Friday, September 04, 2009

On strategic considerations

Over the past couple of days, corporate pundits and Lib hacks alike have tried to sell a dubious narrative that the federal NDP will be looking to avoid an election at all costs. But while it's usually a safe bet that the NDP is best off ignoring the concern trolling of those who always seem to think the party's best interest lies in doing what somebody else wants them to, let's take a closer look at just why it is that they're so far off base in examining the NDP's likely course of action this fall.

I'll start off by noting that the ideal scenario for the NDP probably doesn't involve an election. But nor does it involve the NDP supporting the Harper government on any confidence matters.

Instead, the best-case outcome for the NDP is still for the Libs to roll over once again. That would likely put to an end whatever sense of momentum Michael Ignatieff has managed to create within the party, and likely push a few of the Libs who have grudgingly gritted their teeth in supporting the Cons for this long out of the tent all together.

Despite those exact risks as well as Ignatieff's current bluster, I don't think it's as certain as some people seem to want to believe that they won't eventually be pressured into backing down. The Cons are obviously eager to put the onus back on the Libs to either vote with them or take responsibility for an election, and there have been plenty of corporate media objections to the Libs' course of action which might well shift the balance of opinion within the party far enough to get them to revert to their long-held position even after they've admitted that the NDP was right all along.

But let's assume for the moment that the Libs do stick with their current position. Under those circumstances, when would the NDP most want to fight an election against them and the Cons?

Before answering that question, it's worth pointing out what the Libs' priorities have been under Ignatieff. Their first order of business was to work on their fund-raising, with the assumption likely being that they can work on their party structure and brand once they have more cash in the bank to work with. And by all accounts, they've done reasonably well in that department. Which means that at the moment, the Libs have a fairly strong fund-raising machine which they haven't yet converted into party development.

So which would the NDP rather face in an election: a party with a slight fund-raising advantage which hasn't yet turned that into much else, or a party which has had another few months to a year in which to develop on all fronts with the money it's raised so far? I'd think the answer there is fairly obvious.

Likewise, any delay in an election will give Michael Ignatieff a chance to develop into something more than a cipher as the Libs' party leader. So far, he's largely had to improvise, and the results have been rather less than impressive - meaning that there's both a lower baseline to start from, and some significant potential upside for the NDP in the possibility that he'll flub up his first election campaign. But with more time for long-term development which isn't impeded by going in front of the cameras every couple of months to threaten an election then back down, Ignatieff figures to be able to define and prepare himself better for an election in 2010 than for one now.

Combine all that with a Lib base brought back from the dead by the party's decision to actually take on an opposition role and the dangers of dampening NDP support if the party supports the Cons without winning massive concessions, and to me the calculation seems fairly clear that the NDP is better off facing Ignatieff now rather than later.

On the surface, those factors might be balanced out in the short term by the popularity associated with being seen to get things done: remember that in the summer of 2005, the NDP did get a major boost in the polls after winning its budget concessions from the Libs. But that boost would seem to be no less illusory than the one Ignatieff got after deciding to prop up Harper, as anybody who approves of avoiding an election now would figure to be unhappy with whatever steps eventually led to an election later.

Which is why it makes sense for the NDP to make some public efforts at a deal which it doesn't expect to actually materialize - allowing the party to present itself as reasonable and accommodating, while acknowledging that it's highly unlikely that the Cons will do anything to justify allowing them to stay in government.

Interestingly, the absolute worst-case scenario would probably be for the Cons to stay in power with the support of the Bloc - which would give the Libs the opportunity to build capacity and try to erase all memory of the last two years, while eliminating any "getting things done" counterargument. And that explains why the NDP may want to keep itself front and centre in any talks about whether or not the Cons will stay in power now. As long as it's the party being the most conciliatory toward the Cons, the NDP can effectively hold the reins when it counts to ensure an election - while the sooner it abandons the field, the more opportunity the Cons will have to justify cutting a deal with Gilles Duceppe.

In sum, then, the NDP has every reason to conclude that it's actually best off going to the polls this fall if it can't secure a dramatic change in course from the Cons. And if the Libs are planning based on the opposite assumption, then they figure to be in for an unpleasant surprise once they have to take their untested machine into a race toward election day.

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