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Can the federal NDP win on Reform’s battlefield?
The Democrat, March 1998
No doubt about it, Reform whomped us badly in British Columbia in the last federal election. As the NDP candidate in Vancouver South - Burnaby, I saw it coming - picked up Reform vibrations after just a few hours knocking on doors.
I sent a memo to Boundary Road, "We've got to start hitting Reform," or words to that effect. I challenged the Reform candidate in my riding to a public debate - "Resolved that Reform is the party of power and privilege, not the party of populism" - and sent out a news release about it. I was looking for any gimmick to get the point across to voters. (My Reform counterpart told me that he and his campaign manager had discussed the matter and decided they had nothing to gain by a debate. They were right. I was surprised they had even thought it over.)
I had, as it happened, long been pushing the party to go after Manning. I was unhappy that we had let him appropriate the debt and deficit issue, and use it to pillory program spending. I wanted us to take on both Manning and Paul Martin on the issue, and argue our own deficit strategy: tightening up the tax system and lowering interest rates.
Back in 1991 - I remember the actual conversation - before Manning was in the House, I had recommended to some Alberta NDP friends that we pursue Manning there, on his home ground, and, by showing him up for the phoney populist that he was, take advantage of his pretensions. (They declined. They said that nobody who would consider voting Reform would vote for us, and that Manning would split the right-wing vote, allowing us to come up the middle.)
Well, you get the picture. So I agree with Bill Tieleman ("The Federal NDP in Need of Reform," the December issue), that we let Reform get away with murder - our murder.
But as to Bill's prescription for the next time (that we hammer home lunch-bucket, bread-and-butter issues)...well, sure, but if we do that and nothing else, we'll simply be locking the door of the morgue behind us and surrendering to the big political chill.
I can say Bill's strategy won't work on its own, even for the labour vote he is most concerned with, because it didn't work.
Maybe, as he explained, the party's take on some questions (the level of immigration, Quebec's domination of Canadian politics) didn't respond to concerns the way it should have. Looking over the rest of the issues he wants us to talk about, however, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu. Defending public health care, attacking big bank profits, a fair tax system, standing up for workers rights in the workplace, tough on crime and the causes of crime, tackling the debt and deficit, and more...all good stuff and, in fact, they were part of our campaign this last time around.
The model that Bill puts forward, to recapture the "Us Against Them" support we've lost to Reform, is the Glen Clark 1996 campaign. I have the same scepticism about that being enough, as well, and for the same reason: It's what the federal campaign attempted. It didn't use the same kind of slogans - couldn't simply copy them - but the strategic thinking behind the campaign was heavily influenced by Clark's 1996 upset victory.
(For that matter, the 1996 Clark strategy has its limits even provincially. We just barely squeaked in, and with fewer votes than the Liberals province-wide, despite Gordon Campbell's ineptitude and the provincial Reform Party weakening the Liberals' results. Our share of the popular vote has now inched downwards in four straight elections since its peak in 1979. Besides, given recent events, with Glen meeting with business executives to help deal with the economy, it looks like the "Us Against Them" theme might have other problems.)
No, none of that really worked for us in the federal election here, and it didn't work because the context of understanding which British Columbians and most other Canadians now bring to economic issues is right-wing.
Preston Manning and Paul Martin play off that and cultivate it. It's one of the reasons Manning has been able to get away with his phoney populism, despite the flip-flop on Stornaway, the cute clothing and holiday budget his party arranged for him on the side, the pin-stripe suit which he takes out of his closet when it counts, and his policies which would even further bolster privilege and disparities.
Manning has managed it by capitalizing on how Canadians have come to see the world, a perspective shaped in no little part by the right-wing ideological bulldozer of the 1980s.
In this world, social programs caused the debt, not tax giveaways and the Bank of Canada's high-interest-rate policy, both encouraged by the right, as was actually the case.
In this world, similarly, government is bad and bureaucratic, or at the very least inefficient, and can't do anything right. This is taken as self-obvious despite any evidence, like the comparative efficiency of our public medical-care system. Government can be politically downgraded by Manning in this way because "the market" and "business" have been made the ruling fashion - not just for what the market is suited for but, in a vague, populist, cultural way, for everything.
All else follows from that. Taxes are bad. Tax cuts are good. Community is pass‚. Everybody should make it on their own. Civil servants are lazy. Labour-union demands are discouraging investment. A T-shirt with the Nike swoosh on it is especially worth buying. Market-dictated international agreements are in, the nation-state is out (so much so that even our party, in this last election, backed off pushing for a withdrawal from NAFTA).
Above all, the private sector, led by large and technically advanced corporations, creates jobs, and its ways and preferences, whatever they are, represent the future - or at least, to keep the economy going, we have to give in to those preferences. It makes no difference how much we inveigh against unemployment, bank profits, cuts in transfer payments, growing disparities, and anti-union policies, the economic universe is unfolding as it has to unfold, in light of what Canadians have been given to understand.
After that, it's an easy ride for Manning and Paul Martin. All they have to do is mutter banalities about wanting to protect medicare and education, to cover their left flank.
This is also why Manning can so effectively push hot buttons like Quebec - build a whole campaign around it, for lack of anything else - and have the media follow him holus bolus. After all, if the economic universe is unfolding as it has to, and we can't do anything about it, and shouldn't even try, because we've got to let the global "market" decide, then it's not so difficult to switch attention elsewhere.
For us, on the other hand, trying to make headway in this environment is the opposite to any easy ride. We end up fighting a desperate uphill battle to work around the loaded context of understanding. We scurry about looking for the right image, the cleverest slogan, the most searching read of the polls and of focus groups, the most finely calibrated "positioning," to somehow finesse good results. We speculate whether we should use emotion or logic, be passionate or present an image of respectability and caution. But in the end, whichever of these we choose, they're not enough. We're seen as largely irrelevant. We're marginalized. We have no resonance.
That's what happened June 2 in most of the country.
Therein, however, also lies the solution: help the public to broaden its perspective. Indeed, change the context of understanding that voters bring to what we say, or we'll be forever behind the eight ball.
(Herschel will detail the elements of this strategy in the next issue.) See “Making our ideas count again.”