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Relief, cautious optimism and disappointments: Lessons from the 2015 federal election

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Image: Flickr/Ara Shimoon

Few would have predicted a Liberal majority at the outset of the election campaign (or the collapse in the NDP vote that came with it). But it feels like a weight lifted, like we as a country have a chance at being our best selves, instead of our worst.

For a couple of Gen-Xers like us, who came of age politically just as neoliberalism was taking the world by storm, this week has also been a time of mixed feelings -- optimism and hope about the new Liberal government, tempered by our memories of the last time the Conservatives were firmly booted from office.

In fact, we first met and began working together as student activists fighting then-Finance Minister Paul Martin's 1995 federal budget -- the budget that entrenched Canada's era of austerity, only two years after the Liberals were elected on a platform that included universal child care and a host of other progressive promises never to see the light of day.

But there is much to celebrate. Perhaps most importantly, the ugly and xenophobic strategy employed by the Conservatives during this campaign -- using divisive wedge issues such as the niqab and the idiotic "barbaric cultural practices" hotline -- was, by and large, rejected by the Canadian public. It's hard to imagine the old Progressive Conservative party ever stooping to such tactics. People smelled a rat, and they refused to be played in this cynical manner. This grotesque form of politics backfired.

With respect to political culture, the results point to numerous positives. A commanding majority of Canadians voted for progressive change, including meaningful action on climate change, electoral reform (some form of proportional representation), and fair tax reform. And in voting for the Liberals, the largest share of Canadians said they understood the need to run deficits, they want to raise taxes on the wealthy, and they want to spend on important infrastructure. All good and hopeful.

The public has voted against austerity, what the Leap Manifesto calls "a fossilized form of thinking that has become a threat to life on earth." Political comedian Sean Devlin notes that austerity isn't merely about spending cuts. Rather, it asks us "to put boundaries around our hearts, around our compassion." Indeed. Perhaps that's what newly-elected Prime Minister Trudeau was getting at when he opined during the election that we could "grow the economy from the heart outwards."

The reversal of fortunes between the NDP and the Liberals deserves careful consideration, as it provides important lessons for progressives.

People clearly wanted bold change. The dominant explanation for how and when the Liberals overtook the NDP in the polls (with which we concur), was the Liberals' decision to run deficits versus the NDP's ill-conceived commitment to maintaining a balanced budget.

The Liberals' fiscal plan was a turning point in the election campaign. Indeed, the combination of their willingness to run deficits with their earlier commitment to raise taxes on the rich and to cancel the misnamed Universal Child Care Benefit in favour of a more targeted Child Tax Benefit (in the face of Tom Mulcair's refusal to do so), allowed the Liberals to position themselves as the "real" agents of progressive change. The Liberal's fiscal program more effectively captured a national zeitgeist that craved ambitious action on inequality and re-investment, and sooner rather than later.

Polling conducted by Bruce Anderson's Abacus Data firm in late September confirms this dynamic. When polling the three-quarters of voters who said they wanted a change of government, they found a majority (57 per cent) wanted ambitious change, and most (58 per cent) change that would be felt soon rather than more gradually, and this sentiment was even stronger among NDP-Liberal swing voters. Justin Trudeau was seen as the leader who represents ambitious change (63 per cent) and change that will be felt soon (60 per cent); while Thomas Mulcair was more identified with moderate change (60 per cent) that will happen more gradually (59 per cent).

Anderson and his colleagues noted that the Liberals' success in defining itself as the stronger option for "change voters" was "remarkable given the traditional relationship between these two parties."

That said, it is worth recalling that the Liberals led the NDP in the national polls for most of the two-year period after Trudeau won the Liberal leadership in April 2013. The two parties swapped places, however, in the wake of the C-51 debate. On C-51, the NDP took a principled and, what seemed then at least, a risky decision to oppose the Bill. And for their political courage they were rewarded, while the Liberals were politically punished for siding with the government on this infringement to civil liberties and democratic debate.

But rather than building on this lesson, once victory seemed within reach for the NDP, a cautionary impulse kicked in, as we have seen time and again (witness the 1988 federal election, and the 2013 BC election). And inexplicably, the NDP chose not to run on the issue of inequality, despite the deep-seated concern Canadians have expressed about the growing gap.

True, the NDP's early platform announcements (prior to the writ period) included some bold items, notably the promise of $15 per day childcare and the $15 per hour federal minimum wage, and these commitments seemed to excite many. And arguably, the NDP's cap-and-trade climate plan was quite ambitious, but the party seemed to deliberately downplay the policy's significance and potential.

The upshot: the NDP started the campaign leading in the polls. Then, oddly, just as the country was telling the party is was ready to accept them as government as they were, the party chose that moment to change into something else. The campaign employed the same strategy that has now failed over and over (the last BC election, the Ontario election, the Nova Scotia election, the Toronto mayoralty election…), namely, to position the NDP as moderate and centrist.

Some would argue the balanced budget promise was simply a tactical move the NDP had no choice but to make given the double-standard New Democrats are held to by many economic analysts and media commentators, who would have howled a dire warning of imminent economic disaster had Mulcair been the one to calmly promise modest deficit spending.

But the NDP should have held its ground, and rejected the magical thinking behind the idea that you can have balanced budgets and new or enhanced social programs without significant spending cuts or tax increases, all while the country's economy is stalled out.

The double-standard imposed on the left may be real, but capitulating to the right-wing's fiscal agenda signaled to voters this is a party that will stand by some of its core principles but not others, if that's what it takes to get elected. Not attractive to potential NDP voters, never mind the party's core base.

More importantly, speaking the language of fiscal conservatism reinforces the culture of austerity, and that harms progressives in the long term. As George Monbiot put it recently in his commentary on Jeremy Corbyn's rise to Labour Party leadership in the U.K.: "Politicians reinforce the values they espouse. The harder you try to win by adopting your opponents' values, the more you legitimize and promote them, making your task -- and that of your successors -- more difficult."

In the wake of the B.C. NDP's loss in the 2013 provincial election, one of the dominant narratives was that then-NDP leader Adrian Dix lost because his campaign was "too positive". But Trudeau ran a very positive campaign, critiquing the Conservative's and NDP's policies without making it personal or employing attack ads. Yet he won handily.

The problem isn't that Dix's and Mulcair's campaigns lacked negativity. It's that they lacked ambition. The fiscal conservatism of these NDP campaigns meant they were simply incapable of capturing the public's imagination or excitement, and they could not convincingly speak to a deep desire for hope and change.

Perhaps this is the most important lesson for progressives. Aiming for the centre means you're chasing a moving target. Pursuing a centrist agenda when political culture is tracking right, as it arguably did for a long period in the 80s and 90s, can at least be rationalized on short-term pragmatic grounds, though it is damaging in the long run. But it's a recipe for electoral collapse when you fail to recognize the majority is shifting in the other direction.

Image: Flickr/Ara Shimoon

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