Losing the Base for Empty Gains, Jamming, 23/09/2015

The other day, a Facebook friend of mine called Thomas Mulcair a neo-Thatcherite, and the New Democrats an anti-worker political party.

This is only one – slightly cartoonish – voice among many people among the populist urban left who are traditionally a major base of the NDP, but it reflects a growing feeling in this pillar of the party’s support. 

The major popular force of support for Mulcair's NDP
came when he stood against Bill C51's repressive
security measures, but his campaign's focus on the
message that he'll consistently deliver balanced budgets
is losing the support of what could be a dedicated base
among the anti-austerity young left.
Dissatisfaction with the NDP’s balanced-budget messaging this election season is growing enough to inspire VICE think pieces and, I hope, a change of course for the party I support. 

But I don’t think that change will come. The reason why lies in the peculiar nature of the NDP’s growing pains into a big-tent mainstream party that can compete realistically for state power at all levels of our government pretty much anywhere in Canada.

This disaffected activist and middle class urban left is plugged into social media for their major sources of news, and it has also become their public square. 

They may be denounced as slacktivists at times, and there are many among us who do no political activity except tweet and post. But conversation is still a political act: even the slacktivist argues, complains, and occasionally convinces.

This is the class and generation who plugged into the ideals of Occupy and carries that enthusiasm into the contemporary liberation movements that have organized through social media: they’re the allies of Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, Idle No More, and Yanis Varoufakis’ Syriza. And they’re relentless opponents of austerity politics. 

The rhetoric of balanced budgets is the demand of Tea Party Republicans, Hayek and Rand inspired libertarians, and the European Central Bank leaders who brought the Greek people and Syriza to heel with the humiliation of deepening austerity. It’s a political priority that, in our fragile economic times, frequently brings mass poverty as social services and supports for the middle class are destroyed.

So why the hell is the leader of Canada’s progressive, social democratic political party talking about how his top priority is balancing the budget above all?

This is the myth of the rightward turn of the NDP. It is a myth, but understanding why takes a little history, and a little theory. 

Nathan Cullen, pictured here hanging out with one of his
sons at the 2012 leadership convention while I sit in the
row behind him, was my favoured candidate to lead
the NDP. Don't worry; he knows I was there and we
spoke many times.  I supported him primarily for
his dedication to  environmentalism and a new,
fairer relationship of Canada's settler populations
with its indigenous. Mulcair was number two on my
preference ballot,  so after Cullen was knocked
out on the third round of voting/counting, my
(and many others') second-place vote put
Mulcair above Brian Topp.
A quick history. Jack Layton removed the references to socialism in the NDP’s constitution and central documents, and lessened the direct influence of large unions’ leadership over the party’s policy. 

Thomas Mulcair is a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister in Quebec, who has overseen the toning down of anti-Israel sentiment among rank and file. During the 2012 leadership convention, he saw off several opponents challenging him from his left: Nikki Ashton, Peggy Nash, Nathan Cullen, and Brian Topp. Topp’s support was almost entirely from the old union network of the NDP, and he’s the only one of the four challengers without a prominent, visible place in the parliamentary leadership. 

Beyond Mulcair himself, NDP leadership in last year’s major elections in Ontario – the provincial election and the Toronto mayoral race – have seen humiliating NDP defeats, caused largely by triangulation-style communication strategies that tried to appeal to Conservative voters on their own terms. 

Olivia Chow and Andrea Horwath centred their campaigns on promises to do right by taxpayers and rule by prudent fiscal responsibility, saying nothing of doing right by the people and ensuring the prosperity of a more equal society.

Mulcair’s talk of balanced budgets appears to be more of the same. As I write, the Liberal Party has just climbed a few percentage points over the NDP. 

The roots of Mulcair’s message about balanced budgets lie in a strategy born of NDP anxiety, and a ghost that haunts the party in Ontario. Bob Rae.

I volunteer with the NDP campaign in my riding. That’s Phil Trotter, the candidate for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, a riding with a diverse population, but an overall suburban geography. We usually encounter friendly smiles and support from working class and immigrant folks, but the more affluent upper-middle class remains skeptical of the NDP.

Speaking of ghosts whose rattling chains and wails of
terror horrify even the strongest of people.
The first reason they usually give is that they don’t trust the NDP because of Bob Rae’s NDP government of Ontario, the accompanying economic collapse, and Rae’s complete incompetence in dealing with it. I call it the Bob Rae Hangover.

Conversations that Phil and I have with voters convince them that the NDP has rejected Rae, and has a much stronger tradition of good governance and smart policy from its provincial governments in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and now Alberta. But we can’t talk to every skeptical voter in the whole riding.

The balanced-budget message was designed to appeal to these people. They’re messages in the mass media that are intended to calm the anxieties of Ontarian voters who still suffer headaches from Rae Rum and delerium tremens from Harris Vodka.

Ontario is rich in ridings, and the growth of NDP support since Layton’s era that continued under Mulcair means that many of those contests are three-way races. Many of those are close to statistical ties that will likely be decided by desperately thin margins on October 19. 

Given the state of our current horse race, every vote counts everywhere. In Atlantic Canada for the blue-red races and three-ways, the west and Quebec City for its blue-orange races, Montreal for its red-orange, and the rest of Quebec for its teal-orange. But southern Ontario will likely carry the victory on many tight, three-way races.

The federal NDP’s communications and campaign strategists have decided that curing the Rae Hangover is the key to winning urban Ontario. Or at least enough of urban Ontario that gains elsewhere in the country can bring the party more than 170 seats.

Occupy is the revolutionary movement that began in
New York, spread throughout the world, and continues
in social movements against entrenched elites all over
the world. A left-wing party that doesn't embrace its
values will die, because they're the people's values.
The balanced budget message is how they think they’ll do it. The problem is that this message is costing them a lot of support from the anti-austerity social movement that has revitalized left-wing politics around the West, from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn, from Podemos to Syriza. 

The NDP should be on that list. Instead, many in that social movement are abandoning the NDP as a party hijacked by the neoliberal consensus.

The irony is that the NDP leadership doesn’t actually plan to deliver balanced budgets above all else. 

All their other messages describe the actual priorities of a Mulcair cabinet: raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, restoring environmental protections, real engagement with climate change, a national daycare strategy and pharmacare plan, higher taxes on the rich and multinationals, more power for the Canada Revenue Agency to break down overseas tax havens. 

All of these are incompatible with an overriding priority of balanced budgets. Their social services won’t run deficits forever, but it will take time for greater revenue of their truly progressive tax plan and enforcement to deliver the adequate government income. 

The balanced budget message is a lie to win over Ontarians still suffering from the Rae Hangover.

The question is whether the NDP can still win the election if they continue to haemorrhage support from the most energetic leftists in the country today. 

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