It is a cruel irony that New Democrats should have to live with the loss of their best shot to form a federal NDP government at the same time that socialism is having a bit of a moment in the English-speaking world, courtesy of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in the United States and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.
It is crueller still that Tom Mulcair, the stern and stiff political veteran once caricatured as Angry Tom and now accused of being too restrained on the debate stage, should have to languish as the diminished leader of the third party while a grumpy old man (Sanders) and a bearded old man (Corbyn) are invested with socialist hopes and dreams.
In an alternate reality, Mulcair is prime minister of Canada and one-third of a hot new trend.
In actual reality, Mulcair might be entering his final weekend as leader of the NDP.
Democracy, of course, is neither gentle nor simple nor particularly predictable. And as such, the New Democrats gathering in Edmonton for the party’s biennial convention are deserving of some sympathy. If putting a New Democrat in the Prime Minister’s Office were particularly easy, somebody probably would have done it by now.
That the party’s last campaign was a failure is fairly easy to conclude. It is more difficult to explain why.
The theory that Mulcair’s NDP was outflanked to the left by the Liberals hangs too simplistically on the Liberal willingness to run a budget deficit and is undermined by any number of other political positions: the NDP promising new national programs for child care and pharmacare, higher corporate taxes and an increased federal minimum wage, the Liberals taking centrist positions between the Conservatives and New Democrats on taxes, national security, the military mission against ISIS, climate change and the Senate.
That commitment to a deficit did give the Liberals greater room to promise more, but any suggestion that the NDP should have done likewise has to compete with the argument that voters wouldn’t have trusted New Democrats to do so responsibly.
The promise of a balanced budget may have come to define the party’s offer as “cautious change,” but the notion the NDP should have been bolder might only seem obvious in hindsight.
It might simply be that Mulcair would be prime minister right now if Justin Trudeau hadn’t come along. Or if the NDP campaign had just done better with its TV advertising. Or if Mulcair had shaved his beard before the campaign (only once in federal history has a man with a beard led his party to the most seats in a general election, and that was in 1874).
Will the NDP take a leap?
It is in the interests of being bold that New Democrats might now turn to the Leap Manifesto, so named for how far its authors imagine federal policy should move.
As advocated by activist journalists Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, the Leap Manifesto is an all-encompassing, but light on detail, call for indigenous reconciliation, economic reorientation and aggressive action against climate change.
A proposal championed by former MPs Libby Davies and Craig Scott would put the manifesto at the centre of discussion toward a new agenda for the party.
There is the possibility here for another of the NDP’s semi-regular existential crises. Like the Waffle movement of the late 1960s or the New Politics Initiative of 2001, the Leap Manifesto would seem to aim further left than the current NDP: increasing taxes, rejecting trade deals and pipelines. Uncomfortable questions might be asked about popular appeal.
But it might at least be something to grab onto right now, at a moment when the NDP would seem to be at sea: not only back in third place, but now facing a government that carries the promise of a decidedly progressive agenda.
New Democrats can, of course, tell themselves that the Liberal government will betray that promise. But then again the Liberals might not. And even if the government does somehow fail, the NDP would need it to fail in such a way that the electorate moves to a different (or more dramatically) progressive option in 2019.
Of course, even if Mulcair is still leader of the NDP on Monday morning, he might not be the leader in 2019 (particularly, one imagines, if his party continues to poll at 11 per cent). But then there also isn’t a clearly superior successor in waiting.
Some solace might be found in the fact that five years ago it was the Liberal Party that seemed hopelessly adrift. Indeed, the elections of 2011 and 2015 demonstrate that much can change. The NDP just needs it to change again.
The Sanders and Corbyn examples
“Bernie Sanders, an unabashed democratic socialist, is making waves in the United States. Jeremy Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to join his newly left Labour Party in the United Kingdom,” aggrieved young New Democrats at McGill and Concordia declared in an open letter last month, venturing that Mulcair was not of the same stuff.
It is perhaps useful to note that Sanders and Corbyn were given no chance of success when they first declared their candidacies last year. But perhaps more crucially, it is unclear whether Corbyn (struggling to hold his party together) or Sanders (still unlikely to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination) will ever lead their respective countries. The odds are against it.
So whatever inspiration they can provide now, they might ultimately end up just about where Mulcair is now.
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