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LOST HORIZONS: THE NDP’S SQUANDERED OPPORTUNITY

If a man harbours any sort of fear, it…makes him landlord to a ghost. – Lloyd Douglas

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live. –Marcus Aurelius

Laugh, and the world laughs with you/Weep, and you weep alone. – Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Frank Pelaschuk

“Everyone loves a winner/But when you lose, you lose alone”. This is a reworking by William Bell and Booker T. Jones of familiar lines penned by Ella Wheeler Wilcox: Laugh, and the world laughs with you/Weep and you weep alone. Surely, if any lines applied to two political individuals, it would be these and the individuals Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair. For both, there was a profound reversal of fortune, the NDP leader riding high on a wave of possibility and the Liberal leader in third place, an object in some quarters of amusement and ridicule.

Going into the campaign, the NDP appeared at the top of their game with a real possibility of victory. They felt good, the supporters felt good. It was going to happen, their second place finish hadn’t been a fluke. Then the wheels came off.

As the October 19th election day approached, it became increasingly evident that Trudeau and the Liberals would be forming the next federal government. It was less clear who would be forming the official opposition though there were signs it would not be the NDP. Early in the evening of the big day, as the ballots were counted, it was all but over. Thomas Mulcair and the NDP had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Oh, they did have considerable help from the Harper Conservatives, the Conservative core base and others who could not differentiate bullshit from hay as the Harper mob engaged in the familiar filthy territory working on the worst in us, not just our fears but also our prejudices. We were fed daily diets of the poison: niqab-wearing women wanting to impose their foreign ways on Canadians and Muslims terrorists pounding on our doors thirsting for our blood. It was nonsense and it was vile but it worked on the thoughtless and mean-spirited. Nor did it help the Liberals proved themselves particularly adept able to mount a very nimble campaign that drew the curious who quickly became supporters as Trudeau appeared to shift the party smartly to the left inexplicably abandoned by the NDP. In the end, however, it was the NDP leadership and strategists who failed the party and its supporters. It was a stunning rout, a turnaround that firmly ensconced the NDP in its traditional third spot position seeming to confirm what many sceptics had long believed: the 2011 election results that made the NDP official opposition had been a fluke a vote more for the recently deceased Jack Layton than for the NDP.

Now, more than one hundred days into his mandate, Trudeau looks even more like a winner except to the hypocritical Conservatives who demand of him and his government what they themselves were never prepared to offer under Harper. Even so, as well as Trudeau appears to be doing, and he is holding the popular vote, there are, in some areas at least, signs of growing impatience from those who voted for the Liberal promise of real change as the promises are delayed, reworked or quietly dropped. While these voters, perhaps not all die-hard Liberals, may be favourably impressed by his apparently boundless energy and sunny disposition and his clear desire to be all things to all people, and while they are no doubt pleased that he has, for now, made himself and his cabinet readily accessible to the media and the public, extremely rare events during the Harper reign of error, Trudeau’s apparent willingness to pose for selfies with every awe-struck man, woman and child who cross his path may be wearing a bit thin suggesting a frivolity and lightness that may be unfair but is nevertheless an impression out there. Too, those old enough to remember, may be troubled by reminders of the bad old scandal-plagued days of cronyism, payback and corruption triggered by some of the hiring practices of a few of Trudeau’s ministers. As for Mulcair, the corollary to the first part of the cliché, “But when you lose, you lose alone” seems particularly apt and poignant when one looks at the NDP’s almost deliberate self-destructive miscalculation of the public mood and its deafness to the voices of those die-hard NDP supporters (derisively labeled the “radical left” by columnist John Ivison in his appearance on CTV’s Question period Feb. 14).

How the two leaders responded immediately after the election is revealing. Next day a triumphant, jubilant Trudeau was in a Montreal subway greeting ecstatic transit users. It is true; everyone loves a winner. But Mulcair…well, he simply disappeared, licking his wounds no doubt curled up in some dark corner wondering what the hell had hit him. He was entitled. But for how long? Oh, eventually he did emerge but it would take him almost three months to publicly shoulder responsibility in the form of an open letter that might have been written by an NDP committee. Too little, too late.

I understand that Mulcair was bruised and hurting. But how much better an image he would have cut had he quickly got to his feet, dusted himself off and said: Back to work. He did not lose alone, even if he felt he had. But he behaved as if the lose was his alone by retreating. That was not the act of a leader. If his supporters felt abandoned, who could blame them? They might rightly have expected words of solace, hope and reflection as well as insight into what had happened and what lay ahead for the NDP within days of the loss. It did not come. That was a failure.

Surely, by Election Day, it could not have been a surprise. It should not have been. If so, what does that say of Mulcair as leader or the NDP as a party? Were they ready? The missteps suggest not.

Since the days of Ed Broadbent, when the NDP began to be seriously noticed by increasing numbers of voters as viable for the role of official opposition at least, the party had embarked on a path towards self-ruin. The party founded on the principles of “social democracy”, of “democratic socialism” began to shy away from those terms; they were not conducive to winning said those who wanted to win. To hear some ignorant and malevolent wing nuts tell it, the “social” in social democracy is incompatible with democracy because “social” is just “socialism” abbreviated and “socialism” as we all know is just another word for “communism”. Like I said, ignorant and malevolent. It doesn’t help that the NDP also seemed determined to distance itself from workers and unions who once were the backbone of the party. It’s all right for the Liberals and Conservatives to have incestuous ties to the titans of Big Business, taking their money, even hiring lobbyists to work in government or allowing ousted or retired MPs to sit on company boards but it is somehow not okay for the NDP to have support from labour. Can someone please help me understand the double standard? I have even heard workers, minimum wage earners in some instances, and high earners in the trades, thanks to unions, talking about Big Labour and bad-mouthing unions and unionists as greedy and too powerful. One almost wants to cry: Are people really that desperately stupid, that cowardly, that envious, that they will shill for Big Business but not even work up enough courage to accept the union hand willing to help them up? It’s perverse this desire to pull down others rather than pull oneself up. It’s bad enough the enemies use the NDP ties to socialism and labour as somehow unpatriotic and dangerous, but it’s another when the NDP runs from its own great history and its raison d’être. Saying something doesn’t make it true but running from it somehow validates the lies. That the NDP has allowed itself to be defined by others is unconscionable.

It could well be that Mulcair is a sincere social democrat and has been all his life. But he was at one time a Quebec Liberal minister before he joined the NDP. Until recently, I cannot recall him or any NDP leader over the past twenty or thirty years talking much, let alone with pride, about “democratic socialism” except to refer to it obliquely or at meetings attended solely by NDP supporters. Now, one is left with the impression he has just discovered his NDP roots chastened after being clobbered by Trudeau who had adopted a sopped up version that allowed him to appear to take on the role traditionally played by the NDP. It is not that Trudeau had become a “leftie”. Far from it. The party, long before Mulcair, had become muted regarding a fairer tax system avoiding talk about eliminating Harper’s income splitting plan that did nothing for the poor. Trudeau promised to roll it back and promised to raise taxes for the wealthy albeit without acknowledging the moneyed folks would just find other loopholes to avoid doing the just and moral thing: pay their fair share. But it was when Mulcair walked away from deficit spending to stimulate the economy, which was stalling all around him, that the Liberals saw their opportunity. They would proudly wear the label, for this round at least, of the “tax-and-spend” party. They had accurately read and understood the public mood. Any move by Trudeau in that direction would have looked as if it were a major progressive shift. It was not but it looked good and gave the Liberals another edge, this time as daring and creative risk takers; they saw an opportunity, seized it and milked it for all it was worth. In the past, the NDP has always been charged as incompetents for the same – and punished as well. What would have happened had they dared to do what Trudeau had? We will never know. They had blinked. What we clearly know is this: the sell-out drift to the right didn’t work too well for the NDP. The Liberals, with nothing to lose, took a chance with no real risk.

The NDP placed too much faith in the polls. They believed what they read and heard and, as a consequence, became frozen with fear by the very possibility of winning. Mulcair and the NDP could smell victory, taste it, feel it. That possibility turned them to jellyfish; they became terrified of making mistakes. They were muted in their promises with the exception of trumpeting their swing to balanced budgets. Instead of going for the new, the bold, the right and brave things, the things they have always claimed to be for, they chickened out and hunkered down and ignored what was going on around them looking instead to the playbooks of the other parties in hopes of emulating what worked for Conservatives and Liberals – in the past. The mistakes the NDP made were not small nor were they innocent; they were acts of desperation leading I suspect to many sleepless nights of second-guessing almost every decision they made. Oh, how they wanted to win! So, instead of stepping out and being better and more daring, they took what they thought was the safer, surer road. Was there any talk by Mulcair of healthcare? I missed it if so. How about poverty, homelessness, education, justice, and a multitude of other big and little but important things? There was little talk of the plight of single, low-income families, of single parents holding two, three menial, minimum wage jobs. Oh, yes, there was the $15 a day daycare promise, but what else? Overwhelmed by thoughts of success, timidity and caution drove them to the right joining the Conservatives and Liberals in vowing to restore the middle class and doing what the Conservatives had promised, and mostly failed to do for ten years: the NDP would balance the budget. Not only that, they would balance the budget for four years in a row!

That was about it. That was their big gift to the Canadian public. Another party joins the centre.

But if that was a mistake, and it was, the blunder was even more egregious when it came to Trudeau. The NDP looked at Trudeau and dismissed him as a lightweight. He looks good, has nice hair and as far as they were concerned that was about it. They had forgotten that he knew how to fight and to win even when everyone else dismissed him as a lightweight. The NDP did not offer him due respect and that, too, may have cost them. Yes, Trudeau was a lightweight. The public wanted balanced budgets and they would give them that. But what was the plan if things got worse? How would the NDP balance the budget? What would be cut sacrificed and lost? Is that when it began to unravel?

For some, including the NDP leader, it was Harper’s war against two women for refusing to remove the niqab during the citizenship swearing in ceremony and Mulcair’s “principled” stand in support of the women, which had doomed the NDP campaign. I was proud of Mulcair when he stood in opposition to the Harper gang on that issue. And I was also proud when Trudeau did the same and just as unequivocally. The Conservatives, vile, ignoble, filthy hucksters, many still sitting MPs, had sought to sow division and intolerance by picking on the niqab issue playing to our fears and ignorance and parochialism. In doing so, the Conservative goal was not to defeat the NDP but to divide the vote between the NDP and Liberals. It worked in Quebec with a huge loss to the NDP, the ignorant and benighted buying into Harper’s invidious campaign of hatred and fear. Yet, it did not harm Trudeau whose youth, charisma and name evidently enough to gain the Liberals a few seats from those who never bought into the racial and religious bigotry. I do not doubt Mulcair’s claim of taking a stand on principle regarding this matter. I would have expected no less from any individual. And I have no doubt it cost him and the party dearly. We have the results. That the Conservatives did very well in Quebec is disturbing for it lends added credence to the charges of Quebecers as susceptible to fear, ignorance and intolerance as the rest of Canada. If the Liberals succeeded it was because they appeared firmer and surer in judging the public mood and it seems almost unfair that just as the NDP had turned its back on deficit spending the Liberals should benefit for embracing it.

It may well be that the NDP will find solace and take pride by claiming they remain the conscience of the country and that they fell, gloriously, on a matter of principle. Well, given what happened this round, principles largely shunted aside for the brass ring that is a bit of a lark, isn’t it?

Mulcair’s recent mea culpa, may please some and sway others. I don’t want to hear it. Too often we have witnessed the betrayal of the left by the party of the left, the nabobs in the NDP having determined large ideas and ideals too risky, perhaps too esoteric, for the public at large to fully appreciate. For years the NDP harped about being the party for “ordinary citizens”. I’m one of them and I have never liked that. I may by ordinary, but I don’t like being told that I am. Is it really necessary to talk down to voters, to abandon core values and run from one’s history in order to appeal to those who may not understand what the NDP believes and hopes for? Why is that preferable to “work” by which I mean the effort necessary to “inform”, “educate” and “encourage” members of the public of the virtues of the NDP in clear, honest, and enlightened terminology demonstrating that its policies are not only doable, meaningful and better but also superior to the clichés, pat answers and glib, glitzy empty promises to which they have been subjected countless times. The NDP does not have to outdo the Conservatives by promising balanced budgets year after year; they just have to demonstrate that provincially they enjoyed a record far superior than either party when it came to financial reliability and fiscal management. The NDP had the opportunity to show that they were indeed the ones able to deliver real change: they were new, fresh, young, eager, and able. Instead, Mulcair and the party let the promise and possibility slip through their fingers. They were careless, incompetent, and arrogant. True, there was a new face leading a revitalized Liberal party, but the name attached was old, familiar and, for some, held a lot of baggage. Though the Liberal promises were many, large and seemingly daring, they were often too big, too unrealistic. As well, many of the faces are not that young and were, in fact, the faces of the vile, scandalous past that drove the Liberals from office for ten years replaced by something even worse, a sinister cabal of cold-blooded, vengeful, mean-spirited men and women with hearts that beat only at the mention of oil, tax cuts and power and, perhaps, a bit more energetically when suppressing votes or working with Big Business in devising ways to supress the wages of Canadian workers.

I applaud the NDP’s efforts in reaching out to its supporters in hopes of understanding what went wrong. I don’t think it is all that difficult. The post mortem conference call in which NDP supporters were allowed the opportunity to vent was useful but not long enough to allow more to be heard. Nevertheless, for the most part, comments were excellent, suggestions sound and criticisms constructive. However, I thought Mulcair and the NDP strategists got off lightly for a campaign that, to my eyes, appeared directionless, unfocused, stale, and suffering from a dearth of ideas. Canadians really are a polite, tolerant bunch. I listened with incredulity as some, thankfully few, even praised the leadership and strategists for a well-run campaign! A couple, if I recall correctly, suggested, as did Mulcair, that the niqab issue was what had defeated the NDP. I don’t believe that is true. Perhaps in part but there were other factures at play. I don’t recall anyone taking Mulcair to task for his stand. They should not.

I do wish the NDP had listened more to its core members and not forgotten the end goal in politics is to make a difference for the better and for all members of society even if it means playing second fiddle. Many of the things that make Canada great were a result of the NDP simply holding the balance of power. It’s what one does with what one has that matters. Power for the sake of power is meaningless and often harmful. One need only look towards the anti-democratic Harper gang to realize that.

Of course I would love to see the NDP win, but not at any price. When Mulcair stood up against Harper’s anti-terrorist bill, C-51, I was extremely proud of him and the NDP. That is what matters. Harper squandered any possibility of a legacy that would make one proud. Yes, dollars and cents do matter but so do decency, honesty and personal integrity, openness and a willingness to work for all Canadians rather than special interests. Harper held power for ten years most of it abusive. He had a majority. Instead of offering governance, he offered something that was darker, viler, and more anti-democratic than anyone could have imagined. Not only did he refuse to listen to the public and opposition members, he refused to extend a hand of reconciliation and comfort to the meanest and poorest among us. He actually set about to govern for special interests, to settle scores, and ram through legislation with omnibus bills hoping no one would notice. His party broke election laws and he and his gang targeted all critics as enemies sometimes questioning their integrity and patriotism. Power wasn’t enough. He hungered to wield his majority as if it were a club. He stifled debate, smeared journalists, silenced government scientists, labeled those on welfare potential fraudsters, and suggested environmentalists were terrorists. Harper’s governance, his abuse of power is nothing for which one should aspire.

The NDP, I believe, and I don’t like saying any of this, forgot what it was about and sought, instead, to become what no one wanted: another centrist party. They wanted to win more than they wanted to make a difference so they ignored much of what made the NDP great and a party of profound accomplishment and possibility. It had dropped the ball and became irrelevant in doing so. Trudeau and the Liberals were ready and willing to risk. That they were successful could simply be attributed to a leader that was young, good-looking, and willing even if apparently naïve. But it was more than that. The Liberals had a youthful team of keen, smart people who knew exactly what they wanted and where they were going and how to get it. They refused to be plagued by self-doubt. In contrast, the NDP appeared tired and moribund; it had run out of ideas and took the polls far too seriously and the young Trudeau not seriously enough. The party capitulated, moving to the centre allowing the Liberals to fill the void. You don’t win by turning your back on what you are or by selling out; you may realize your goal but you also lose what you are by doing so.

When Harper refused to debate on the major networks against the Liberals and the Greens, the NDP capitulation was absolute. Instead of calling Harper’s bluff, the NDP caved crowing they were only interested in debating Harper. Mulcair blew an opportunity to introduce himself to millions and to pointedly demonstrate by the empty spot reserved for Harper the straw man who had governed the nation for close to ten years. He had dismissed the third party, misjudged the real threat. That was a blunder of monumental stupidity and surrender. What made it even more painful is that Mulcair going into the first debate seemed a sure bet based on his outstanding achievements in the House only to prove himself a bumbling suitor on his first outing. Trudeau walked away with the prize that night. Mulcair improved but never really recovered. Trudeau outshone him at every turn it seemed.

What had become of the firebrand, that great performer in the House?

Oh how I wanted the NDP to win but early into the campaign I, as so many others, saw it slipping away with disbelief and grief. They did not dwell upon the things that mattered to me: a truly universal and unified healthcare across the country, pharmacare, housing for the homeless, more opportunities for the young to get an education, more work on infrastructure, more assistance for First Nations peoples, more help for the elderly, more protection for workers. The NDP attempted to pass themselves off as something they were not. They came across as opportunists at worst or lost at best. They made a promise that was unnecessary and ludicrous given these hard times. The Liberals took the big leap. The NDP could have, should have. They saw a hill and shaped it into a mountain. They thought it was a winner but it was insurmountable.

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But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. – Thomas Paine.

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They that can give up essential liberties to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Benjamin Franklin

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