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When the NDP abandoned its socialist principles, it abandoned its chance of winning

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Mimi Williams

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Many New Democrats were shocked and dismayed at the outcome of Monday's federal election, despite their relief that Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party government were gone at last. Long-time NDP activist and freelance Alberta journalist Mimi Williams explains in this Alberta Diary guest post why she believes the NDP's own campaign decisions were the principal reason for this unhappy turn of events. DJC

Jeremy Corbyn's stunning sweep to victory and leadership of the British Labour Party last month should have given the strategists in the NDP war room pause to reflect. It didn't. And it was probably too late, anyway.

Corbyn's win, along with the rise in popularity of Democrat presidential nominee hopeful Bernie Sanders in the United States caused me and others concern about the NDP's electoral prospects well before Labour Day. Had the party abandoned the democratic socialist principles of its roots just as the populace was prepared to embrace them? As I feared then and as became clear on election night, the answer was "yes" and it was Justin Trudeau's Liberals who capitalized on this recognition and benefitted from it.

There's a well-worn saying in NDP circles that Liberals campaign like New Democrats and govern like Conservatives. This election showed what happens when you throw the NDP campaigning like Liberals into the mix. Young voters, who didn't have the benefit of remembering what a Liberal government acted like, flocked to the Liberals en masse. You can't really blame them.

For its part, the NDP has moved ever more toward the centre for years, to the point where, in this election, accusations that it was running to the right of the Liberals were not unfounded. That said, it would be entirely unfair to pin the NDP's defeat entirely on Tom Mulcair. Jack Layton also pushed the party to propose balanced budgets and Saskatchewan's Roy Romanow was the first premier to do so in the early 90s. Balancing budgets had become the end instead of the means to the end that they are supposed to be.

Despite all of its promises, the neoliberalism espoused by leaders of all political stripes -- from Margaret Thatcher to Bill Clinton to Jean Chretien -- has increased inequality, worsened poverty and hampered the advancement of human rights world-wide, including here in Canada. Those countries that have shown more socialist tendencies -- where taxes are not considered a four-letter word -- are the ones that have managed to better weather the many economic storms the world has experienced over the past four decades. Progressive voters know this, even those so young that they’ve never experienced any other kind of government. The Liberal Party incorporated this realization into its platform; the NDP, for whatever reasons, did not.

Last spring, EKOS pollster Frank Graves coined the term "promiscuous progressives" to describe people who wanted to get rid of Stephen Harper but weren't sure who should replace him. The campaign platforms presented to voters made that choice a lot clearer for many: Choose the one who promises to do it differently.

Along with the misguided attempt to reassure voters with the promise of balanced budgets, the NDP's vetting of candidates who expressed solidarity with Palestinians also hurt them far more than they will likely admit. It was with a not-insignificant measure of incredulity that I watched Mulcair hold a press conference condemning Harper's muzzling of scientists. I couldn't help but rub that up against what I and so many others had personally witnessed: the muzzling and removal of candidates who expressed even the mildest of criticism of Israel. In so many respects, the NDP itself made it easy for the Liberals to paint Mulcair as Harper Lite.

The NDP has managed to force the introduction of important initiatives in this country without ever holding power. There was Tommy Douglas, who built the party with an emphasis on social policies and was a driving force in the introduction of medicare, first in Saskatchewan, and then throughout the country. It was David Lewis who coined the term "corporate welfare bums" and brought forward the idea of the Crown corporation that would become Petro-Canada (later privatized by Brian Mulroney). To those leaders, principles were more important than power.

Ironically enough, had the party not veered to the right in an ill-fated attempt to capture votes, it might very well have been able to retain the former while finally grasping the latter.

Mimi Williams is a longtime NDP activist and freelance journalist living in Alberta. This federal election was the first NDP campaign she has sat out since 1986. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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