Friday, May 13, 2011

Election Post Mortem: The NDP


I don't have much to add to the post-election discussion on the NDP's past, present, and future, as most of the key points have already been beaten to death. But it's worth a moment to pause and appreciate what Jack Layton accomplished last Monday. Layton inherited a party with 13 seats in the House of Commons, and took them to 19 seats...then to 27...then to 37. That, by itself, would have been impressive. Then, this election, he took a 50 year old party and not only led them to their best showing ever, he more than doubled their previous record of 43 seats.

Ten or twenty years from now, the words "Jack Layton" will appear under the NDP leader's name on any Debate Bingo sheets or drinking game. Quite simply, Layton will now be a god to future New Democrats, the way Tommy Douglas currently is, and the way Ed Broadbent almost is. What he has accomplished cannot be understated in the least.

I start with this little ode to Jack, because the NDP's success is owed entirely to him. I know that can be said of most parties in Canada, but this was a vote for Jack and Jack alone. And deservedly so, since his performance was masterful from start to finish.

I think back to the very first day of the campaign, when all three leaders faced difficult questions. The way they dealt with them foreshadowed what was to come. Harper simply refused to take questions. Ignatieff gave an incoherent answer to the coalition question, forcing him to clarify his position the next day. Layton faced difficult questions about his health with a smile and a joke - everyone seemed satisfied and that was the end of it.

And that was how Layton approached the entire campaign. NDP ads were as vicious and unfair as Liberal or Conservative ads, but they featured cartoons, and ended with Jack smiling and saying something that made you feel good about him. Every second word out of his mouth was an attack on Harper or Ignatieff, but he had a cheerful way of delivering his lines that made voters feel like he was running a positive campaign. In fairness, the other half of the words were positive, with promises to help seniors, hire doctors, and cut taxes. The math didn't add up, but math doesn't win elections.

The story was much the same during the debates. That was really when this campaign turned. His attacks were pointed and, unlike Ignatieff, they were on issues voters could relate to. Ignatieff's attendance record may not have been the most important issue facing the country, but Layton put it in terms people could understand, leaving the Liberal leader stunned and speechless. In short, Layton gave voters everything they wanted in those debates - he looked like a fighter, he looked cool, he looked confident, and, most importantly, he showed how he'd make their lives a little easier. Voters started trickling his way soon afterwards and, once the people realized it was okay to vote NDP, the trickle turned into a torrent.

Layton's biggest challenge in the coming years is to leverage his personal popularity to strengthen the NDP brand. After all, this was a vote for Jack, not a vote for the NDP - to form government and ensure the next NDP leader has a chance at forming government, Jack needs to get Canadians comfortable with the idea of voting for the NDP.

Doubts about the NDP's ability to govern will only be heightened as his rookie caucus continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. After all, the media won't be able to write election speculation stories any more, so the easiest way to get content for a column will be to stick a microphone in the face of one of the NDP rookies. Suffice to say, a crash course in media relations and the art of the "no comment" will be coming up.

Personally, I don't have a problem with young MPs - it's something we need more of, and it could actually prove to be a great way to get young Canadians interested in politics. I came within one floor crossing of being a placeholder candidate for the Liberals in 2005, so I'm open to the idea that these political rookies might actually be a breath of fresh air in Ottawa. If they handle themselves well, the media, and voters, will fall in love with them.

The larger concern for Layton is not so much the age of his MPs, it's their beliefs. It wouldn't at all surprise me if a dozen or two of the Layton Bunch are quasi-separatists, setting the stage for some very uncomfortable decisions in the years ahead. Layton's position on the Clarity Act, Bill 101, and the Constitution is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

So there are challenges ahead for Layton and the NDP. If they look and sound like a government in waiting for the next four years, they might very well find themselves in power come 2015. If they don't? Well, these gains could disappear as quickly as they materialized.

16 Comments:

  • "I came within one floor crossing of being a placeholder candidate for the Liberals in 2005..."

    Now there's a story we haven't heard before! What happened?

    By Blogger Dan F, at 10:00 AM  

  • You have to recall that the cons have a habit of being as congenial as rabid foxes : Joe Clarke could give you pointers on that, since it far too long since Dief had the same difficulty. Harper's biggest success has been in using BushCo spin control gurus to suppress the destructive instincts of a bunch of religious bigots.
    The NDP inherited the mantle of 'pinko' politics as applied with a tarbrush that made people forget they were a rancher's initiative leavened with minister's concerns for the public good, and painted instead as a union shop. Someday that may be even thought of as a good thing as the economic crunch looms large.
    But heck. When the remnants of the debacle of '93 ( God Save the Tories...nobody else will ) tried to establish themselves Down East...they were painted with the 'leftist' brush !
    LOL Most Canucks are much more comfortable with the idea of making government work than they are given credit for. You don't get there by throwing money at people who have lots already.

    By Blogger opit, at 10:09 AM  

  • Bang on - Jack's personal charisma got them these votes, especially since he was running against two men who were so very disliked.

    It's the "reality show" generation, where people vote for the popular guy. People wants to be part of the fun, so expect more wins for the Nenshis and Laytons of the world.

    Also, the Liberals seemed to be the ones held responsible for this election, so progressive voters felt the NDP was their only option.

    I wouldn't expect it to last. The NDP has gotten a free pass from the media, partly because they're progressive, but mostly because it doesn't sell papers to show how the 4th party's policies are either seriously counterproductive or outside their jurisdiction (or both). It's safe to say that their free pass has expired.

    But not before it helped them make history!

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 10:36 AM  

  • For all talk about whether or not some of new NDP MPs from Quebec might have ever had sovereignist leanings (and if you exclude anyone who EVER had sovereignist leanings in Quebec you exclude over 50% of the francophone population) - there are now some NDP Mps representing some very nationalist ridings in the east end of Montreal who have backgrounds that look suspiciously open to the world and to the rest of Canada. The woman who beat Duceppe is Laurier-Ste Marie - a separatist fortress if ever there was one - has a PhD from the University of Bath, UK and spent her life as a foreign service officer at Canadian embassies around the world - she doesn't sound to me like much of "Le Quebec aux Quebecois" type. The neighbouring sovereignist fortress of Hochelaga elected an NDP MP who seems to have lived in Alberta for amny years and who is married to an Albertan.

    By Blogger DL, at 10:59 AM  

  • The 'inexperience' of the new NDP MPs is being overblown by the media and grasped at by partisans looking for silver linings. There is a very impressive amount of political experience for a group few thought would make it to Ottawa.

    And if you think the NDP is going to crumble over sovereignty issues, well - keep underestimating the NDP. You've done well by that approach.

    By Anonymous Art, at 11:41 AM  

  • calgarygrit writes:

    "It wouldn't at all surprise me if a dozen or two of the Layton Bunch are quasi-separatists..."

    Nor would I, particularly since the Conservatives AND Liberals of the past 20 years have had no qualms about doing exactly the same thing: giving appointments and signing MP nomination papers to separatists. The NDP is just doing it on a larger scale.

    See: http://whycanadamustend.com/Chapter%204.htm

    By Anonymous Tony Kondaks, at 1:23 PM  

  • And the PC's dalliance with separatists ended so well for Mulroney.

    By Anonymous Jim R, at 2:03 PM  

  • "The NDP has gotten a free pass from the media, partly because they're progressive"

    Ha! I have to ask what Canada are you living in where the media is friendly to progressives? Is it the same Canada where every major national daily newspaper, except for two, endorsed Harper's Conservatives this past election? Is it the Canada where the national paper of record blamed high NDP poll numbers for the falling Canadian dollar? Is it the Canada where a major national newspaper chain made an anonymous accusation from 1996 a front page story days before the election? Sometimes Rob I wonder if you and I live in the same reality.

    By Anonymous MPAVictoria, at 2:46 PM  

  • Art, section 4 of the Sherbrooke Declaration states at the beginning: "The New Democratic Party believes that asymmetrical federalism is the best way to consolidate the Canadian Federal State with the reality of Quebec's national character".

    Now it stands to reason that more than a few of the NDP's Quebec caucus are aware of the NDP's official support of asymmetrical federalism. And it also stands to reason that these MPs will be expecting the NDP to match words with deeds.

    So, I'm wondering what is the expected outcome when the NDP starts advocating that Quebec should be allowed to opt out of such-and-such a program with full compensation, but BC and other provinces can't. Or, Quebec shouldn't be subject to such-and-such federal language statute, but BC and other provinces should be.

    Does the NDP really expect that the BC caucus, for example, will happily support those positions - which amount to decentralization for Quebec, but not for BC? And assuming the BC caucus, for example, can be whipped into shape, does the NDP really expect that the BC caucus' constituents will happily accept it?

    OTOH, if the NDP does not advocate such positions, the Quebec caucus is almost certain to get quite cranky, possibly to the point of crossing over to the Bloc.

    So, my opinion is that the NDP has a tiger by the tail on this issue. And, it's just a matter of time before things come to a head. And I can only hope that the resulting damage is limited to the NDP and doesn't drag the whole country along as happened with the Mulroney PCs.

    By Anonymous Jim R, at 3:08 PM  

  • @MPAVictoria:

    The Sun doesn't count. Come on.

    Even if they didn't count, the 1996 story had nothing to do with progressive policies.

    In fact, none of your examples have anything to do with their progressive policies.

    So how exactly are we in disagreement?

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 3:29 PM  

  • Bien dit.

    By Blogger Jacques Beau Vert, at 11:13 PM  

  • Yes, you could say Jack's got the velvet touch (*rimshot*).

    By Anonymous Entitled to my entitlements, at 12:51 AM  

  • Excellent!

    Is Jack the only reason for the NDP's success? What about the core supporters of the NDP. They were campaigning in Hedy Fry's riding when the grits were unable to turn out their own members.

    In the years ahead, do the grits have a core constituency? Or, are they a bunch of political mercenaries.

    I didn't hear a beep from Liberals about the civil right abuses during the G10 Conference in Toronto. On the other hand, Libby Davis is always available to speak at activist events.

    The Liberals said nice things about the environment. Dion even got elected leader. But, it's Eliz May who got elected to HoC.

    No doubt, the Liberals have strong networks with the 'establishment' and corporate community. But, where are they in the hearts of the average Canadian. On May 2, 2011 Canadians cast their vote. And, the answer was Non!

    By Blogger JimTan, at 1:02 AM  

  • "What about the core supporters of the NDP?"

    What about them? In the past they've never been able to move the party into opposition. In fact, the more known about the NDP's activists, the worse the party is likely to do.

    No one would have vetted the candidates in Quebec in any serious way - as no one expected them to win - so I expect they have some pretty distasteful or downright weird views.

    Jack's job is to get them to keep their mouths shut for the next four years.

    By Blogger Brian Henry, at 6:34 AM  

  • Brian, forget about the placeholders. Truther-Thomas Mulcair will be Jack's big worry for the next four years.

    Once the honeymoon's over, I predict disunity within the NDP will be a simmering theme (until it isn't)...a poor-man's Cretien/Martin rift if you will.

    By Blogger Patrick, at 8:18 AM  

  • The big difference is that Chretien and Martin personally loathed each other from the moment they laid eyes on each other as rivals in 1990. Layton and Mulcair on the other hand are close personal friends.

    By Blogger DL, at 11:55 PM  

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