The NDP’s Big Gamble

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September 12, 2019

The NDP’s Big Gamble

The teens have been a crummy decade for the federal NDP. Since the moment of Jack Layton’s tragic passing in 2011 until today, the party has been on a slow decline. Smacked at the moment of their greatest triumph, they staggered into choosing a leader who knew little about New Democrats and less about English Canada. Tom Mulcair’s naive attempt at risk avoidance in the 2015 campaign saw him collapse over niqab waffling and a balanced budget obsession. The party had never been defeated from the left in its eight decades of history. The Trudeau team masterfully stole the party’s birthright – the social justice champion in Canadian politics.

For their new leader, New Democrats choose a young man with few years in politics, all in Ontario, and the first racialized Canadian to head a national party. Jagmeet Singh had a very shaky launch, beginning to recover only this year as an elected B.C. MP.

As the poll numbers have ticked slowly lower, the oaths sworn on election night 2015 to never again let the party get “out-lefted,” have morphed into a more proactive consensus: “What do we have to lose being risky and bold?” In response, the campaign team has reframed their message to Canadians in bolder policy terms than any national NDP campaign since the Broadbent years.

Much tougher climate change policy, a commitment to deliver on a massive housing program, national childcare and national pharmacare programs led their early platform rollout last month. This week they added an ambitious plan to genuinely narrow the inequality gap in Canada, focused on the real economic canyon.  More benefit programs, progressive tax rates and commitments to much higher mandatory minimum wages alone cannot deliver real change. A large tax on accumulated wealth can. It has never before been attempted in Canada.

It is an old campaign strategist’s axiom that the highest risk campaign is the one trying to be absolutely risk-free. Every campaign faces risks – many of them predictable –  and campaigns need to game their preparation for them. Taking deliberately high political risks can be enormously successful – e.g., Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  But they can collapse on arrival too – Stéphane Dion

The young New Democrat campaign team have been debating and testing these high-risk policy grenades, especially for their impact on unhappy 2015 Liberal voters, for months. They seem well prepared for the fierce counter-attack they will face if they are seen to be gaining traction. One hopes they also understand that there is usually a big win – Trudeau and pot – for high risk pitches. Or, as in the case of Harper’s Islamophobia gambit – total disaster.