Sunday, December 22, 2013

On voter friendliness

Others have been quick to give Chantal Hebert's take on the NDP more credence than it deserves. But while Hebert is right to note that there's more to the NDP's path forward than merely challenging Justin Trudeau, she falls into a familiar trap in assessing the party's public appeal - and indeed rewrites an awful lot of history in the process:
A strong New Democrat performance in Quebec could block the path to power for the Liberals. But it does not follow that it would pave the way for decisive NDP gains in the rest of Canada.

In 2011, Layton’s orange wave had the opposite of a tsunami effect for the NDP in the rest of the country.

If anything, soaring New Democrat fortunes in Quebec ended up tipping the balance toward a Harper majority as scores of so-called blue Liberals — in particular in Ontario — decided that switching to the Conservatives was preferable to risking a Layton-led government.
At year’s end the biggest threat to Mulcair’s national ambitions is not Trudeau but a party brand that has yet to be made voter-friendly enough to appeal to a greater number of centrist Ontarians.  
Of course, contrary to the "opposite tsunami" theory, 2011 saw the NDP post its best-ever result across the rest of Canada as well. And that result was based in no small part on the NDP being perceived as a voting option by far more voters than even the Cons - its with first- or second-choice support consistently registering upwards of 50%.

Meanwhile, it's long been the case that the Cons are ruled out as an option based on their extremism by far more voters than any other party. And even more recent polling places the Cons well ahead of any other party in the number of voters unwilling to consider them as an option.

So the issue has always been less a matter of the NDP needing to appease voters who see it as something less than a viable choice, than its need to become the first choice of voters who already include the party as a possibility.

And Hebert even manages to trip over her own reasoning about acceptable governing alternatives. It may be true (as she theorizes) that provinces familiar with NDP governments are more likely to send protest votes the Libs' way. But if that pattern holds true, then surely it follows that concrete examples of the compromises typically made by parties in power don't necessarily redound to the NDP's advantage.

With that critique of Hebert in mind, I'll suggest that the better recent take on the positioning of Canada's main federal parties comes from Frank Graves:
(T)here is a large cohort of center-left voters who would move easily from LPC to NDP, depending on who is seen as the more plausible bet to defeat Harper. We have seen just such volatility in these ranks over the past couple of years and this cohort could swing back to Mr. Mulcair again. In fact, it is Stephen Harper who, according to second-choice statistics, has the least opportunity to grow his vote.

The stage is now set for an almost unprecedented contest across three almost equally-poised parties. The contest will be for the hearts and minds of the beleaguered middle class and perhaps the newly-swollen ranks of working class and poor.

The prospects of a tie raise the spectre of a coalition government — something that frightens parties, not voters. Expect to hear party leaders deliver clear denunciations of coalitions — but remember, if current trends continue, you can expect to hear the C-word a lot more often.
Of course, in 2011 it was the only party willing to talk positively about coalitions which managed to boost its popular support. And the message that the NDP is the only party willing to do what it takes - both in terms of building a progressive movement, and in terms of working across party lines - to build a strong alternative to the Harper Cons still looks like a far better rallying cry than Hebert's proposal to paint the party beige.

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