Why a centrist NDP is not an option

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Prominent CBC commentator Chantal Hebert thinks dumping Tom Mulcair for being too centrist would be a mistake.

When the NDP did win elections provincially, it won running from the centre, and the federal NDP would be no different, she wrote in a recent Toronto Star column. She advised that in a succession race, a centrist would win out over someone who wanted the party to go hard left.

One can quibble with Hebert's version of history. In 1944, Tommy Douglas and the CCF swept to power in Saskatchewan as avowed socialists. They governed for 20 years. In polarized B.C., Dave Barrett ran from the left and won in 1972, and Glen Clark did the same in 1996. Bob Rae won in Ontario in 1990 pointing out big corporations paid little income tax.

Giving counterexamples is not enough to reject the point made by Hebert, however. Political scientists have been looking at centrists, called variously the uncommitted, the non-partisan, or non-aligned voter for decades.

It's easy to image undecided voters, indifferent to the status quo, sitting in the centre of the political spectrum, waiting for parties to come to them.

Most voters do not follow politics closely, if at all. Specialists want to know: what triggers their vote?

Parties, political scientists and journalists answer that individual voters act much as consumers. 

Voters support one party over another, favour one leader rather than another, or vote on an issue dear to them, much as they choose between brands of soda pop.

Understanding this, parties market themselves to electors. As "suppliers" of voter-friendly politics, they woo potential buyers. It is understood that which leader makes the product pitch and how that leader projects to the public, are just as important as what is on offer, and maybe more.

In this political world, centrist positioning is taken for granted. There is no real battle of ideas. Issues change; policy stances are disposable.

Election campaigns are mostly theatre for the masses.

When parties of the left accept these ideas, become centrist in orientation, they part company with those who count on their support.

In the consumer/supplier view of the political world, elections are fought out in front of a neutral backdrop: political society does not figure as such. Movements for change can be reduced to individual choices. 

The real world of politics exists on another, bigger scale; it is about more than individuals buying or rejecting political messages.

In Canada, as elsewhere, politics is continuous: confrontations between opposing economic interests are a constant. People on the left work for change in society at large.

Companies look to secure advantages from governments. Workers defend wages and benefits from employers aiming to reduce costs.

In wider society, women caucus and organize to break the stranglehold men exert within most organizations.

Environmental organizations fight for a healthy habitat.

Corporations face opposition from communities concerned about plant shutdowns or mine closures.

Aboriginals contest the Canadian Constitution.

The unemployed fight rules that deny them the insurance they paid to obtain.

Political parties of the left exist to reverse the prevailing balance of political forces, not sell out the weaker groups.

Left politics requires social movements and parties that embody their ideas.

Centre-left parties represent people who rely on wages, salaries, pensions, welfare, EI, student loans and grants to live. They work against injustices dealt out to the poor, the sick, the weak, the newcomer and Indigenous people. When a party such as the NDP forgets why it exists, its constituents desert.

The corporate world organizes itself to demonize the left and centre-left parties. In this it has been wildly successful.

Canadian corporations have been poor at delivering benefits for all. They have been exceedingly clever at getting people to believe that lower wages lead to prosperity, and that small government and lower taxes make more sense than widely available, quality public services.

Owning the media ensures corporate-sponsored policies become commonplace, while ideas for significant change lack oxygen.

Featuring conservative columnists works. So does supporting right-wing think-tanks.

Even the CBC plays along.

The political "centre" has been pushed so far to the right that the first act of the self-styled progressive Trudeau Liberals was to cut income taxes for the wealthy.

At the upcoming Edmonton convention April 8-10, those who say the NDP has "lost its way" deserve a hearing.

Canada needs a party to represent youth, indebted students, wage and salary earners, the unemployed, welfare recipients, homeless and poorly housed Canadians, First Nations and minorities, independent of what delegates decide about the leadership of Tom Mulcair.

If Tom Mulcair experiences, as W.B. Yeats would have it, "The Second Coming," then it is worth quoting from the great poem: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

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

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