Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Advice for the federal NDP: an attempt at a reason-based strategy

I've been in and out of the country all spring and will continue to stick to a similar schedule until June, so unfortunately, I don't have a whole lot time for fun bloggy writing at the moment. But this post has been flitting around in my head for a few weeks now, so I figured I'd jot it down while I have the chance.

I've argued previously that it's a bad idea for the NDP to attempt to replace the Liberals as the big-tent party of the centre-left. All the reasons I voiced there still stand, as far as I'm concerned: success in that arena would be bad for democracy, it would be bad for the left, yadda yadda. But those reasons are all situated toward the "idealistic" end of the "idealistic pragmatist" continuum, and there's a big whopping pragmatic one as well.

Let's just put aside our doubts for a moment about whether or not such a goal is achievable and imagine that all the NDP fantasies about this came true. After a brutal battle that finally ended with a knife in the heart of the Liberal party, the NDP has squeaked through with a the most seats in parliament in the next federal election. It's a bare minority, but still, there's much rejoicing in Mouseland on election night, and many drunk social democrats. But the next morning always comes, and unfortunately, the reality of that scenario is that they've got to figure out a way to make parliament work well enough that they can get some of their ideas through. They have the choice of either setting things up as a single-party minority government or trying to forge a permanent coalition with another party, but either way, governing necessarily means working with others. The Tories? On one or two issues, max. The Bloc? There's more agreement, but there's also a certain little fundamental incompatibility. Which leaves the Liberals.

Those are the facts.

Now, let me get one thing straight: I'm adamantly against any kind of "non-aggression pact" that would deprive voters of the full spectrum of choice. Although I think it's essential that we start allowing for more interparty cooperation, I also firmly believe that any negotiations between parties need to happen after the voters have had a chance to have their say, rather than before. But the thing is, there's no scenario that involves the NDP in government federally that doesn't require the Liberals to hold onto enough seats to serve as a partner. Personally, I think the more likely scenario involves the NDP as a junior partner in a coalition government, but the NDP needs the Liberals even in the fantasy scenario. And this undeniable fact turns the goal of trying to demolish the Liberals into a scorched-earth policy.

Rather than going for broke at all costs, the sort of strategy it would seem to make
more sense for the NDP to pursue in the next election is something like this:

Policy vision: Start with a positive, clearly articulated vision of what the NDP would want to do when in power.

Contrast with other parties: Have ready a list of substantive criticisms of all three other parties in the House. These should be both on policy (in terms of how their policies contrast with the NDP's), but also on prior behaviour (in terms of how they carried themselves over the course of the last couple of sessions of Parliament). None of the criticisms should be personal--they should only be of policy and political behaviour.

Riding targeting: Start with the ones the NDP lost by only a few percentage points, and in that category, go whole-hog for all of them, no matter who they're currently held by. But in terms of the ones they lost by more than a few points, prioritize the ridings where a win could unseat a Conservative or someone from the Bloc rather than a Liberal. This isn't about saying that a Liberal is always better than a Tory or a Bloquiste and
picking the "lesser of the evils," but about avoiding the scorched-earth trap and recognizing that after all the campaigning is over, the Liberals will need to be more friend than foe.

Message targeting: Vary the messaging strategy on a riding-by-riding basis, depending on who the incumbent (or if the incumbent is from the NDP, the closest challenger) is. This isn't about changing the message on a riding-by-riding basis, since the full message is the entirety of the "policy vision" and the "contrast with other parties" elements mentioned above--it's about emphasizing the pieces of the message that will help the party attain the particular goals in each riding. The positive policy vision is the same in all ridings, it's only the contrast message that varies. In a riding where a Conservative is the target, the idea is to concentrate on the criticisms against the Tories, in a riding where a Liberal is the target, the idea is to concentrate on the criticisms against the Liberals, &etc. And in a riding where the NDP doesn't stand a chance of winning anyway, the candidates should entirely take the high road, concentrate on presenting a positive vision, and avoid all criticisms of all of the other parties as much as possible. (The idea here is that if things go as expected and they lose, it wouldn't hurt to have run a purely positive campaign, and in the unlikely event of some sort of sweep, it could actually help.)

Now, I'm just a blogger, not a political strategist (thank God!), so I might be totally off-base, and I'd love for somebody more knowledgable than I am to pick apart the inevitable flaws in this post. But from where I sit here in Edmonton-Strathcona, I've been watching the Tories start to do something very similar already--employ a riding-by-riding strategy in which the criticisms are focused squarely on the biggest riding-level electoral threat rather than on the national-level target--and I can't help but wonder whether they might not be on to something.


Anonymous said...

I've posted a similar one on my blog a week ago. It suggests four options for the Grits to operate. My preference would be for the Grits to adopt the neo-Marxist "cultural disposition due to economic anxiety" argument to win the next election. What would happen to you guys if we move further to the left?

"Start with a positive, clearly articulated vision of what the NDP would want to do when in power."

Needs to be changed as to what the NDP hopes to do as a junior coalition partner to the federal Liberals. There cannot be any alternatives if it is your intention to win 40-50 seats and 20per cent of the popular vote.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I don't think that clause needs to be changed, actually. The idea is that the NDP would go into this election still attempting to win the most seats, but with a more nuanced strategy than "Must. Kill. Liberals." Realistically, they probably couldn't succeed in winning the election, but as Ontario found out in 1990, all sorts of weird things can happen under this wonky electoral system, so it doesn't make any sense to concede the election outright.

My real point, though, is that the strategy is the same either way, anyway--if the NDP ended up in power, whether as junior coalition partner or as senior, they'd end up having to work with the Liberals whether they like it or not. And it seems to me that that's something that should be taken into account when planning strategy.

Purple Library Guy said...

Seems to me there's another pragmatic argument for not moving right in an attempt to take up Liberal "space" on the ideological spectrum.
To me the point is that the way our society is set up has squished the amount of ideological "space" taken up by the main parties down to a smaller and smaller field that contains fewer and fewer usable policy options. If the field of possible approaches to political problems available in, say, 1970 were a 100 metre square space, the field of possible options for Liberals and Conservatives right now is about 5m by 5m.

And at that, it's frankly a 5m by 5m space that doesn't happen to contain any solutions of much use for dealing with the problems that are now confronting us or obviously coming soon. This is absolutely the wrong time to abandon the broad field of possibilities that may be of some use to try to squeeze into that little spot that's already crowded with Liberals and Conservatives.
The ideological space to the left of the current Liberals occupies the far left, the left, the centre-left, and what would 20 years ago have been considered the centre and the centre-right. If the NDP keep it, they actually already occupy a tent considerably broader than what the Liberals and Conservatives are squished into. I think frequent NDP efforts to get a foothold in the small space are sabotaging their claim on the larger space. They'd be better off working at using the larger space the other parties have effectively ceded to them.