Sunday, January 12, 2014

On consensus positions

I won't break down in detail the bevy of reviews of the current position of Tom Mulcair and the federal NDP - including pieces by Bruce Stewart, John Ibbitson and John Geddes. But it's worth highlighting the areas where I'd see no need to challenge the consensus reflected in those articles - as well as the one where some pushback is absolutely needed.

On the bright side, there's little reason to see anything but opportunity in the public's views of both the NDP as a voting option, and Mulcair as a leader. As Geddes in particular notes, the main goals for a party approaching an election figure to be a sufficient base to support a strong national campaign, and a plausible path to build on that base toward a winning coalition.

And all indicators on that front look to be positive.

Of course, any party would prefer to start with the pole position. But there's plenty of room for growth as part of a close three-way contest (as appears to be the current state of federal politics). And indeed, the media narrative of "Mulcair is great, but has anybody noticed?" looks like a rather nice launching pad for a winning campaign - as the positive impressions built between elections create room for a strong campaign to resonate.

In that respect, remember that the NDP started the 2011 campaign in the mid-teens in the polls - and with a leader whose approval ratings weren't substantially different from Mulcair's today. But is there some reason to think Mulcair might have more trouble adding to the current starting point?

Well, both Ibbitson and Geddes make the claim that the public will see mindless support for free trade in all possible forms is a mandatory precondition for any party or leader being fit to govern. And from that starting point, both insist that Mulcair has no choice but to get in line behind the CETA - no matter how much that might frustrate a large number of existing supporters.

But I'm not sure one could invent a better example of the commentariat substituting its own views for those of voters in the absence of a shred of evidence.

The persuadable voters being pursued during the course any campaign are likely to be those with the fewest entrenched policy positions. And anybody willing to vote solely on their devotion to free trade is almost certain to be either a committed Con or at best a Con/Lib swing voter - and thus well beyond the NDP's pool of potential supporters.

Meanwhile, the CETA also offers huge opportunities to build on the NDP's preferred messages: what better way to be the party of affordability than to point out billions of extra dollars in prescription drug costs foisted on the public?

Instead, the larger question remains that of how to emerge as the most liked and trusted leader in the face of Justin Trudeau's campaign to be all things to all people. But taking any meaningful policy principles off the table will only strengthen Trudeau's hand.

As for what will enable the NDP to gain the upper hand, that remains to be seen. In retrospect, the NDP's Senate abolition campaign could hardly have worked out any better in placing the party alone alongside the general public. And there figure to be plenty more opportunities for Trudeau to either end up on the wrong side of major issues, or watch his personal image succumb to another Con ad blitz.

If that doesn't happen, then the NDP's best course of action is to grow the number of committed base voters who won't be taken in by a charm offensive. But if it does, the NDP is as well positioned to form government as it's ever been. And Mulcair's strong performance in Parliament can only bode well for his chances of winning over the public once the campaign starts.

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