Polity by Rob Salmond


Political strategy and Canada’s NDP

Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) stands proudly for the progressive left in Canadian politics. Very few would accuse the NDP of being “Blairite.” (For one thing, it opposed the 2003 Iraq war.) While there’s a tight election campaign on in Canada right now, next month the NDP is most likely to head the Canadian government for the first time.

In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as UK Labour leader, and the belief that it signals a new era in progressive campaigning, you might think the NDP must be using Corbyn-like tactics, given that it’s performing well.

Those tactics, if the NDP is mimicking Corbyn, would include rejecting appeals to the centre, rejecting professionalized “slick” messaging, and embracing the unvarnished, raw, authentic truth about the party’s radical reforming purpose.

Anything else, we’ve been told, is hackneyed and out-of-date.

If that’s what you expect, then check out the NDP’s website.

It’s like a poster child for every political consultant’s “grow from your base, then reach to the centre” fantasy. Here’s the top line of “Tom’s Plan”:

Middle-class families in Canada are working harder than ever, but falling further behind. It’s clear that Stephen Harper’s plan just isn't working.

That focus on middle-income earners, and on widely shared, optimistic self-images about “hard work” is textbook political strategy, employed by left and right parties alike. Tell swing voters in particular that they’re the most important, tell them they’re great and deserve more, and if you’re the challenger tell them the incumbent is failing them.

The NDP’s number one specific issue is “jobs,” again focused on “the middle class.” Tom Mulcair’s got a four-point plan:

  • Champion manufacturing jobs and growth with concrete action to protect Canada’s auto and aerospace industries.
  • Reduce small business taxes from 11% to 9% to help the sector that creates 80 percent of all new private sector jobs in Canada.
  • Invest in infrastructure and transit to create jobs, reduce commute times and get Canada’s economy moving.
  • Create opportunities for 40,000 young Canadians through NGO and private sector training partnerships.

Tom Mulcair’s concrete, long-term plan will strengthen the middle class by creating good job opportunities in every community in Canada.</q>

It’s hardly Das Kapital.

It’s aimed squarely at middle income earners, and it combines some left ideas (public infrastructure investment, partly to create jobs) with very centrist ideas (business tax cuts).

Across all the issues the NDP highlights, there’s a mix of left ideas and middle-of-the-road ideas. On the left there’s cheaper childcare for all, in the middle there’s a tax cut for small businesses. On the left there’s polluter pays, in the middle there’s investing in innovation.

That’s really important. A left party should present itself as a mirror to swing voters’ self-images and desires on some issues that matter to swing voters. That’s what gives that same party the ability to enact stridently left policy on other issues that matter to the left.

If you go centrist on innovation, you can go left on climate change. If you go centrist on taxes, you can go left on education. And so on.

That’s how a left party wins both the left and the centre.

Winning both the left and the centre is the only way for left parties to win.

To some activists, I’m sure it all looks like Fifty Shades of Beige. They think it’s manufactured pap, a relic of a by-gone age. They think it’s everything Jeremy Corbyn stands against.

Citing Corbyn, some have argue the progressive citizenry now demands conviction politicians who say what they mean, no matter how out of step it might be with swing voters. Swing voters don’t want to see themselves in their politicians, goes the argument. They want only bold, visionary, honest thought-leadership. That – they say – is the left’s only path to victory.

But the NDP is finding another way to win. In an actual, nationwide election, not just a intra-party contest. And when it wins, using traditional reach-to-the-centre methods, it will deliver real progressive change for Canada.

The Canadian left may not get everything it wants, but it will get a lot of things it wants. That’s what victory looks like in a modern democracy.

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