Want to win in Canadian politics? Build a movement

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Making the social democratic movement operate like a "normal" more centrist political party is the kind of advice the mainstream press has been offering to the NDP since shortly after it was founded in Calgary, as the CCF, in 1932.

NDP members want the party to build upon its newfound status as a national party, and ready itself to take on the role of government. However, to win office, few New Democrats want NDP policies to mirror recent Conservative and Liberal practices, or expect the party to move away from supporting workers, or tone down talk about empowering equality-seeking groups.

Activists know movement building creates interest in politics. Recruiting members through meaningful action, whether it be for good jobs and incomes, equality of men and women, protecting the environment, or a myriad of social justice issues is the way for New Democrats to grow in number. It would be strange for members to demand the NDP practice normal status quo politics as the way to build party appeal.

The ruling Conservative Party of Canada led by Stephen Harper is not a normal party in the Liberal centrist mode. Harper sprung from Reform party roots. Reform was the first right-wing populist party to take its place in the federal Parliament, since the Ralliement Créditiste, under Réal Caouette, won 26 seats in 1962. Caouettes troops began as part of Social Credit, led by Albertan Robert Thompson, striking out on their own after winning 30 seats in 1963.

Like their Socred et Créditiste forebearers, Harper Conservatives see themselves as a political movement that reaches beyond parliament, or local riding associations. The governing Conservatives rely for dollars and support on thousands of militants regrouped in the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the National Taxpayers Federation, and the National Citizens Coalition.

The would-be spiritual guide of the conservative movement, Preston Manning of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy (sic), held his annual networking conference in Ottawa last weekend. Former and current cabinet ministers mingled with think-tankers, funders, party activists, and journalists.

Post Media columnist Andrew Coyne outlined how the Harper Conservatives had a long way to go to fulfill Conservative ideals, presenting an exhortation to the assembled disciples to get seriously right wing, and seriously cut back on government; while Manning himself explained why Conservatives need to be part of a larger movement.

Alberta went Social Credit provincially in 1935, nearly a decade before Saskatchewan elected the CCF (1944), and hung on to office until 1971, seven years after the CCF lost power next door. When the Alberta Conservatives defeated the Socreds, one right-wing party better reflecting the urban middle-income population, replaced another.

Indeed, in the mid-1960s, longtime Alberta premier Ernest C. Manning (father of Preston) wrote a book calling for political realignment in Canada. The Mannings wanted a right-wing party to face a left-wing party across Canada in a direct confrontation of ideas, a real electoral battle.

The distinguished UBC political scientist Richard Johnston has suggested that in first-past-the-post electoral battles between left and right, the right-wing party generally wins. However under proportional representation, the more fractious left is forced to co-operate, and social democratic parties win government.

For the Harper Conservatives, a militant base contributing money to the party like good Roman Catholics once did to the Church is the agent for change, and the current electoral system suits party purposes. As we have seen with the revelations of robocall electoral fraud, the party is not above dirty tricks to suppress unfriendly votes. Even the Manning Centre has been mentioned in this regard.

Overall, so long as 40 per cent of Canadians stay home on election day, and no more than 60 per cent of voting Canadians choose parties other than the Conservatives, Stephen Harper will hold on to a parliamentary majority with the support of 24 per cent of eligible Canadian voters. The youth organization Lead Now, formed to increase political participation, has just launched a Cooperate for Canada campaign to get opposition parties talking about democratic reform.

Leading New Democrats recognize that combating citizen alienation from electoral politics is necessary to rid Canada of the Conservatives. Peggy Nash (I support her for the leadership) wants to see the opposition parties pool resources to promote proportional representation (PR). A PR system leads to coalition governments. Jack Layton promoted a coalition arrangement with the Liberals, and it seems the obvious way ahead, but not for leadership candidate Tom Mulcair, who ruled it out in an interview with Althia Raj.

Build a movement, or become a normal, centrist party? Recent evidence, and best thinking, suggests fighting Conservatives with democratic movement building is the way forward for the NDP.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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