Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lessons learned

As I noted here, it's well worth comparing what's happening in any given election to any recent precedents. While past performance never guarantees future results, we can tell both what lessons a party has drawn from experience, as well as how strategies change when they don't work out as planned. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the choices which have shaped recent elections where provincial NDP parties were competitive - and how they've been applied at the federal level.

Staying Above The Fray

Let's start with two examples from the leading example of the NDP falling into the traps of a strong opposition party: the 2013 election, where its campaign was seemingly based on the expectation that the best course of action was to avoid doing anything that might stop the Clark Libs from losing the election out of sheer voter fatigue.

On that front, Adrian Dix' party ran a campaign which explicitly branded itself as "positive" at the expense of developing a clear line of criticism of an unpopular incumbent.

Now, any leader wants to be seen as positive to the greatest extent possible, and Tom Mulcair is no exception. But the federal NDP hasn't shied away from directing tough messages at the Harper Cons based on their record - and the result is that the NDP has been doing its part to remind voters why they want change.

Playing It Safe

That said, if the federal NDP has learned a lesson from B.C. about allowing the dangers of failing to present a strong case against the incumbent, it's been quick to shift to other elements of the front-runner strategy which proved fatal for Dix' chances of victory.

For all the mostly-contrived hullabaloo over the NDP's handling of federal leaders' debates, there's one strategic point which should override all others. While there may be rare exceptions (with the possibility of a multi-party ambush in a debate skipped by Stephen Harper looming as a real if minor danger), Mulcair's experience and knowledge should give him a strong likelihood of coming out ahead in debates, particularly those where topics are discussed in detail going beyond Justin Trudeau's first set of talking points. And with the polls showing two other parties remaining competitive, it's hard to see the  case for trying to diminish the impact of debates, rather than pressing what should be a meaningful advantage and taking advantage of the air time and attention.

Likewise, a hair-trigger response to candidate controversy may serve to cut off a story immediately. But the larger risk of alienating supporters should also be taken into account - particularly when star candidates are being rejected for dubious reasons. 

Positioning To The Centre

Another familiar dynamic is playing out in Ontario in particular. There, Kathleen Wynne managed to win a majority in the 2014 provincial election in large part by telling voters that she was the most progressive option, while Andrea Horwath did relatively little to fight that characterization based on a gamble that it would help as much with centrist voters as it would hurt on the left.

At the federal level, Justin Trudeau's claim to the "progressive" title is even more laughable than Wynne's (which has itself proven illusory). But we can see the same line of attack being developed by the Libs. And while the federal NDP has plenty of progressive policy in its platform, I'm not sure we've yet seen as strong a response as will be needed to avoid the same fate.

Sticking With What Works

Finally, while the most recent B.C. and Ontario elections ended in disappointment, Rachel Notley's breakthrough victory in Alberta offers a shining example as to how the NDP can expand its reach beyond what might be seen as possible even at the start of an election campaign. But what's most worth taking away from Alberta's result is that Notley didn't have to substantially change course from the NDP's longstanding beliefs to achieve that result.

Rather than sacrificing ideas like a royalty review, a fairer tax system, action on climate change or an increased minimum wage to political expediency, Notley stuck with a progressive platform consistent with the NDP's values. And whatever backlash there was from the corporate sector served mostly to bolster the message that it was time for change.

Similarly, the federal NDP has made it this far by running on principles, not running from them. (Surely anybody pointing to C-51 as the source of many of the Libs' troubles can't ignore the risk - and reward - involved in Mulcair's fierce opposition to it.) And we should thus expect the NDP's push for its first federal government to feature a strong and distinct statement as to the progressive direction Canada should take.

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