Halifax MP Megan Leslie). Look to a progressive from another level of government, if not as leader than as someone to inject some passion and new ideas into a leadership race. (There's no shortage of potential options, especially from outside of the federal caucus -- former Toronto Mayor David Miller or City Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam or Joe Cressy, Ontario NDP MPPs Catherine Fife from Waterloo or Jennifer French from Oshawa, Manitoba cabinet minister Deanne Crothers, or an up-and-comer from the BC NDP caucus, just as a few examples.)

Moving back to the left will help galvanize the base, and when the country seems to have moved to the left -- at least seven out of ten provinces are governed by progressive, activist governments -- and when progressives in other countries like America and Britain are embracing social democratic values in Sanders and Corbyn, being left may no longer be electoral suicide. In fact, it may just be electoral gold. At the very least, it will let the NDP be the NDP.

The NDP needs an honest look at what went wrong, and a recommitment to being a passionate, progressive party. The centrist experiment failed; Mulcair failed; his strategists especially failed. The NDP needs some root-and-branch reform, and it needs to return to its roots to reignite its base in an age of increasingly progressive electorates.

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