Two Big Takeaways for the NDP on Canada’s 2015 election


Editor’s Note: On October 19, 2015, Canadians voted all across their country to elect a new parliament. There were three major parties contesting the election everywhere and a couple minor parties. After the last federal parliamentary elections (in 2011), the Conservatives held a majority, the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) were the second-place party (heading the opposition for the first time), and the centrist Liberal Party finished third. At the start of this year’s election, the NDP had a large lead in the polls seemed poised to form a government for the first time in Canada’s history. As the campaign progressed, however, the NDP’s support collapsed and voters instead chose to elect a Liberal Party majority to parliament. This majority will be led by Justin Trudeau, the son of former longtime prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who led the party from 1968 to 1984. The Conservatives finished second. The NDP finished a distant third.

Below, guest contributor and NDP supporter Adam Chaikof presents the two major lessons he drew from the NDP’s unsuccessful campaign to lead the federal government for the first time in party history.

Lesson 1: Don’t treat balanced budgets like a sacred cow (especially during economic downturns).

It certainly goes without saying that one of the most common right-wing retorts to any suggestion of expanding the welfare state or investing in jobs or infrastructure is that such measures are too costly and will only increase the national debt and deficit.

Besides the obvious ideological reasons, the Right constantly employs this line of attack because voters easily understand it. After all, many voters reason, if we have to live within our means, why shouldn’t the government do the same?

Within this framing, beyond completely rejecting the Left’s core principles, left-wing parties can respond to these accusations in one of two ways: they can either try to convince the electorate that they’re actually better at balancing the budget than the Right, or they can argue that running a short-term deficit isn’t harmful and is necessary to stimulate the economy.

In other words, the Left can either try to win the debate on balanced budgets on the Right’s terms, or they can try to reset the debate’s terms altogether. During this most recent election in Canada, the NDP chose the former route, while the Liberals chose the latter.

The NDP chose this strategy for two reasons. First, NDP provincial governments actually have better fiscal records on average than both Liberal and Conservative ones despite spending more on economic and social programs.

Unfortunately, there is one notable – and very noticeable – exception to the NDP’s fiscal record: Bob Rae’s provincial government in Ontario from 1990 to 1995. Rae’s early 90s legacy still haunts the NDP in the electorally vital province of Ontario. This is the root cause of the second reason for the NDP’s strategy of campaigning on fiscal responsibility.

Rae’s record is still hotly debated – and he actually has long since defected from the NDP to the Liberals – but the most commonly accepted narrative is this: After leading the NDP to its first ever victory in Ontario in 1990, Rae unsuccessfully tried to spend Ontario’s way out of a recession and was then forced to implement austerity measures after exploding the province’s deficit.

Whether you accept this narrative or not, it’s undeniable that Rae’s poor economic record has been like a millstone around the NDP’s neck in Ontario at both the federal and provincial levels for the past 20 years. Ontario sends the most federal MPs to Parliament. In other words, eager to convince voters of its fiscal credibility and finally excise the ghost of the Rae Provincial Government, the NDP made maintaining a balanced budget one its main campaign planks.

This decision, however, had serious repercussions for the NDP. Many voters simply didn’t believe that the NDP’s proposals for raising revenue (e.g. raising corporate taxes by 2%, closing tax loopholes, etc.) would be enough to pay for its other spending promises. These included universal childcare and pharmacare, a national housing and transit strategy, reversing Harper’s cuts to health care and pensions, a national cap-and-trade system, and new investments in clean energy and manufacturing.

These proposals remained very popular, to be sure, but Canadians didn’t have much faith in the NDP being able to implement them properly because it seemed like they were trying to have it both ways: Spending a lot while balancing budgets.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the NDP’s emphasis on balanced budgets seemed like too much of a continuation of Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative policies when most Canadians were looking for something completely different this year. This impression was only reinforced by the NDP’s refusal to raise income taxes on the rich in order to avoid their traditional reputation as the “high tax” party.

The Liberals seized upon the NDP’s timidity by promising to raise income taxes on the richest 1% and run a $7.7 billion annual budget deficit for three years in order to pay for a massive investment in infrastructure. The Liberals justified these deficits by saying that current low interest rates would make paying them back relatively easy.

Contrary to what many expected, the Liberals’ rejection of balanced budgets was well received by the electorate and allowed them to claim the change mantle during the election.

None of this is to suggest that the Liberals are to the NDP’s left. Beyond opposing most of the proposals listed earlier, the Liberals also support NAFTA-style trade deals and the Keystone XL pipeline. What this does show, however, is that voters will reject the Right’s dogmas about balanced budgets when the Left makes a simple and easy-to-understand case for short-term deficit spending to stimulate economic growth.

Lesson 2: To thine own self be true, Tom!

While everyone in politics wishes they were as charismatic and natural on their feet as Reagan or Clinton, not everyone can be. It’s clear that most politicians aren’t – and that they’ll always come across as inauthentic if they try to pretend to be. This was the case with the NDP’s leader, Thomas Mulcair.

Throughout his tenure as leader of the opposition, Mulcair’s passionate and aggressive style during Question Period (the Canadian equivalent to Prime Minister’s Questions in the U.K.) often inspired those activists opposed to Harper’s agenda. That being said, Mulcair’s style was also often seen as way too abrasive and earned him the nickname “Angry Tom.”

To appeal to voters who were turned off by Mulcair’s aggressiveness, his handlers desperately worked to soften his image. This often manifested itself with Mulcair giving low-key and soft-spoken performances in the debates and on the campaign trail. Instead of winning over skeptical voters, however, Mulcair came across as flat, inauthentic, and failed to inspire those who were initially drawn to his passion for fighting Harper’s agenda.

As we’re seeing today in the U.S. with the rise of candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Bernie Sanders, voters around the world are desperately craving authenticity in response to an increasingly scripted and choreographed political scene. What these and Mulcair’s experiences demonstrate, therefore, is that authenticity is the most valuable trait in contemporary politics and that sacrificing it is tantamount to political suicide.

In the coming weeks, by analyzing the results closely, we will probably find more lessons in the aftermath of the actual election, but these were two major points that emerged over the course of the campaign and became clear before Election Day.

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