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Courage can win elections for the NDP, but it didn't show up

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Thomas Mulcair has made the exact mistake that I was afraid he was going to make. The same one Olivia Chow and Andrea Horwath made last year.

They ran talking like conservatives. Even Chow and Mulcair, who were serious contenders to win because of who they already always were, talked like conservatives. They spoke in language suited for the right wing -- individualism-to-the-point-of-cruelty. Chow and Horwath rarely spoke of Ontarians as people or citizens, but of taxpayers, like a populist right-wing politician.

Mulcair has done the same thing. Every progressive person who's reasonably plugged in to politics could follow the European debt crisis. The people of Greece voted overwhelmingly to give the Tsipras government a mandate to fight the further imposition of austerity measures from the European Central Bank.

But the ECB responded to the vote with the harshest austerity package at all. Their message: Balance your budget.

That was a central piece of Mulcair's messaging during the campaign. The NDP will prioritize balancing the budget. I spoke to people on Twitter, in my riding when I was campaigning with Phil Trotter, and talking to friends around Toronto and Hamilton. I kept hearing the same thing.

Mulcair isn't left wing, they said. Mulcair won't repair the damage Harper did to the public services of Canada. He'll only balance the budget.

Balanced budgets above all is the message of austerity. The popular progressive movement today is against austerity, against the line that ordinary people must suffer in the global recession.

Tom Mulcair let the Liberal Party take ownership of the anti-austerity banner. The same Liberal Party that welcomed former Conservative MP Eve Adams into their ranks when even Harper ejected her for corruption. Don't forget that the Liberals are the traditional party of the establishment in Canada, the party of Bay Street.

It seems that in the wave of Canadians' anger that ousted Stephen Harper last night (a good thing), most of us have forgotten the old Liberal trick. Campaign from the left; govern from the right.

I don't believe that a Trudeau government will follow through on any of its promises to restore federal funding to the health care system, or restore any of our environmental protections. They'll never end marijuana prohibitions.

They won't end the iron-fisted cabinet control of all government communications. It's too powerful a tool for Canada's natural party of power to give up.

They'll happily ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the name of solidarity with the U.S. in trade policy. They'll further slash Canadian public services when that treaty's full effects hit: a globally mobile labour market driven by lowest-common-denominator wages and the ability of foreign companies to override another country's democratically enacted laws.

They won't restore the census or begin the radical change that's needed in Canada's relationship with its Indigenous people and peoples.

They'll have a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry, but they'll never take action on its findings. They'll just file it away to gather dust while our Indigenous people remain marginalized. The Canadian cultural mainstream will continue to treat them with disdain instead of people who've suffered a literal genocide under the Canadian state.

And we'll all keep voting Liberal because they're the real progressives. Not those hypocritical New Democrats.

I worry that the last three years of campaigning with rhetoric designed to appeal to right-wing, economically conservative, austerity-leaning people have killed the NDP brand. Does the NDP leadership think this is the mainstream?

Because it isn't.

The growth in New Democrat support came in the years after 2008, when many of its politicians and workers on the ground liaised between the party and social movements. In Quebec, Jack Layton made the NDP the national voice for the concerns that drove the student protests, and a progressive alternative to the sovereignty movement.

In the west, Nathan Cullen carried the environmentalist banner of Idle No More to the halls of state power. He and Romeo Saganash did the same for the Indigenous empowerment movement.

New Democrats under Mulcair have had the strongest support when they didn't play triangulation politics, when they stood on their principles. Mulcair should have played the entire campaign on the same book as his C51 opposition.

Don't cave because it sounds like it would play with the conservative social consensus. Use a principled stand to bring in new supporters. Courage can win. The social consensus must be dragged in progressive directions by people of principle. People strong enough to stand by their ethics.

The New Democrats won't be viable any longer if they maintain this course of being a squishy centre-left party. We already have the Liberals, who can go squishy centre-left by instinct. The party was successful when it embraces progressive currents in Canada and brings cult-level social movements to mainstream prominence.

That's the outcome that I hope a period of soul-searching among the New Democratic rank, file, and upper echelons brings. 

Adam Riggio is a communicator, activist, and author living in Toronto. He currently handles communications for the Syria Film Festival. Find out more about his work at his author page. Follow him on Twitter @AdamRiggio.

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