It would be nice if politics were a polite discussion conducted to help the public make up its mind, but that is not how political life works.
In battling the Liberals, Stephen Harper proved adept at defining his adversaries for the Canadian public. Neither Stephane Dion nor Michael Ignatieff ever recovered from high intensity negative Conservative advertising campaigns conducted before an election was called.
The next New Democratic leader can expect similar personal attention. As well, NDP ideas are going to get roughly treated. On policy questions, the Conservatives can count on high-profile support from its shock troops: the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the National Citizens Coalition (Stephen Harper, ex-president). It is one thing to face Stephen Harper in the House of Commons; it is quite another to face concerted opposition from the enemies of the NDP outside parliament.
As New Democrats reflect on who should become the next leader, party supporters need to consider who will be best suited to handling the public attacks that will come from the major business lobby groups, and their bought and paid for media. Protecting the status quo, or seeking further advantages, is what matters to big economic players trying to influence policy outcomes.
Though no political party has said out loud it wants to improve the advantages of the already rich and powerful, most of what has been done in Canada since the mid-1970s — the last time real wages improved for most workers — has had that effect.
A new NDP leader with an agenda for meaningful change to improve lives is going to face major opposition from the people who benefit disproportionately from the way Canada is run now. The defenders of the existing order are not numerous, but they are powerful, well placed, and determined not to see power and advantage shift towards the people who work for a living, depend on a public pension, and rely on public service to improve their quality of life (aka the Canadian public).
Just the idea that New Democrats occupy the antechamber to power is enough to give every big oil company, chartered bank, American and other foreign owned corporation an incentive not just to rally support for the Conservatives, but to undertake public campaigns to discredit NDP policies. Already, hysteria and hyperbole greet the simplest of policy proposals, say, an increase to the minimum wage (which gives business customers more money); or a corporate income tax rate not lower than the U.S. rate (so companies pay tax in Canada instead of in the U.S.).
What makes political life particularly difficult for an NDP leader is that the job description of the corporate media includes bashing the NDP in an effort to discredit its policies. Not just the obviously biased Sun Media, or Postmedia, but Maclean’s, CTV, and The Globe and Mail (Today’s Globe and Mail editorial on Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is a case in point) all have a role to play in diminishing attempts to break with corporate-speak on the economy. Sadly, the CBC imitates its commercial competitors, in a misguided attempt to preserve government funding, which it is going to see wither away anyway.
While the mainstream media are too important to ignore, no New Democratic leader should expect the party message to get carried directly into Canadian homes. The little that gets through the well-used “left detectors” will have substantial negative comment attached.
There is a temptation for a New Democrat leader inexperienced with corporate propaganda to try and fit the party into the dominant media frame, by say emphasizing the commitment to fiscal responsibility, rather than direct job creation. Not only does this not work — nothing the party can say will ever receive corporate support — it just reinforces efforts to ridicule the NDP.
The only way for the party to counter corporate opposition is to mobilize people and resources behind its own policies. That means working closely with institutional constituencies from farmers about to lose the Canadian Wheat Board, to women concerned about access to child care, to students struggling to avoid debt loads, to trade unionists looking for better working conditions, to faith communities upset about cuts to Third World development assistance, to immigrant groups being stereotyped as terrorist threats, to Aboriginal People’s organizations trying to get clean water for reserves, and to every professional organization with a concern for human rights, justice, and democracy.
The next leader of the NDP has to be able to build a profile outside parliament for party policies and bring people into the political process who have been indifferent to what has been going in their country. This recipe was used effectively in Denmark recently where Social Democrats now lead a coalition government that takes over after a decade of anti-immigrant, right wing government.
The great success of the right wing has been to demobilize the voting public. The way to overcome the economic forces aligned with the Conservative Party is to mobilize citizens through imaginative appeals to what this country needs to progress beyond the boundaries set by corporate logic.
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column about politics and current affairs.