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Murray Dobbin
In a bold move, NDP delegates save their party

| April 15, 2016
Photo: United Steelworkers/flickr

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In the aftermath of Tom Mulcair's crushing repudiation at the NDP's convention, the party enters a period of self-reflection and reinvention that it has never experienced before. The pent-up pressure for such a process was demonstrated dramatically in Edmonton -- the humiliating defeat of a leader unprecedented in the party's history and the (cautious) embrace of a radical manifesto that should prompt memories of the original Regina Manifesto. The delegates saved their party from oblivion.

The price the NDP has paid for the politics of its last two leaders is staggering. While Jack Layton was clearly more in tune with the social democratic roots of the party than Mulcair, it was he who pushed for a strategy of actually achieving power. The inevitable consequence of that decision was to water down social democratic principles and move the party to the centre. It also resulted in a strategy of political opportunism -- instead of continuing to force the Liberal government of Paul Martin to pass progressive legislation by threatening to withhold support for his minority government, Layton defeated the Liberals, believing that it would take the NDP the next step towards power. Instead it brought to power the most destructive, right-wing government the country has ever known.

A new opportunistic era

The next move in this new "We can win" era of the party was even more opportunistic and has set the party back at least one and probably two election cycles. Choosing Mulcair as leader, in spite of oodles of evidence about how conservative he was, demonstrated a willingness to abandon principle on the part of the convention delegates and the party hierarchy. Jettisoning its principles, the party asked in return only that Mulcair "deliver" Quebec. The quid pro quo was tilted dramatically in favour of Mulcair -- an ambitious, imperious Liberal obsessed with internal control and who broached no criticism from any quarter. Needless to say, it was a bad deal for the party.

One of the lasting impacts of the politics of opportunism is that it sacrifices the ethical core of the party for the dubious promise of power. But without ethics and the politics that arise out of it, achieving power is pointless, because when the end justifies the means, the means -- the way power is achieved -- redefines the ends. The art of persuasion detached from ethics is just propaganda and politics detached from ethics is reduced to strategy and tactics.

That is what has happened to the NDP. The party has been using public relations firms for years, of course, for TV and other advertising. But in recent elections these spin doctors have effectively taken over campaigns, deciding which policies get emphasized and which ones get shuffled out of the deck. The perspective of this class of political operatives was perfectly captured by Tyee writer Charles Demers:

"[t]hey can't get enough of the panel shows that parse strategy and tactics without ever really getting into who will be affected by a particular set of policies. ...In this West Wing view of the world, triangulation and chess-playing are everything; the possibility of genuine political feeling among people who aren't already players is precluded."

Reflective of the professionalization of NDP politics are two of the most prominent campaign organizers behind the recent electoral catastrophes nationally and in B.C. (where the NDP blew a 20-point lead and lost its fourth election a row). What troubles me about Brian Topp (now working as chief of staff for Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley after leading the B.C. NDP campaign) and Brad Lavigne (a senior campaign adviser in the October election) is who they associate with when not running NDP election campaigns.

Just a couple of months before the start of 2013 B.C. election, Topp (who placed second to Mulcair in the NDP's leadership race) announced that he was co-founding a public relations firm with two other political operatives. But these partners were not NDPers -- one was Ken Boessenkool, a former close aide to Stephen Harper and later chief of staff for B.C. Liberal Premier Christie Clark until fired for inappropriate behaviour. (The other partner was a Liberal.) Boessenkool is one of the country's most aggressive right-wing political staffers, working for governments unapologetically dedicated to opposing everything the NDP has ever stood for. (When Topp left the firm in 2015 he was replaced by another prominent NDPer, Jamey Heath, who was communications director for Jack Layton's leadership campaign. The firm no longer exists.)

Before the election, Brad Lavigne was a vice president of Hill+Knowlton, one of the world's largest public relations firms and a social movement symbol for all that is evil in the world of corporate damage control. It is perhaps most famous for creating public support in the U.S. for the first Gulf War. It engineered totally fabricated testimony at the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus by a "witness" (actually the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter) claiming she saw "Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die."

I am not suggesting that either of these political operatives has gone over to the dark side. But their respective decisions betray a stunning lack of awareness about how they might be perceived by progressives, and about the core belief of the NDP that capitalism is immoral. What were they thinking?

Reinventing the party

Perhaps the most important message of the election disaster is that the NDP has to de-professionalize itself (the Liberals are already doing this) and find its way back to the moral imperative that informed the creation of the CCF 85 years ago. That means reinventing the party so that it actually engages its members and its supporters in ways that build trust in both directions. The control of the party and elections by a small unaccountable elite has produced just the opposite -- the party does not trust its own supporters to be progressive when it counts and supporters don't trust the party because it too often betrays their values.

There has never been a better opportunity to reinvent. The embrace of the Leap Manifesto is remarkable not just for its return to a desire for big ideas. Perhaps even more significant is the implicit embrace of a different political culture, one the NDP has traditionally been deeply suspicious of. The manifesto, after all, came from people who have no loyalty to the party. But there is a passion in social movement culture that drives people's commitment to the dozens of causes they support. Ethics is at its heart. And the convention delegates must have felt that. They would not have entertained the manifesto if the party's standard list of mildly progressive policies had satisfied them.

Until now, Canadian politics has presented itself as parallel universes: the universe of the status quo and tweaking the system, and the universe of impending global catastrophes of climate change, environmental destruction and grotesque inequality. In the election, they barely touched each other, let alone overlapped. We can only hope that the delegates fully understood this glaring dichotomy. The party leader and his apparatchiks were clearly not willing to be bold and take risks so the most dedicated activists in the party have, tentatively, decided to do so.

The big test now, of course, is what will actually happen in the riding associations across the country, authorized (encouraged?) to debate the manifesto. Will the debates actually happen and more importantly, will there be a reaching out beyond the party membership in such a process? That would be virtually unprecedented, but if the bridging of the cultural gap between party members and civil society activists and organizations is to continue beyond the convention, it will be essential. 

The delegates took a risk in embracing even the watered down version of the manifesto for debate. That risk deserves to be rewarded by those outside the party hoping it will change. Bridging that cultural gap is a two-way process and both sides need to commit to it.

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.

Photo: United Steelworkers/flickr

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