Dear NDP, it's 2015: Fiscal conservatism and Thatcherism are so 1990s

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There's something touching about Thomas Mulcair's attempt to become the Tony Blair of Canada: it comes 20 years late. Back in the 1990s, Blair, leader of Britain's Labour Party, declared with some daring that über-Tory Margaret Thatcher had been correct in her right-wing policies, and the route to electoral success for "progressives" meant following in her footsteps. He called it the Third Way though it was really 1(a), and he won three straight majorities with it. Bill Clinton and U.S. Democrats named it triangulation, emulated Reagan, and won two presidencies. Here, Chretien-Martin Liberals went way beyond the Mulroney Tories in slashing "big government" and won thrice. You can see the appeal.

The heart of their conversion lay in zealously embracing fiscal conservatism and balancing budgets. Deficits were the devil's work. Mulcair has adopted this credo, even mimicking their rhetoric about not burdening "our kids and grandkids" with debt. He and his NDP are partying like it's 1994.

The trouble is, it's 2015. What was new gets old. All those societies have tried the formula and it's led to the worst crash since the Depression, collapsed infrastructure, falling wages, exploding inequality -- the list has grown boring. Voters notice. They can see that "left" parties behaving like right ones are redundant. Europe's old left parties -- France's PS or Greece's PASOK -- became irrelevant sidebars. Blair is a pariah in much of his own party. In Greece and Spain it led to the eruption of new left-wing parties like Syriza and Podemos.

Now, in the latest phase, the insurgency has reached into the heart of the old parties themselves. Bernie Sanders, a "socialist" who manages to be both grumpy and cheery, is mounting an effective challenge among U.S. Democrats. In the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn, an irrepressible leftist abhorred by Labour MPs and officials, was elected leader with a stunning majority. The old guard will now try to topple, or maybe assassinate, him. They're so drenched in Blairism they can't believe it. They consider it "madness," the common term applied. It looks like a lot more fun than people on the left are having here.

Other parts of the world have gone farther. South America experienced the most savage version of neoliberal economics and has widely rejected it, making it politically, like the Dos Equis guy, the most interesting continent in the world.

All this leaves Mulcair's NDP blissfully unaffected. He had his conversion moment back in the 1990s, when he voiced public admiration for Thatcher. Like most people, he considers an insight once won never worth questioning again. It comes with a lifetime guarantee. So it fell, bizarrely, to Justin Trudeau to challenge the old deficit dogma. To what I assume is Mulcair's shock, most Canadian voters didn't succumb to the vapours. They seemed to agree. Even a posse of bank economists supported deficit spending, done with care.

None of this is radical: just a little Keynesian pump-priming. It does nothing to tackle inequality, for instance. Even Bill Clinton would probably be OK with it, but then he loves badmouthing himself for things he did in power. He thinks it's adorable. Paul Martin himself stood beside Trudeau as he announced the reversal and approved it. Only Harper and Mulcair gagged on it.

The NDP did well when it stuck by its instincts and opposed the anti-terror bill. That vaulted them past the Liberals. This seems to have dragged them back down. Thinking you're smart and calculating too carefully can do that.

It revealed something too about the party's nature. NDP veteran Gerry Caplan had a Globe column this week which was also touching. He described how verklempt he is over whether the party does well or fails in this election. It's how many of us feel about the Leafs and Jays. Caplan has led an admirable, compassionate life of concern for others. Yet in his column there was no mention of what this election will mean for Canada and its people. It was solely about "us," the party. Party politics turns rational people insane, just as running for office turns nice people into monsters. Still, you're surprised when it comes from the NDP. It turns out their motto too could be, My party right or wrong. Though in their case it's more like, My party right or left.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Laurel L. Russwurm/flickr

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