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The NDP Should Quit Trying to Win and Get Back to Having Principles

The operative word here is "should," as opposed to "will."
October 22, 2015, 6:45pm

He looks so excited! Sorry, bud. Photo via Facebook/Official NDP

What the hell does the NDP do now?

On Monday they suffered arguably their greatest defeat ever, not least because this was the first time there was actually any chance of them forming government. And instead of doing that, the party lost 59 seats as well as its status as Official Opposition. What a rout!

Read more: The Definitive Explanation for Why You Voted in Justin Trudeau

As I've written before, I think the NDP's strategy of sloughing off its more radical left-wing politics in a bid to convince moderate voters it's a solid, centrist alternative to the Liberals and Conservatives was a huge mistake. Aside from my personal preference for a legitimate progressive party, the Liberals are a centre-of-the-spectrum party, so how are you going to be an alternative when you're remaking yourself in the same image? The move failed to win over the voters it was targeted at, and it drove progressive voters away (we love to cast off a sell-out).

But would running a solidly leftist campaign have led the NDP to victory? That's hard to say: at least part of the Liberals' success surely stems from the party's decision to adopt progressive policies and rhetoric (for now), but the Liberals, as a traditionally centrist party running left, didn't have the baggage of a leftist party doing the same. When Justin Trudeau says the Liberals will run three deficit budgets in order to encourage economic growth by investing in things like infrastructure, he can claim to be making a reasoned decision based on the facts. Had Tom Mulcair made the same pledge, though, it would have been easy to paint him as a crazed socialist just waiting to run amok imprisoning the wealthy and taking all their money, doling out free prescription drugs to aborted babies wearing niqabs.

But today's Liberals are in many respects no more progressive than they used to be. Former Toronto police chief and staunch carding advocate Bill Blair was a star candidate for the party, at a time when police brutality and racist police tactics are receiving more scrutiny than they have in decades, and the party still supports using pipelines to get Alberta's tar sands oil to buyers. And of course, we should never forget the Liberals' bizarre support for Bill C-51, which the party still doesn't plan to scrap.

So no, a progressive campaign that adhered to the NDP's historical principles might not have been a "winning strategy." But what is the point of winning if the only way to do it is to give up your principles? The point of forming government, of entering politics at all, is to enact the values and policies you and your party stand for; but if the party has forsaken all of the aforementioned in order to win, that victory is hollow. It's meaningless. There is no point whatsoever in running just to win, with no principles. What are you going to fight for when you get to office? The policies that are polling best? It's a popular strategy among the well-heeled elite that likes to join politics these days, but it's ridiculous, and it can lead to slow-motion train wrecks like the Conservative Party's strategy in this most recent election.

So if the NDP shouldn't run as an unprincipled middle ground party, and it (maybe) can't win with a dedicated progressive platform, what's there to do?

Well, there's always what the party was doing before Jack Layton came along with his bewitching moustache and deceptive centrism. When you participate in the political process without trying to win big, you're far freer to advance policies and discussions the mainstream political process isn't quite ready for. Ask Elizabeth Warren, a darling of American progressives who refused many calls to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. When it comes to radical politics, a lower profile arguably gives you more power to get your message out and not fear alienating everyone who's behind the times. You can't enact a policy on your own, of course, but you can push other politicians and the national conversation (more later on how opposition parties might soon gain even more power in Parliament).

Gerald Kaplan, an academic and longtime NDP organizer, wrote this week in the Globe and Mail: "For decades the NDP were policy pioneers, promoting social policies especially until the governing party was forced to accept them—old-age pensions, medicare, unemployment insurance, and much more. Where are the equivalent NDP policies of today? Where are the tough but realistic policies that would address Canada's scandalous inequality?"

Those policies were all put forward by a smaller, more rambunctious NDP that could push the larger parties without catering to skittish voters. Imagine an NDP fighting to expand medicare to cover both dental care and prescription drugs! Or for a guaranteed minimum income! Or, god forbid, for supporting Palestinians in their fight against the Israeli occupation! That's the NDP we need, especially with a majority government in place.

This strategy could become an even more viable one very soon: Justin Trudeau made a campaign-trail promise that Oct. 19, 2015 would be the last federal election that used the first-past-the-post system. He reiterated that promise during his first press conference as prime minister-designate. With some form of proportional representation in place, even a more radical NDP could make gains in Parliament.

Admittedly, it's highly unlikely any of this will actually happen. Mulcair, who has spearheaded the campaign to make the NDP a middle-ground party since taking the reigns from Layton, wants to stay on as leader, and the party doesn't appear to be clamouring for his head. If he does step down, whoever replaces him as party leader will likely be another Third Way acolyte, but on the off chance that a real lefty takes the helm, they would have their work cut out for them. If they were really serious about rejuvenating the party as a left-wing opposition party, they'd need to start a grassroots effort to get lefties excited about both the party and the movement, the project of leftwing politics. They'd need to build up a membership dedicated to fighting aggressively for the left, which the NDP hasn't done in years.

So, all in all, it's looking rather bleak. But it's not impossible, and even a modicum of movement here would be promising. Maybe a start, good for both morale and appearance, would be to put "socialism" back in the party's constitution and start making some noise about police brutality, especially by working with black and Indigenous groups across the country who are already fighting racist police.

Follow Tannara Yelland on Twitter.