Why do Social Democrats do what they do?

September 02, 2009

NDP electoral success depends on party's ability to mobilize voters, By Harris MacLeod, The Hill Times, August 31st, 2009


The recent NDP convention showed a party struggling to find its place.



The federal NDP could stand to benefit from the economic downturn as more people start to question the traditional economic management policies of the mainstream parties. But with fewer working class voters showing up to vote on election day, the party's fortunes will largely depend on their ability to get out the vote, says a leading expert on citizen engagement.

"If we look at the long-term trend of the decline of voting across Western countries, it's not just anyone who's stopped voting, it's largely working class voters, particularly working class young voters," said Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, and the author of the book The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada's Electoral System.

With a record number of people collecting EI and welfare, the NDP's traditional message of fairness for the working class, and strengthening the social safety net should resonate in an election campaign that could come as early as November. The party's desire to poach Liberal voters by watering down their policies, however, and by communicating through a mainstream media paradigm that ignores their traditional base won't be effective in mobilizing support, says Prof. Pilon.

"The challenge for New Democrats is that they can keep talking at the level of their messaging but that's not going to reverse this trend [decline in voters], which is hitting them the hardest. If they could get back into the communities, if they could get back in the face of the people who need the politics they're talking about, that would bring the voter turnout back up," he said.

Last week, NDP Leader Jack Layton (Toronto-Danforth, Ont.) met for an hour with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) to discuss a variety of issues heading into the fall session. When he emerged and spoke to media, Mr. Layton said the two had a "lively debate" but that he didn't see any movement on Mr. Harper's part to make progress on issues such as helping stranded Canadians abroad, improve pensions, create jobs and deal with high credit card fees. Mr. Layton said that Mr. Harper doesn't understand "the depth of the unemployment situation and how it can get worse, and the urgency of an additional stimulus package."

Mr. Layton also said when the House returns, "the NDP would be the least likely of the political parties to support the Conservatives in office because we have very fundamental differences with the direction that they're taking the country," fuelling election speculation.

The NDP's strategy in the next election will be to once again present itself as a party that's ready to govern, and Mr. Harper will be the main target, says national director Brad Lavigne.

"Our main focus will be on Stephen Harper, not on Michael Ignatieff. There are lots of Liberal-NDP switch voters that we're going to be appealing to, but there's also a lot of Tory-NDP switchers that we're going to be appealing to. There's going to be just a lot of voters in general that are going to want what we would do in government. So we're going to be focusing on the guy who is currently in the job that we want, and that's Harper," Mr. Lavigne said.

But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Ont.) is seen as having moved his party further to the right than it was under former leader Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, Que.), which Mr. Lavigne says is an opportunity to scoop up progressive voters. Party operatives are eager to stress that the leaders of the two main parties are carbon copies of each other on key issues, and that NDP Leader Jack Layton (Toronto-Danforth, Ont.) is the only leader to truly reflect the values of the ordinary Canadian.

"When you talk to Canadians about who they want to lead the country, and who they want as prime minister, values play a very, very important role and when you compare the two men's previous statements on key issues you begin to learn and define where those values lay. My leader hasn't had to backtrack on issues of the day whereas other leaders have had to backtrack," Mr. Lavigne said. "Mr. Ignatieff wrote extensively in defence of the war in Iraq, my leader didn't. My leader knew where he stood on the issue of Iraq. Now when you're going to the polling station and marking your 'X' next to who you want to lead this country, we're going to be asking Canadians who do you trust? If you couldn't trust Michael Ignatieff on the war in Iraq how can you trust him on other world issues?"

He added that voters who might have been attracted to Mr. Dion's green credentials in the last election are unlikely to support Mr. Ignatieff because of his public statements in support of the Alberta oil sands.

"The oil companies in Alberta are very excited about Mr. Ignatieff," Mr. Lavigne said.

But Prof. Pilon said the NDP is "caught in a holding pattern" because of the diverse elements within the party, that run the gamut from anti-capitalists, to those who would fit in on the left-leaning side of the Liberal Party, which makes it difficult for the party to find a coherent voice. In the lead-up to the party's national convention, held from Aug. 14 to 16, in Halifax, much of the media hype centred around a proposal to drop the "New" from the party's name, which was touted by some as being symbolic of party renewal and modernization. And the more centrist "pragmatic" flank of the party was also pushing a proposal to phase-out income tax for small businesses. But in the end neither motions ended up being debated, and both died on the order paper.

"What we saw in this last convention was a number of chess moves by different players. The Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan bloc that believes the party needs to become more like a Liberal-lite party were moving various issues that they wanted to see the party take up. And then at the same time those who want to see the party become a more vigorous critic of the modern economy and how people are fairing in that economy obviously wanted to push the party in a different direction. In the end I just think we came out with more of the same," said Prof. Pilon.

NDP MP Brian Masse (Windsor West, Ont.) is among those in the party who, like Nova Scotia's first NDP Premier, Darrel Dexter, the convention's de facto hero, believe the party must "expand the tent" if it ever hopes to form the government at the federal level. He said the fact that the name change, and small business motions did not make it to the floor at the convention was "unfortunate" and "a missed opportunity" but the discussion underway about the party's future direction will continue.

"There is certainly a movement afoot to modernize the party that certainly can't be denied," he said.

Mr. Masse said Mr. Ignatieff had the opportunity to bring a more progressive regime to Canada by enacting a Liberal-NDP coalition government agreement he inherited from Mr. Dion.

A coalition government would have allowed him to do things like reform the employment insurance system, over which he is now negotiating with the Conservatives with little success, but since the Liberal leader has shown he is not interested the NDP will be running for first place in the next election, said Mr. Masse.

"The mere fact that we have been the only political party that has been growing during this process through every election since 2002 indicates that we've found our place. The mere fact that Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper share the same ground gives us an opportunity, but it's up to us to do our jobs now," he said.

And while the prospect of an NDP government seems far off to some, Mr. Masse pointed to the success his party has had provincially, as well as the drastic shifts of the past few years on the federal political landscape.

"I'm in it to win and I expect that we will try and compete, that's the way that you actually make a change. And we've seen some big shifts in the past; who would have thought that the Alliance Party would take over the Progressive Conservative Party, change their name and form government in the last few years?"

hmacleod@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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