The NDP needs to launch a culture war against Harper ideology

Back in April 2010, EKOS pollster Frank Graves got into a lot of trouble in the neo-con blogosphere for advising the Liberal Party to "invoke a culture war" on the Harper Conservatives.

"I told them that they should invoke a culture war. Cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy. If the cranky old men in Alberta don't like it, too bad. Go south and vote for Palin."

It was good advice for the Liberals then and it's good advice today for Jack Layton and the NDP. But whether the temporarily triumphalist NDP has the imagination to take on such a fight remains to be seen. It's a higher-risk strategy than the party seems to want to take and the longer they avoid it the tougher it will be. Social democrats and liberals have become far too timid in the past two decades defending what they stand for and what they built in the post-war period.

But unless they do, Harper will prevail in the next election and the NDP will falter and inevitably lose momentum and seats. This is the core of the fight for Canada's soul. Other fights will just be sideshows. Stephen Harper knows this and has already declared war. The NDP is, naturally enough, trying to figure out how to keep its 103 seats next time around and build on them. How they do that will depend in part on how they think they got them in the first place.

If they believe they can out-Harper the Harperites by carefully targeting of voter segments, or tactical maneuvering or simply appearing to be a "responsible" government-in-waiting (i.e. trying to look like the Liberals used to) they will be disappointed. If the NDP wants to truly replace the Liberals and challenge for power (or the major share of it) it needs to change the political cultured of its party and use that to change the broader political culture.

Stephen Harper recently laid down the culture challenge of the next four years. He was roundly attacked for his arrogance displayed in a speech to supporters in Calgary. The triumphalism was amazing even for the likes of Harper who likes to denigrate and belittle his opponents and their parties. He declared: 

"Conservative values are Canadian values. Canadian values are conservative values. They always were. And Canadians are going back to the party that most closely reflects who they really are: The Conservative Party, which is Canada's party."

Harper knows perfectly well this isn't true of course. But it reminds me of Margaret Thatcher's infamous statement years ago that there was no such thing as society, just individuals and families

Both these declarations are aspirational -- it is where Harper intends to go, not where we are. But let there be no doubt; Harper with a majority and the power of the state in his hands can take us down that road. Thatcher did that with Britain using her power to crush unions and privatize the state and generally undermine community. The political culture of Britain is virtually unrecognizable today thanks to Thatcher, the Labour Party's Tony Blair and the assault on civilized dialogue by the Rupert Murdoch media. 

The media and right-wing think tanks can only do so much damage. The Fraser Institute's Michael Walker once said that to change society you had to change the ideological fabric of society. But with all our traditional institutions in place -- even if weakened -- that's not so easy. Canadian values are amazingly resilient and Harper still can't get past the 40 per cent mark in voter support. But using the power of the state to systematically eliminate the institutions that reflect a social democratic society and culture you really can begin to change the fabric of society.

I was reminded of the Reform Party roots of the Harper Conservatives recently in a statement by Rona Ambrose, the Status of Women Minister. Just having a department with this name should qualify for a hypocrisy award given that the Harper government, even with minority status, has set women's right back years by funding cuts and the erosion of pay equity. But Ambrose was a little more subtle -- speaking to the issue of violence against women she emphasized the need for education and not just prosecution. That seems reasonable on the face of it but it got me to digging back to the Reform Party's 1991 policy convention when there was a heated debate about the issue. The convention reluctantly passed a resolution on family violence -- also emphasizing "prevention." An amendment to hold abusers accountable was overwhelmingly defeated.

On the cultural front, Harper will, of course, continue to play to his core supporters and hope to bring more Canadians on side. But he has already demonstrated that he has key political institutions in his sights. His blatant violation of the spirit of collective bargaining was revealed in his extremely intrusive binding arbitration laws regarding the postal workers and Air Canada employees. He is, in effect, creating new law by redefining what back-to-work legislation can do. A few more examples like these and the right to strike at the federal level will be meaningless. And while the federal government only has jurisdiction over some 10 per cent of unionized workers in Canada, he has set an example and a precedent for right-wing provincial governments to follow.

On explicitly cultural issues, the government has shown that it is not shy about a hands-on approach to who gets grants and who doesn't. Cultural institutions have always been targeted by the right because even more effectively than political organizations, they transmit social and cultural values and reflect back to citizens the shape and content of the country they live in. Micro-managing cultural grants, making applicants fearful of being cut off (and therefore engaging in self-censorship) and openly attacking select organizations for ridicule or for being "un-Canadian" can have a huge effect over time. If the cultural expression of our social democratic society is deliberately eroded and undermined over time, it gradually disappears from the collective memory.

As for federal politics, Harper will continue his voter suppression strategy of making politics so unpleasant that many supporters of opposition parties will simply tune out. The NDP's strategy of refusing to heckle and to bring civilized behaviour back to the Commons is a good one and may make Harper's plan backfire.

Harper's culture war will take place continuously over the next four years because that's just the kind of politician he is: relentless, focused, motivated and unafraid of his enemies. He not only has the power of the state behind him, he has a party that runs circles around the pothers in fund-raising. The phasing out of the $2 per vote subsidy will give him an even greater advantage.  

This is what the NDP (and the Liberals) face in planning for the next election. If they have any chance of ousting this misanthrope of a prime minister from power they cannot do politics as usual. Waiting until the writ is dropped to engage Canadians in the defence of their country will not work.

The NDP has to figure out a way of remaking their electoral-machine party into something very different -- something that can have aspects of a movement as well as a party. It has to be active in every community all year round, wherever it has enough members to be effective. And it needs to double its membership in the process. It has to commit itself to building community, engaging with social justice, cultural and environmental movements to create a broad coalition of people and organizations dedicated to taking back the country from the man who would dismantle it. It needs to explicitly fight voter suppression with genuine voter engagement. Otherwise, as sure as night follows day, it will fail.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at thetyee.ca.

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