National Column: NDP must consider sad truths

by Chantal Hébert

As the New Democrats ponder the future of their federal party and its leadership, here are a few inconvenient truths they might have to face up to.

1. Yes, the NDP lost the last federal campaign on a fiscal and social platform that the Liberals could have written. The key planks of yearly balanced budgets and a national child care program were lifted from outdated red books. It was a decidedly middle-of-the-road document.

But the party has also never won an election on a platform that was not centrist. That was true in Saskatchewan in the days of Alan Blakeney and Roy Romanow, and in Manitoba under Howard Pawley, Gary Doer and Greg Selinger.

Over the last decade, Nova Scotia’s NDP hugged the centre all the way to a solo term in government. And Rachel Notley did not win power in Alberta last spring on the promise of a socialist revolution.

Overall, the NDP has tended to do best in provinces where it could substitute itself for a weak Liberal party. But a stronger New Democrat presence has not translated into more progressive governance in those provinces than the Canadian average.

In the big picture, the NDP’s finish last October was its second-best ever. By comparison, the last time voters had coalesced behind the Liberals to usher out the Conservatives was 1993, and the New Democrats were left with nine seats, three short of the minimum required to hold official party status in the House of Commons.

From the outside, one of the glaring weaknesses of the last NDP platform was not that it leaned too far to the right but that it was risk-averse to the point of being eminently forgettable. But then, the same could be said of Jack Layton’s 2011 platform.

2. The next federal election is almost four years away, and the prospect of a national victory for the NDP is possibly even more remote. But the party does not live or die on the sole basis of its federal performance. British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta – to name just those three – will all be going to the polls before 2019.

Some NDP activists would have the federal party adopt the so-called LEAP manifesto. It would, among things, commit a New Democrat government to reject trade deals, oppose new pipelines and ensure fossil fuels stay in the ground.

For the record, the Greens have promoted some of the LEAP ideas for a while and found only modest traction for them. And in the last British Columbia election, NDP fortunes went in decline after the party firmed up its anti-pipeline rhetoric. It was a strategic move designed to make a dent in Green support but ultimately a call that cost more votes than it attracted.

The NDP would be more likely to implode than to ever unite behind the LEAP manifesto.

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3. It is an urban legend that the 2012 leadership campaign saw the federal New Democrats choose the quest for power over party principles. In fact, the winner, the runner-up and the third-place candidate in that race were all political pragmatists.

Thomas Mulcair had spent his provincial political career on the Liberal benches of the national assembly in Quebec. But Brian Topp – who finished second – had cut his teeth in the backrooms of Romanow’s centrist Saskatchewan governments and helped steer the federal NDP in the same direction under Layton. Nathan Cullen finished a strong third on a platform to seek a formal alliance with the Liberals.

When some defeated MPs opine that they no longer recognize the NDP in the party that Mulcair leads, one can only wonder what they think it would have looked like under the men who were the second and third choices of the membership three years ago.

Most New Democrats would not be terribly unhappy to see Mulcair bow out. He might not even earn enough support on a confidence vote next month to stay on. But those who believe he is all that stands in the way of a less centrist NDP are taking their dreams for reality. If the New Democrats’ choices boiled down to keeping their current leader or going hard left, my money would be on Mulcair.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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