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Untangling the #hashtagfail-lings of the NDP campaign

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There's been an awful lot written about the NDP's election performance, and the errors were so seemingly obvious, that most of the analysis coalesces around the same narrative: the party has swung too far to the right. That’s true, but it's only part of the story.

The NDP lost almost 30 per cent of the voter share they won in 2015 (almost 1 million votes). Anyone who was inspired to vote for the first time most likely voted Liberal: their vote share increased by 60 per cent, or just over 4 million votes. The Conservatives' vote remained stable and the Bloc vote decreased. Despite this, the Conservatives and the Bloc managed to significantly increase their support in Quebec. 

Would a more left-wing NDP have been more successful?

Maybe, but this isn't the right question. In fact, this question is so theoretical that it leads progressive pundits into the territory of fantasy writing. The Left is already dangerously disconnected from average people: we need a better understanding of where the NDP is to be able to know what needs to happen to get the party to be "further left."

The NDP doesn't currently have the capacity to be much more progressive than they were during this election. Many of the folks who analyzed the failures of the NDP hung their theses on the assumption that being progressive is something that can be switched on and off at party HQ.  

Progressive politics must be built, not announced. Systems were in motion for too long for the NDP to have been able to change course for this election.

The NDP didn't drift to the centre when it promised to balance the budget, or when it elected Mulcair as leader. As many have pointed out, the NDP's centrism is part of a decades-long slide that has ravished all aspects of the left, not just mainstream political parties.

The Liberals, as one of two governing parties in Ottawa, have the luxury to turn left or right at the whims of central command. They don't need to be in direct contact with their members. They can change their policies with the predictions of the pollsters and they won't be punished. In fact, they'll be lauded, if the gamble pays off.

The principal failure of the NDP was to form a strategy premised on the notion that they had this ability too. But they aren't the Liberals. They probably would have been skewered by the press if they had promised to run a $30 billion deficit.

It was the combination of a failure to communicate a progressive vision that was firm enough to convince Canadians that the NDP could beat Harper, and a failure of organizing between elections that sank the NDP.

Imagine if the NDP had organized its MPs to vocally oppose the Values Charter during the 2014 Quebec election. Imagine if they had allowed more of their MPs to intervene publicly on debates. Imagine if the party worked closer with social movement organizations and labour between 2011 and 2015 to build a relationship to withstand the fragility of poll-based politics.

Imagine if Angry Tom had made an appearance. Indeed, there is currency in a politician who is comfortable in his own skin, something that Mulcair didn't quite project during the 11-week campaign.

Where were the YouTube ad buys, the clever commercials and the risks that were taken in 2011? Why was the Pharmacare promise announced as if it were accidentally leaked by a backroom operative?

When the NDP announced it would run a balanced budget, where was the communications strategy addressing the resistance they should have anticipated? Who thought leading with announcing a balanced budget was a good idea? Was no one in the war room from Quebec who could have said "Um, guys, déficit zéro won't play super well among progressives in that province..."

Why didn't the party assume that the knives would come out for them from the mainstream press the second there was a whiff that the NDP might form government?

The NDP's communications strategy should have anticipated these problems. It should have been bold and creative. It should have taken risks. It should have been sensitive to sentiment on the ground and acted accordingly. Instead, it was as if party operatives figured that they could win the election by hiding under some coats and hope that no one noticed when the laundry was brought into the PMO by an unwitting caretaker.

The #hashtagfail of a communications strategy was a shame for many reasons. It cost the party many talented MPs, especially the young Quebecers who proved that mainstream politics in Canada don't have to be a game limited to old men. It helped the Liberals create the false narrative that their plan outflanked the NDP platform to the left even though it didn't by any measure.

(Of course, collateral damage from the failed ONDP campaign in 2014 helped fuel this narrative, but that could have been managed as well. At the very least, that should have been anticipated and addressed through the national strategy.)

It was also a shame because it failed to communicate that the NDP was offering a platform that was more progressive than their 2011 platform; that Canadians would see new, national programs built (eventually...the two-term requirement was another strategic fail), get help for childcare (unless you're in Quebec...another strategic fail) and have your minimum wage increased (if you worked among the lowest-paid in the federally regulated industries). The promises were by no means bold, but they were better than both the Liberals' promises and the previous election's NDP platform.

While some pundits have incorrectly conflated "the left" with the NDP, this election truly was a win for progressive politics. Average people wanted Harper stopped. Average people wanted change. And, even though the change they chose was represented by the corruption-plagued, neo-Liberal Party of Canada, things are instantly better for millions of Canadians. At the very least, millions of Canadians can breathe easier knowing that the governing party is no longer radically (and in some cases religiously) opposed to their existence.

This is little comfort for the thousands of NDP activists who donated 11 weeks of their lives to this loss, and I think any analysis of the failures of the NDP campaign has to recognize their good work. It's time for the NDP's central command to be re-connected with the campaign doorknockers, the phone bankers, campaign managers and candidates, their families and friends, their co-workers, sports teammates, members of their places of worship and neighbours.

Enough with the insularist politicking. Leave that game to the ones who invented it. If the NDP wants to be the party of the left, it really needs to start acting like one.

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