Keeping One's Finger On The Pulse Of The Electorate
4 years ago, I worked on the longest federal campaign in modern history in Canada. 78 days of phone calls, emails, social media posts, and poll watching. As the campaign wore on, the federal Liberals were starting to gain ground. While former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair had been a tour de force in Parliament, holding Stephen Harper's Conservative government to account on multiple scandals in the House of Commons, he was decidedly ineffective on the campaign trail. When the NDP's platform was unveiled less than three weeks before Election Day, I could almost feel a collective "meh" whispered across Canada. It was uninspired, timid, and sorely lacking in bold measures to turn the country's economic fortunes around. Focusing on balanced budgets just like the Conservatives did, while at the same time trotting out a "happy Grandpa" image of their leader, this led to a dismal 3rd place finish for the NDP.
Tom Mulcair's "Cool Grandpa" image didn't take with voters
There were many angles taken after that campaign was over, from the Liberals outflanking the NDP on the left, to the stance Thomas Mulcair took on the niqab issue in Quebec, to strategic voting in order to "Stop Harper" at all costs. A number of NDP party strategists and pundits were quick to point out that the reason for the platform's balanced budget promise was that they wanted to dispel the narrative that the NDP were spend-thrift and careless, and to quash the inevitable "but how are you going to pay for it" questions. However, that line of reasoning belied the reality of the campaign. Voters wanted to stop Stephen Harper's government of austerity, and they wanted their government to invest in Canada again. They didn't seem to care about balanced budgets, and the NDP missed the mark completely.
Playing It Safe Cost More Than The Election
Meanwhile, in 2016, the US had a general election of their own. Donald Trump was chosen as the Republican nominee, and the choice for Democrats boiled down to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. As was the case in Canada, the American voters chose to go with a more traditionally liberal candidate, rather than the democratic socialist alternative (even though many head-to-head polls showed Bernie Sanders winning against Trump in key battleground states). The result was a win for Republicans, and a Donald Trump presidency. This was despite the fact that Trump said objectively awful things during the campaign, such as saying that Mexicans were 'rapists', or openly mocking a disabled reporter, or even claiming he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York and not lose any voters.
Once again, there was an appetite for change in that election as there was in the 2015 Canadian federal election. However, voters in the US did not see Hillary Clinton as the driver of change that they were looking for. Many people saw her as another 'establishment Democrat' that would serve the interests of the rich and powerful. For better or worse, a large voting bloc chose Donald Trump as their agent of change, notwithstanding his clear lack of political experience or even basic human decency.
Around the same time, in the UK, voters decided in a referendum to leave the European Union. Dubbed "Brexit", this referendum began a lengthy journey towards formal withdrawal from the EU's economic agreement it had reached with the original six founding members. Negotiations were set to begin the following year. In the midst of these negotiations, the UK's Labour party re-elected Jeremy Corbyn in a bitterly contested leadership campaign. A socialist through and through, Corbyn was very outspoken in his opposition to Brexit, and campaigned with the "Remain" side of the referendum. Following the general election, however, it became apparent that Corbyn's support to remain in the EU was 'lukewarm' at best. The governing Conservatives were reduced to a minority, and did not have sufficient support to formalize the country's withdrawal from the EU in a timely fashion. Throughout the process, there was a massive campaign against Brexit, and for a 're-do' of the original referendum.
Right Wing Resurgence Begins
In early 2018, the Ontario Liberal government was in complete disarray, decidedly unpopular, and was soon facing an election with 2 strong opposition parties. At the time, polls showed the Ontario PC Party with approximately 41% support and looking like it would cruise to an easy majority. However, four months before the election was due to begin, its leader at the time Patrick Brown was forced to resign due to ongoing allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault. It triggered a swift leadership campaign, and in the end, Doug Ford was chosen as the new leader of the Ontario PCs amid a contentious leadership ballot count. When the election began, the Ontario NDP started making gains against the Ontario PCs, at the expense of the Liberals. When the result became clear to Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne, she began a flurry of missives on Twitter to attempt to convince voters not to give either party a majority, with a particular focus on how bad the NDP would be:
5 days later, the Ontario PCs cruised to an easy majority with 40.5% of the vote. The Liberals were reduced to 7 seats, and the Ontario NDP formed the Official Opposition. Since then, the Ontario government has been widely criticized for its cuts to services, particularly in education, health care and child care. The situation has become so volatile in Ontario that the government eventually began to walk back some of its planned cuts after months of protests.
In late 2017, after a brief leadership campaign, the federal NDP chose Jagmeet Singh as their new party leader. Jagmeet Singh won nearly 58% of the vote, with Charlie Angus running a distant second and Niki Ashton and Guy Caron finishing 3rd and 4th, respectively. While the party at the time wasn't all that concerned with Jagmeet Singh not having a seat in Parliament, there also seemed to be a lack of urgency to get him out on the hustings to meet the electorate outside of Ontario.
Over the next year, the NDP languished in the polls, averaging between 12-15% nationally. Donations to the party seemed to be drying up. Even after Jagmeet Singh appointed Guy Caron to be the party's House leader in Parliament, the NDP waited until the winter of 2018 to decide where Jagmeet Singh was to run for a seat in the House of Commons. Choosing the BC riding of Burnaby South, after former MP Kennedy Stewart resigned in order to run for mayor of Vancouver, the NDP held the seat in the subsequent by-election.
Nine months later, the general election in Canada took place. At the outset, it seemed as though the election was less about replacing the Liberals with either the Conservatives or NDP, and more about preventing any one party from having a majority. Leading up to the campaign, the NDP was still sitting at under 15% in national polls, with at least one or two even putting the federal Green party in 3rd place ahead of the NDP. In the end, the Liberals retained power with a minority government, with the Conservatives making considerable gains as the Official Opposition. The NDP lost 20 seats and ended up with 24 seats, while the Greens gained a seat and now had 3 in the House of Commons.
As if that wasn't bad enough, in Alberta the political landscape made a hard right turn. The United Conservative Party, led by Jason Kenney (yes, THIS Jason Kenney) defeated the Alberta NDP in the 2019 Alberta election. Shortly thereafter, the government moved to clamp down on their misdeeds by using Bill 22 to fire the election commissioner, thereby knee-capping his investigation into Jason Kenney's leadership campaign, where more allegations of irregularities in the voting process plagued the UCP.
A government back-bencher MLA, Dan Williams, also introduced Bill 207, which sought to amend conscience rights for physicians in Alberta (there is already existing federal legislation), specifically when it comes to referrals for abortions, medically assisted death, and gender affirming surgeries. If passed, Bill 207 would give physicians the right to refuse treatment AND referrals, based on religious objections. As expected, there was wide condemnation of the bill, from LGBTQ advocates, MAID physicians and advocates, as well as medical professionals from across the country. I even got the chance to speak with Jillian Ratti about this bill last month and covered this issue in another blog post.
Can The Left Win An Election?
Fast forward to the present, where after another general election in the UK, yet another Conservative government posted a resounding majority win. While there is still much to be decided in terms of how Brexit will move forward, there have been many articles dissecting the results of that election. Of particular interest, I recommend you read these articles here, here, and here. However, when I started to look at the data from the election returns, it became increasingly clear that there are more forces at play than just opinion polls or election promises:
There has also been widespread talk of media bias in the UK election against Jeremy Corbyn, as well as in past elections in Canada against the NDP, and in the US against Bernie Sanders. It's no secret that media corporations have been getting larger and consolidating into fewer options for voters and the general public. So the question remains, how does the left get elected? Well for starters, there has to be a cohesive message, and it needs to start with the party leaders. Too many left-wing parties fall victim to infighting, to wild conspiracy theories, to personality cults. However, that doesn't mean that political leaders have to be completely void of any personality at all. They just have to realize that the movement is bigger than they are, and that there need to be long-term strategies for success built to last long after their time is up.
This also means that the leaders chosen have to at the very least believe in the movements they become a part of. In Canada's context, former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has been extremely critical of current leader Jagmeet Singh and the NDP's political path, since he was ousted in 2016 at the NDP's Edmonton convention. But even while Mulcair was leader of the party and was holding Stephen Harper's feet to the fire during Question Period, questions about his loyalties were ever-present. So it was almost unsurprising to see him criticize Singh for his perceived lack of leadership skills.
Cohesion also means that the party platforms need to engage voters at the emotional level, as well as the intellectual level. Left wing parties have often been criticized of having platforms that are too verbose, too technical, and laden with political speak that the average voter doesn't engage well with. However, none of the party platforms in the last federal election in Canada were any more or less technical or detailed than the other. The difference was in the messaging the parties ran with during the campaign. The Liberals had "Choose Forward", the Conservatives had "It's Time For You To Get Ahead", the NDP had "In It For You", the Greens had "Not Left. Not Right. Forward", and the People's Party had "Strong and Free". However, in the NDP's case, they already had "A New Deal for People" as well as "On Your Side" messaging for the election, and although the Greens, Conservatives and PPC had objectively terrible slogans, the Liberals were able to use their simple slogan of "Choose Forward" to convince enough soft voters to stay with them.
The final pieces of the puzzle lay in the parties being able to get their message out, and that means being engaged with their membership. Over the years, the NDP has struggled to maintain its membership numbers, and it has had problems raising money. The Liberals and Conservatives in Canada have a lot of traditional support among richer Canadians and their corporate friends, so it's more important now than ever that left-wing parties like the NDP and Greens use creative methods to attract new members, retain existing ones, and raise enough cash to fight back against the corporate narrative.
One approach that has worked in the United States is that of the Bernie Sanders campaign. They have tapped into voter frustration as well as been able to raise record levels of campaign donations by sticking to simple, effective messaging and low number asks in their fundraising. It should also be noted that Bernie Sanders himself has been consistently popular as a politician over the years, and his own personal messaging has not deviated much since he was first elected as mayor in Burlington back in the early 1980s.
Bernie Sanders comments on left wing parties in the US and in Canada.
Whatever approach the left takes, it must be decisive, without compromise, and bold in its convictions. Socialists need to be brave and not be concerned with what the pundits say, with what the media says, or what the polls say. It also cannot afford to pre-occupy itself with purity of language or whether it plays nice with the powers of institutions that have a predisposition with enacting laws that harm people. The time for civility is at an end. We can no longer afford to wait until climate change is irreversible, or the right wing corporate class has pushed working people to the margins of the cities they live in. We must unite and fight back with everything, and everyone, we have.
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