Progressives in the House: New Opposition Leader. Now What?

Thomas Mulcair was elected as the new leader of the NDP last weekend. Previously, I wrote about what I see as a missing agenda amongst all progressive leaders in Canada. Today, I’ll take a different tack, looking at some of the things progressives can expect going forward, and some opportunities I see to make gains moving towards the next election in 2015.

Thomas Mulcair
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The Conservatives will Test Mulcair, Early and Often
The attacks started early and often, with a news release the night of his election, and a members’ speech decrying him before his first question.

The long-promised austerity budget is short on austerity, but expect a fight on a few fronts.

The Conservative Party is likely challenge Mulcair on some of the NDP’s traditional beliefs and constituencies, attempting to force him back to his party’s traditional corner, or cause a rift. Labour will be one way. They’ve started this in the past year with back-to-work legislation for striking Canada Post and Air Canada workers, and will ramp it up with public service cutbacks. Expect the public service to make a big deal, and the Conservative government to respond accordingly.

Jack Layton, Leaders Tour - Tournée du Chef - Rebecca Blaikie
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The NDP’s ‘Traditional Base’ Will Cause Problems for Mulcair
Mulcair will have to walk a fine line of moving the party to the “centre” in the public’s mind, but also keeping his party’s constituencies happy. As noted above, the Conservatives will likely try to exacerbate any tension between him and, say, unions. In addition, Mulcair is going to have to craft a more thoughtful response to the oil sands – one that satisfies his more militant members, but that also speaks to the aspirations of Western Canadians. Or, as that may be impossible, one that enough people on both sides can live with.

Mulcair Complicates the Liberals’ Obvious Path Back to Official Opposition (Nevermind Government)
The Liberal Party’s best hope was for the NDP to fall back, through one of two ways – losing a significant chunk of their gains in Quebec, or electing a leader who will pull the party further to the left.

Of course, predicting outcomes in politics is a very inexact science. It’s entirely possible that Mulcair will alienate voters in some form, but on the surface he looks like a leader likely to stay the course, and at the very least hold most of the NDP’s gains from the past decade.

That leaves the Liberals in a precarious position – barring a charismatic leader who connects strongly with voters, they’re unlikely to make gains trying to own the centre-left with a similar, more viable moderate party already there. In addition, Mulcair figures to be, if nothing else, an effective advocate in the House, meaning the value of an orator like Bob Rae is diminished as a potential competitive advantage. It may in fact force them to the place they should have gone years ago, which is to evaluate what it means to be a liberal (nevermind a Liberal) today, what one should stand for, and if there’s a place for those beliefs in an independent political party. Some self-reflection that leads to a clear raison d’être would do them good.

The Conservatives Will Get Their Wins. Can The Oppositions Make Them Pyrrhic Wins?
With a majority of seats in both the House and the Senate, it’s likely the Conservatives will be able to pass the legislation they want to. The major impediment would be public opinion. On this, should the Conservatives pursue legislation that will be controversial, or unpopular, the opposition needs to engage the affected parties, working with them to earn support, and ensuring the Conservatives wear any controversial issues in the public eye. In other words, if they’re going to get what they want, make sure it’s at a cost.

Work Needs to Happen Outside of the House
Building on the previous point, the opposition’s ability to affect change legislatively is limited. There are private members’ bills and amendments they can advance (which I’ll talk about in the next section), but the work to build a broader coalition needs to happen off Parliament Hill. It’s both issue-based, rallying support to attempt to stop or at least dilute unpopular legislation, but also in building a broader coalition of voters – one that can realistically form government. Right now, the best chance they have in 2015 is to default into government through Conservative unpopularity – but that’s not sustainable. The fundamentals favour the governing party, and will until there’s a coalition of voters that can realistically win 170 seats (with the seat count increasing to 338 next election).

That Said, the Opposition Can Make Gains By Changing the Terms of Engagement in the House
As noted, the opposition should seek to introduce legislation (which can hopefully pass) that will earn favour with its constituencies (current and potential). Stressing a more collegial environment overall, for example, highlighting instances where it works with government, and enhances, rather than simply opposes legislation, is key. Most importantly, however, would be to change the terms of engagement, bringing a more collegial, collaborative approach, and toning down the rhetoric in Question Period. This will appeal to voters who are tired of the constant bickering and partisanship.

Avnish made a great point on Twitter, saying:

(NDP Leadership Candidate Nathan) Cullen, I think, understood how young Canadians view politics with his coop approach. Results matter, not the party that’s behind it

I agree with that, and think that this is a point where process, rather than policy, can win substantial votes.

There are both challenges and opportunities ahead – I hope last weekend turns out to be a step towards a stronger progressive presence in Canadian politics over the next three and a half years.

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One Response

  1. […] Mulcair’s NDP faces a number of political challenges in preparation for the 2015 election, including expanding its support between the British Columbia […]

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