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The NDP: Now what?

How the federal New Democrats might begin a rebuild

Over the weekend at the New Democratic convention in Edmonton, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and NDP stalwart Stephen Lewis provided what seemed on the surface to be conflicting visions for the future of the party. Notley came out in favour of continued pipeline creation, taking the view that to not develop natural resources would cost thousands more jobs in her province. Lewis… well, felt differently. As he put it: “You want to transform the economy; it can be done: just settle on a crusade to develop renewables.”

Both speeches were framed — had to be framed, really — by the Leap manifesto, the somewhat radical document put forward last fall by environmentalists and celebrities that suggests, among other things, that Canada divest from fossil fuels by the year 2050. It also posits that Canada should be generating 100% of its electricity from renewable fuels within 20 years.

Even if the manifesto had not been up for debate at the convention, it would have framed both Notley’s and Lewis’s speeches anyway. The speeches had to be framed against it, as it is the singularly most compelling list of possible policy avenues available to the NDP at the moment. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s more interesting, in fact, than anything the party put forward in the last election. It’s strident. It’s unequivocal. It’s ideological and doctrinal. It provides definition to a party sorely in need of exactly that.

It is also impossible to implement in its current form.

Of course, the convention-goers didn’t adopt the Leap manifesto as party policy; they endorsed the idea that it ought to be studied. That was a good choice, despite the immediate pushback from Alberta. To talk about the Leap manifesto is, at least, to talk about the future. It offers a benchmark against which future discussion about the NDP’s identity can be set, for good or ill. The NDP might not know what or who it is at the moment, but looking at the Leap manifesto, it might already know what it isn’t — and that’s a start. Stephen Lewis made that case clearly.

But Rachel Notley made something else important clear, too: that people might care about jobs more than they do about the temperature of the planet. Or, at least, that people might care about the temperature of the planet more if they were certain doing something about it would not affect their employment. Jobs, in other words, will trump grand visions, unless the latter is promised to maintain or create the former.

This was exactly the spot on which the NDP stumbled in the 2015 election. There was never (or too rarely) a clear line drawn from the party’s ideas and ideals to, if not job creation, then at least some idea of personal prosperity.

This last point is not the only thing people vote for, certainly, but what economic assurances ultimately can do is allow people to think past them. If Canadians have hope that they will stay employed or, better yet, get a new job, then other ideas can be built atop that foundation. Things like the need for cleaner air, for instance. This was fundamentally why arguments about C-51 or the Trans Pacific Partnership never landed for the NDP during the campaign — they were telegraphed mainly as arguments of academic principle. But nobody listening could use them as a starting point to imagine a bigger story, about themselves or about the country. And certainly not about the NDP.

It’s also for this very reason that the NDP, despite Mulcair’s performance in the House of Commons, failed to connect for a prolonged period when that stump became unavailable. Too many of the topics they chose to discuss were simply reactive, and outside of the House, reaction only counts for so much. The agenda was consistently set for the NDP in 2015, not by them. Over time, they simply had their lunch eaten.

So, how might the NDP reinforce a clearer connection between big ideas and individual success coming from endorsing those ideas with a vote? It’s difficult to say for sure, and I’m probably one of the last people alive to whom they might listen, but let’s spitball it, shall we? It seems there are three major themes where the NDP has some leverage, and on which a reasonable, more complex, platform might be built: health care, education and innovation.

Health care. This is something Lewis mentioned, and he was right to. Health care remains a top priority for Canadians, and it speaks already to a sense of national pride (i.e. story). Talking about health care is important on a personal level to millions of people. And using health care as an umbrella theme means there is space to talk about children and childcare and national daycare or whatever, if that’s a major theme again (Lewis suggested it should be). It means there is also room to talk about prescription drug costs and, by extension — right now — the benefits and/or risks of, well, the TPP.

It also happens that health care is where jobs are going to be created in the next decade or so. As the population ages, there will be an increased need for caregivers of all sorts — including roles for which you don’t necessarily need a medical degree.

Education. This is another topic on which Canadians might be willing to listen to the NDP more than other parties. And the topic speaks to students — a group usually willing to consider the NDP — as well as to parents. Might the party go as far as to promise free tuition? Maybe not, but they might consider further subsidization in some form or another. The Ontario government has already laid the groundwork for a form of this (though the NDP might want to go further). Within this bigger envelope, there is room for a discussion on child and Aboriginal education programs, too. There may even be a way to frame the conversation about privacy rights here, as part of an effort to work with provinces to offer lessons on it as part of curricula. Hello, C-51?

In any case, fundamentally, it’s the promise of what education delivers that’s important. It generates visions of future employment, in that good training (or re-training) might offer the chance at a higher pay grade.

Innovation. It’s the most boring catchall term, but it offers copious leeway to talk about the environment in terms of possible jobs, which automatically brings that conversation into the present tense, and makes it relatable. Discussing cataclysmic weather events 20 years from now sounds different than talking about jobs, but it doesn’t have to be. The Leap manifesto — or at least the parts about fossil fuels — has a home here, where it’s suddenly about creating good jobs, and not about destroying them.

This is not an inclusive list, nor is it a comprehensive breakdown of each. An idea like universal basic income, for instance, speaks to each one of these bigger topics, and is a thread that might be used to thread the three together, should the NDP back it. There are other policy ideas, too, that could serve the same purpose — as connective tissue. The point now is to settle on a few strong core ideas from which smaller ones are branched, and repeat them to death. And maybe not just in the House of Commons.

Key to all of this, of course, is the right leader. Who can bridge whatever divide exists over the Leap manifesto? Who can make the NDP relevant again — to Canadians, and to its membership? Does that person even exist? Ultimately none of the messaging matters if the delivery system fails. If the NDP didn’t know that already, they learned it this weekend. There is a reason the only speeches worth mentioning from Edmonton are the ones Thomas Mulcair didn’t give.


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