Which will the NDP put first: Party or country?

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Anyone who really wants to get the country back from the grim reaper now in charge of Canada -- and who knows our political history -- would look to the NDP as their best hope. They are the only party that is not completely in the pocket of big business and the political elite and that also has a chance of making a difference in Parliament. A lot of people want to believe the NDP can actually make a difference.

Regrettably, the party and its leader Tom Mulcair aren't making it easy -- which is why fewer people support the NDP now than they did three years ago or even last year. A fundraising letter that arrived last week shows why. The envelope declares: "Are you ready to elect Canada's first NDP government?" No one outside the confines of the NDP's castle-under-siege actually believes this is even remotely possible and that can't help but have an impact on the party's credibility. If the party and its leader are so disconnected from political reality that they think they are going to double their current 20 per cent support in the polls by October, then how can we trust them to be connected with us regarding a vision for the future?

Facing political reality -- and the Harper threat

The party and its brain trust drank the "we are going to win" Kool-Aid under Jack Layton and they're still drinking it. Don't misunderstand me here -- of course parties run to win; they run to persuade people that they are the best bet for making the country a better place. But you can run to win without appearing delusional. That means running on a platform that connects intimately with your constituents' deeply held values and these days, their fears -- manufactured fears generated by Stephen Harper (terrorism and crime) and real fears about what he will do with the country if he gets four more years.

It also means dealing intelligently with the reality of the first-past-the-post system and that means grasping that the best way -- perhaps the only way -- for the NDP to "govern" is to be part of a coalition/accord with the Liberals. At this point at least, that seems like a very faint hope. The Liberals and NDP hate each other even more, it seems, than they hate the Harper Conservatives. That puts them off side with all those Canadians whose singular political desire is to rid the country of Harper and his wrecking crew.

As a friend commented to me the other day, the closer the NDP comes to the Liberals in its policies (now offering tax cuts to small business without a shred of evidence that this would create jobs) the more determined it becomes to have nothing to do with some kind of agreement that could get rid of Harper.

Unless something changes, come election time there will be two battles: the Harper Conservatives will be running to win while the NDP and Liberals will be fighting their own private war. It is a recipe for disaster for the country.

The conversations that lead the NDP to this apparent abandonment of the country's best interests clearly take place strictly within the confines of the party bureaucracy. Because if the party's brainiacs actually talked to its supporters, members and progressive Canadians in general, it would know just how terrified people are of the prospect of another Harper majority.

The divide between the NDP's thinking and the political sentiment of its potential supporters has never been greater. This disturbing disconnect suggests that unlike the majority of Canadians who are almost paralyzed by fear and loathing regarding the future of their country, those who run the NDP simply aren't driven by the same fear. Effectively, they care more about their party than they do about their country. It presents the question of whether a progressive party can even make a legitimate claim to the title if the people who run it actually care less about their country than the average citizen does.

Of course the same and worse can be said of the Liberals but nothing more can be expected of them. They are a party of big business, committed to the (ever-worsening) status quo with a long history of appealing to Canadians' progressive instincts during elections while dutifully serving the interests of the economic elite. The classic example, of course, was the Liberal Red Book of promises waved ceremoniously at every rally by Jean Chretien in the 1993 election. It was beyond cynical that not a single one of the promises was ever kept. Instead, Paul Martin distinguished the Chretien government with two record-breaking accomplishments: the largest cuts (40 per cent) to social spending in Canadian history and the largest tax cuts ($100 billion over five years) in history (including Jim Flaherty's).

Working together to save the country

But this doesn't mean that these two parties, despite their different histories, cultures and loyalties, could not form some kind of alliance to stop the bleeding. It is done frequently in Europe where nominally strange governing coalitions are formed all the time. Perhaps the best example is the recent victory of the left-wing Syriza Party in Greece. It rejected any governing alliance with the fatally compromised old-left parties and teamed up with a right-wing party which agreed with its position opposing the "austerity waterboarding" imposed by the European Union and IMF.

Greece faces an historic crisis that called for an extraordinary political response. It can be argued that Canada faces an historic crisis as well: the threat of providing Stephen Harper with four more years. These are decidedly not normal times -- for the first time in our history we actually have a government that is committed to dismantling the best aspect of our country.

That cries out for an extraordinary response. And if the NDP can't propose an accord of some kind based on principle (let's see if the Liberals have the jam to refuse) then why not do it based on opportunism? It would hardly be a departure given its myriad compromises over the years (and its opportunistic defeat of the Liberals in 2006, handing Harper power). Oddly, the NDP claims to want power yet demonstrates with its intransigence on co-operation with the Liberals that it is not actually serious. 

It is obvious to all progressive Canadians that if either the Liberals or the Conservatives win a majority, the country is in deep trouble. The Liberals will not commit themselves to reversing all the damage done by Harper. They are interested in power for the sake of it and would happily administer the status quo inherited from the Conservatives.

Our only hope is a minority government. If the Conservatives win, the Liberals and the NDP must be prepared -- and say so -- to force a vote of non-confidence in the government and form a new government based on a limited number of initiatives. If the Liberals win a plurality the same holds true: co-operation has to be on the table as part of the election.

But if the NDP, in its preoccupation with competing with the Liberals to "win" the election, gets closer and closer to their policies, it risks giving them a majority. So far, they are erratic on the policy front -- including good stuff like the $15 minimum wage, child care, proportional representation and protecting medicare funding, but extremely weak on the economy, as evidenced by pandering to small business, refusing to tax wealth, and lacking a clear industrial development strategy.

The economy will be the defining issue in October and the NDP has the opportunity given the rapidly deteriorating economic situation to dramatically distinguish itself from the other parties. But so far it has been unable to escape the economic policy straightjacket it placed on itself decades ago. Time is running out.

It's running out, too, for getting Canadians accustomed to the idea that a coalition is the best way to save the country.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee. 

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