Tuesday, April 01, 2014

On lasting influence

Murray Dobbin continues his quest to push for more big ideas from the federal NDP here. But it's worth dividing his take into one theory well worth applying, and one which would be entirely counterproductive.

At the outset, I'll agree with Dobbin's take that a number of the NDP's current policy themes reflect defensive positions or basic oppositional choices rather than a bold push into new political space:
Megan Leslie lists a number of NDP policies which she describes as "bold," but with all due respect, most are defensive, involve resisting Stephen Harper's anti-democratic agenda, or are long-standing policies that have also been supported by the Liberals -- such as child care. Returning to pre-Harper corporate tax levels is a start -- but Thomas Mulcair's absolute refusal to consider increasing personal income taxes even on the wealthy shows timidity, not boldness. And without reclaiming lost revenue, promises of child care and a national housing program ring hollow.

Leading "the charge against Stephen Harper's attempt to import voter suppression tactics" is what any opposition party should be doing, and opposing the outrageous subsidies given to oil companies is good policy but hardly a "big idea."
And while there's room for debate in both the elements included in Dobbin's list of "big ideas" and some obvious exclusions, they're certainly some possibilities which deserve further discussion:
If the pathologically destructive nature of finance capitalism is to be addressed, there needs to be a political party that can do so by expanding the window of acceptable policies. And that means promoting bold ideas that directly challenge the policies that are creating the crises. Some examples: make advertising to children illegal and begin to address the obesity epidemic; instead of capping credit card fees, establish a public national bank to compete directly with the private banks; get out of NAFTA; use the Bank of Canada's mandated power to lend to governments at near-zero interest rates and pay down the debt; challenge the outrageous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies by establishing a public company actually dedicated to people's health and not shareholder profit, and ban the use of antibiotics in animal feed before they become useless and people start dying again from a scraped knee.
But having made the case for policies which may deserve greater attention, Dobbin also argues that the NDP shouldn't care whether it's ever in a position to implement those policies:
(I)f you want to see a big, bold idea accepted as government policy you have to expand that window to include the new idea. Overton described the evolution to broad public acceptance as a process that develops by degrees: "Unthinkable; Radical; Acceptable; Sensible; Popular; Policy." The right used this model and stuck with it for 30 years to achieve its current dominance. Ideas like slashing unemployment insurance and welfare, privatizing crown corporations, gutting taxes on the wealthy, making huge cuts to social programs and signing "trade" deals that give corporations more power, were all "unthinkable" or "radical" in the beginning. But after 30 years of relentless promotion and the courting of politicians, all of these ideas are now public policy. The advent of medicare in Saskatchewan followed precisely this road to fruition.
And any party wishing to actually deal with the crises we face will need to accept that it will take time to make the necessary bold policies sensible and popular. But so long as the NDP clings to the fantasy of winning a majority it will avoid big ideas for this reason. Contrast that with the NDP in the 1960s, when it took the big idea of medicare to the national stage and forced the Liberal government to implement it. That is the NDP's historic role in progressive social policy: not winning elections but promoting bold ideas until they become popular.

The dramatic shift in strategy -- seriously going for a majority -- has been disastrous for the NDP. It led them to opportunistically defeat the Liberal government and give power to Stephen Harper. Inexorably, the NDP is becoming another liberal party in order to be competitive. Federally, they're badly trailing a Liberal Party with a pretty face and no policies. The tragic irony in this is, of course, that even if the NDP did win, it would have a mandate limited to liberal policies.
Of course, this analysis conspicuously omits any explanation as to why the NDP ought to be limited to some "historical role", or how winning elections is somehow something to be avoided.

In fact, it can hardly escape notice that the NDP's greatest historical influence was linked to the perception that it could plausibly form the government in the relatively near future. The era of big policy wins in the 1960s and 1970s arose in no small part out of the Libs' concern about the growth potential of the NDP (which had of course come together precisely for the purpose of challenging for government where the CCF had failed). In contrast, the perception that the NDP was a minor political force forced Jack Layton to keep his requests modest and focused on short-term gains in recent minority Parliaments.

Which means that Dobbin's own limited focus contains its own tragic irony: a party which rules out a serious attempt to build toward government is far less likely to earn enough influence to be able to shape public policy. (And it certainly won't be able to set the example as to how progressive policies can work in practice - as Saskatchewan's CCF did as a precursor to the national adoption of Medicare.)

Moreover, Dobbin seems to miss some of the most important value in the NDP's recent organizing efforts. Greater outreach to a wider range of people can only help build both the NDP's credibility in making policy suggestions and public awareness of the NDP's own proposals - not to mention providing a mechanism to reach the public directly in assessing what policies might prove both popular and desirable without being unduly constrained by the Ottawa conventional wisdom. 

In sum, Dobbin is right to highlight the need for the NDP to champion policies which meaningfully counter the Con/Lib corporate consensus. But he's wrong to assume that represents a reason to abandon any effort to win a place in government - especially if that means perpetually ceding power to exactly those parties.

Instead, big ideas and political strength are each necessary elements of a meaningful effort to build a more progressive society. And the NDP will do best for itself and for Canada if it works on developing both.

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