In contrast to Jack Layton, who could at least affect a persona of empathy, Thomas Mulcair made little effort to conceal the naked personal ambition that provided the guiding light of his political career. He migrated from the Quebec right to the English-Canadian left, ensuring the federal party he wound up running — by some accounts, his third choice — enjoyed four unsatisfying years of awkward leadership plagued by an omnipresent odor of phoniness. As party boss, Mulcair tried to reshape the New Democrats in his own image, which is to say, incoherent and opportunistic. But given no one really seems to know what to do with the NDP these days, serving as the empty vessel for a grasping politician with prime ministerial dreams may be as good as it gets.
The NDP has lost every single election it has ever contested and every single time the party’s leader, whoever that may be, is blamed for being too pragmatic and forgetting the party’s roots. This is a comforting mythology — who doesn’t like to believe their failures are the result of compromising their wonderfulness in a misguided effort to appease the vulgar crowd? In reality, of course, the NDP has always been fairly pragmatic. It’s run by politicians, after all.
Listen to J.J. McCullough in the latest episode of the ‘Ep. 22 – ROYAL ASSENT’ podcast.
Someone made a site where you can go back and look at the platforms of Canadian parties in decades past, and I challenge you to dig up an NDP platform where the call for a Marxist utopia is sharp and explicit. It’s currently fashionable to bash Mulcair for embracing the cause of balanced budgets, but even the sainted Tommy Douglas was a fan of those. An aversion to debt and deficits was the main reason it took him eighteen years as premier of Saskatchewan to implement Canada’s first medicare regime, for instance.
The problem with the NDP is redundancy. As George Will noted in a snippy critique of Bernie Sanders, a ideology like “democratic socialist” — which, despite popular belief, is still present in the NDP constitution — is a “classification that no longer classifies” since basically every modern politician, even many on the nominal right, subscribes to its purported agenda: “heavy government regulation of commercial activities, government provision of a ‘social safety net’ and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and entitlement programs.” Whether the ubiquity of these goals reflects a victory or failure on the part of the social democrats is irrelevant; the fact is doubling-down on a philosophy that is neither distinct nor novel will hardly make a party struggling for relevance stand out from the crowd.
Liberal campaign finance reforms will just make things worse
Progressives are wrong on terrorism
Progressive Belgium offers a terror lesson for Trudeau
The Conservative Party’s terrible election rules will produce a terrible leader
Debt and deficits: a Trudeau family tradition
I once wrote that the NDP is basically just the Liberal Party for stupid people. The Liberals are obviously a progressive alternative to the Conservatives, and as a party boasting 150 years of infrastructure and governing experience, they are the one most progressive voters in Canada should be (and indeed, are) rationally drawn towards. Since the NDP is composed of people who have, by definition, failed to appreciate this defining reality of Canadian politics, what results is a party severely lacking in the ability to make rational decisions in other contexts, from which leader is electable to which trade policy will help the working man. When you accept the premise that the NDP is not a gang of idealists too principled for their own good, but a bunch of folks who on some fundamental level just don’t know what they’re doing, their tragic fate starts to make a lot more sense.
The NDP is only electorally competitive in provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba that lack a viable Liberal Party to challenge it, and its only hope at achieving power in Ottawa would be if this dynamic somehow replicates at the federal level. Yet even when they’ve come close to displacing the Liberals — as when Edward Broadbent won 30 seats to the Liberals 40 in the 1984 election — or on the sole occasion when they have — Jack Layton in 2011 — it’s come against the backdrop of Conservative majorities, moments when the public isn’t really taking progressive politics that seriously.
Prime Minister Trudeau is an unambiguous member of the left, and much of the spirit of “The Leap Manifesto,” a sappy collection of progressive slogans currently being held up as a charter of NDP distinctiveness, can be seen animating his agenda. In four years Canadians will be asked if they are interested in keeping their country on that particular track, or if they would prefer to retry the conservative philosophy that governed previously. The NDP, as usual, will sit on the deserved sidelines of that debate.
Photo Credit: Rabble
Follow J.J. on twitter: @JJ_McCullough