Tragedy of errors: The NDP seeks answers, asks the wrong question

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The federal NDP lost its 18th straight election in October, and leader Tom Mulcair is trying to find the black box in the wreckage of the campaign.

The federal party’s campaign was a tragedy of errors. In late May EKOS Research declared, "…The prospect of a previously unthinkable NDP victory has squarely entered the realm of plausibility for voters."

In a July 23-27 poll, 62 per cent told Ipsos the NDP represented "the best alternative to the current Harper Conservative government," while just 38 per cent said the Liberals.

When the campaign opened, with the party at 40 per cent in his August 23-24 poll, Forum Research president Lorne Bozinoff gushed, "This is a historic day for the NDP, when the poll puts them in reach, not only of their first national government, but of a majority."

How did the NDP campaign take the party from 34 per cent early in the campaign -- in a September 4-8 Ipsos poll -- to under 20 per cent on E-day?

When the Alberta NDP ended the 44-year reign of the Conservatives on May 5, the federal party soared to first place in the national polls. Anti-Harper voters saw the Alberta NDP victory as evidence the federal NDP could topple Stephen Harper. The federal party's new support, however, only proved that voters were kicking the party’s tires and taking it for a test drive.

Yet federal NDP strategists took away the wrong message from Alberta and ran a play-it-safe, front-runner’s campaign. Albertans, however, were not embracing the NDP. They had used the NDP as exterminators to get rid of pests. In May the Alberta NDP won 41 per cent of the vote. In Alberta on October 19th the federal NDP got 12 per cent.

A big reason for the NDP’s loss was the failure to rebrand the party as an economic authority. Credibility on the economy would have vaccinated the NDP against attacks on other planks of its platform. Yet the party put up no plausible finance critic or finance minister-in-waiting during the NDP’s four years as official opposition.

Branding the NDP for economic competence requires more than a pledge to run balanced budgets. In an Innovative Research post-election poll (conducted October 20-23), only 24 per cent said that the NDP promise to balance the budget every year made them at least somewhat more likely to vote NDP. That gain was erased by the 23 percent who said a balanced NDP budget made them less likely to vote for the party.

In contrast, 54 per cent said the Liberal plan to cut the income tax rate for the middle class and increase taxes on those making over $200,000 a year made them a lot or somewhat more likely to vote Liberal.

NDP strategists took another misstep when they embraced the change theme. Chanting "change" was also a reason to vote Liberal. What Mulcair missed was a compelling reason to vote NDP.

The bearded, grey-haired grandfather who gladly reminded voters he had been in politics forever, Mulcair was miscast in the role of change. In an Abacus Data poll conducted October 15-17, 40 per cent said they found Justin Trudeau "inspiring." Just 20 per cent said the same about Mulcair, who barely ranked ahead of Harper (15 per cent).

Under Harper the Conservatives had made a fetish of balancing the federal budget. When Mulcair stunned the NDP rank and file by promoting a no-deficit government, he sabotaged his claim to be the champion of change.

Worse, recycling Harper’s balanced-budget vows offended the NDP’s biggest potential voting bloc: the country’s 3.6 million public sector workers. To them "balanced budget" is a dog whistle for zero pay increases, hiring freezes and layoffs.

Mulcair is asking the wrong question if he’s wondering what went wrong with the campaign. The right question is what’s gone wrong with the party.

Post-election, Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom asked, "What is the point of being in politics if you never have a chance of forming government? ...If a left-wing party’s only chance at power is to move rightward, why bother?"

With Mulcair’s breathtaking embrace of balanced budgets and dearth of innovative policies, voters hardly know what the NDP stands for. To resuscitate the party, where should the NDP apply the defibrillation paddles?

1. Re-name the party.

Nothing says "we’re new" better than a name change. With a nod to the world of social media, the new NDP could call itself the Social Democracy Party, or simply Social Democracy (Démocratie sociale in Québec).

In the digital age MPs should engage voters in social network discussions, online petitions, surveys and deliberations to draft legislation and solve problems in their ridings. The former NDP can become the champion of "social government" (gouvernement social).

2. Forget having a base.

Of the three main federal parties, the NDP has the smallest loyal following. Barely 13 per cent of eligible voters self-identified as NDPers at the end of the campaign (it was 16 per cent before the campaign). According to an October 20-23 Innovative Research poll, 34 per cent say they generally "think of yourself" as Liberals in federal politics, 27 per cent as Conservatives, 8 per cent as Green.

In other words, no party has a base big enough to win elections. Elections now are about assembling temporary coalitions of voter clusters. Lacking a base requires parties to have authentic leadership, innovative policies and a social media strategy to engage supporters long before the incumbents call the election.

3. Reposition.

A third-place party can’t afford to be bland. There is a towering list of problems requiring political solutions. But you can reduce them to three: peace, poverty and the environment.

An attractive platform for a resuscitated NDP (with a new name) would call voters to wage peace abroad, equalize economic opportunity in Canada, and save the earth from self-destruction.

Trudeau captivated voters with his optimism because the alternative scenario scares Canadians. Global warming will devastate agriculture, turning impoverished populations into refugees -- and some into terrorists. Political and economic upheaval will disperse tens of millions of workers across the developed world, into brutal competition with apprehensive populations.

Voters want to know how Canadians can create wealth to spread. Policies to help the middle class do help the middle class. But they don’t uplift the class below. Instead, ask how the government can end poverty as we know it. A new politics would imagine ways to get assets to kids so they’ll grow richer as they grow older. Think of guaranteed annual investment accounts.

Why did the NDP lose its best opportunity ever to govern the country? Conservative Party attack ads throbbed that Justin Trudeau was "just not ready." Actually, "not ready" was the NDP.

Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ (www.vectorresearch.com) and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies (Wiley, 2012)

 

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