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Howard Epstein on the rise and fall of Nova Scotia's NDP

Photo: Rise Again for sale at the Bookmark in Halifax. Credit: Rise Again websit

So here's the one-term wonder question. Why did Darrell Dexter's New Democrats, who won so convincingly in Nova Scotia in 2009, lose even more convincingly in 2013?

For NDP partisans, that question is more than academic. As they gear up to choose a new leader next February, they must divine what went so right we elected Nova Scotia's first-ever NDP government but then so wrong it became the province's first majority government in 141 years to go down to humiliating, even-the-leader-loses-his-seat defeat after just one term.

Enter, stage left, Howard Epstein, the former Halifax Chebucto NDP MLA. In his new book, Rise Again: Nova Scotia's NDP on the Rocks (Empty Mirrors Press), Epstein -- the (not just) self-acknowledged smartest member of caucus never invited to Dexter's cabinet table -- offers his own damning assessment.

Epstein dismisses the conventional leader-centred view that the NDP won in 2009 not only because Rodney MacDonald's tired, tattered Tory government defeated itself but also, critically, because Darrell Dexter presented a "moderate and therefore not threatening alternative" voters trusted.

Epstein -- never one to doubt the wisdom of his own thinking -- calls the latter proposition "profoundly mistaken."

Epstein says voters were looking for the NDP to be "profoundly different," by which he means much more progressive on economic and social issues. When Dexter's government showed itself to be a pale imitation of the same-old same old, voters turfed it for the real thing.

Epstein believes Dexter and his acolytes created a false divide between what they considered incrementalist pragmatists -- themselves -- who understood how to win and exercise power, and traditional left-leaning party members, "who would rather be right than in power."

For his part, Epstein argues optimistically the party can be both ideologically pure and electorally successful.

I'm not so sure.

But that doesn't mean I think the best option is incremental pragmatism in pursuit of power either.

Politically, the NDP has done its most important work -- from promoting social welfare to standing for civil liberties -- when speaking up for principle without attempting to engineer electoral advantage.

We could use a party more concerned with principle than power… but one that doesn't delude itself into believing purity of principle will lead to electoral power. There lies disappointment.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Rise Again for sale at the Bookmark in Halifax. Credit: Contributed/Rise Again website

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