Friday, December 04, 2015

Movements and moments

Let's continue this line of thought about the federal NDP's most recent election campaign with my slight twist on one of the more familiar questions which has faced the party (in various forms) over a period of decades.

I'll start by drawing a distinction between two related goals which are bound to figure in a political party's plans. Any party with the foresight to last more than an election cycle will put meaningful effort into building a movement over the longer term; any party wanting to accomplish anything during an election cycle will likewise prioritize the goal of capturing the moment when it counts most during an election campaign.

And while I'll question the respective allocation of resources between those two goals in hindsight, there are certainly precedents the NDP could point to in focusing largely on a "capture the moment" philosophy.

The 2011 Orange Wave resulted in no small part from a phenomenal amount of movement-building work by Jack Layton and his team. But it also concluded with a crescendo of support which went far beyond what would have been expected based on the the party's infrastructure.

And the NDP's provincial election wins in Nova Scotia and Alberta can also be taken as triumphs of a "capture the moment" philosophy in different ways - with Nova Scotia being based on stronger party infrastructure but less appeal to activists (and likely serving as the model for the 2015 federal campaign), while Alberta reflected the converse.

After 2011, the federal NDP faced the task of converting its sudden increase in votes, seats and public opinion into other gains, including the development of a broader movement. And lest there be any doubt, it took some important steps to do so.

Not only did Tom Mulcair put in double duty personally to match his opponents' travel schedule while also serving as an ideal leader of the opposition in Parliament, but the NDP also started engaging members in the type of ongoing issue-based outreach which hadn't been seen in some time. And indeed, the NDP's success in 2015 was founded in no small part on the combination of parliamentary work and activist engagement around Bill C-51.

But the effort to build activist support was complicated by Justin Trudeau's arrival as the Libs' leader - which bumped the NDP from its place at the top of the polls, and prevented the NDP from being seen as the lone magnet for Harper opponents. Hence the rise of the "promiscuous progressive" whose support remained in play through most of the 2015 election campaign. 

Trudeau's rise represented a factor beyond the NDP's control. But the party also took numerous steps (including focusing on MP and candidate "discipline" as well as rejecting candidates for questionable reasons) which narrowed its range of acceptable supporters and dampened enthusiasm within its usual base - presumably with the goal of remaining acceptable to a wider range of voters in the hope of capturing late deciders.

That on its own was problematic enough. But coupled with a choice to focus relatively little on values and policy definition during the campaign, it set the NDP up for failure in the battle to be seen as the alternative to the Cons - or at least, took the shape of the campaign out of the NDP's hands.

To be fair, it's entirely possible that the commentariat would now be lauding the political brilliance of Prime Minister Tom Mulcair and his far-sighted team if Trudeau had fallen down during the campaign, leaving the NDP as an inoffensive alternative to clean up the anti-Conservative vote. But the NDP's election plan didn't work against a Lib campaign which ran smoothly - and the appeal to default status is certainly outdated now that the Libs are back in power.

Fortunately, if the above analysis holds up as to what went wrong, the election result on its own should push the NDP in the right direction out of necessity. A leader who can't rely on being perceived as the default alternative is bound to make the case for his own values; a smaller caucus will inevitably have to focus more on outreach and advocacy than on discipline; a party with less parliamentary resources will need to put proportionally more work into its base of volunteers and donors.

Those are thus the measures I'll be looking for in assessing Mulcair's continued leadership. While it's important to offer effective opposition in Ottawa, it's more clear than ever that the NDP's future success depends on its ability to foster and tap into an active progressive movement. And it's by developing that popular base over time (and keeping it all the more engaged during a campaign) that the NDP can best position itself to win overall voter support when it counts most.


  1. "Promiscuous progressives." I love it. That's a keeper. Cheap tarts!!

    1. Credit goes to Frank Graves for coining the term: see among other uses.

      And to be clear I don't see it as derogatory, only descriptive.

  2. "Promiscuous progressives." I love it. That's a keeper. Cheap tarts!!