Should the NDP Renew Itself with a Shoot of Green?

Before our last federal election in 2010, I’d proposed a rationale for the NDP and Green Party to merge (from an NDP perspective). With the NDP leadership convention operating at full speed, now is a great time to reconsider this idea. In fact, one of the NDP’s recurring debate themes involves whether or not the party should undertake some challenges that cut to the heart of its identity. It might seem strange that the NDP consider this now, when it elected more MPs than it ever has in the last election. In the following, I’d like to say why now is the best time to critically examine itself and consider a Green Party merger, and I’d like to say that in the context of things Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen have each proposed.

In 2010, I thought an NDP/Green merger strategy would really attract people to vote for the party. There were two things that I thought needed to happen. First, that the NDP build a certain critical momentum, which it was lacking. Second, that the NDP develop a more current way and vernacular to communicate with Canadians on its social democratic vision, approaches, positions, etc. The electoral success arising from the critical momentum I thought an NDP/Green merger would create is exactly what occurred but it happened in an entirely different way than I’d imagined.

Rather than the NDP picking up momentum from a Green Party merger, it got the momentum from the surge in Quebec voting intentions. The Quebec surge pushing the orange wave, helped convince a lot of people in other provinces (that hadn’t previously voted NDP) to vote for what they believe, and support the NDP.

However, the second thing that I thought needed to happen, developing a way to communicate that resonates in modern Canadian society, did not happen. Even with the swell of support the NDP has picked up, it still didn’t get the numbers required to form a government. I’d opined in 2010 that

“The NDP has to break away from the all-too-common perception many Canadians hold of the NDP. While much of what the NDP wants, might actually be in-line with a large population of Canadians, I believe from what I’ve read and people I’ve talked to, that they somehow cannot see the NDP as a party that embodies the nature of the Canada they would like—but they don’t see this through a critical evaluation of current NDP positions, they see it through historical perceptions dragging on present day sentiments. There is a dissonance between what the NDP actually would like to accomplish and people’s preconceptions of NDP dogma.”

I don’t think the NDP has quite figured out how to appeal to people in a way that gets past those preconceptions. This takes me to the NDP’s current leadership debates. They have an interesting group of candidates, each of which have presented a lot of good ideas. On core NDP issues, it’s difficult to differentiate the candidates’ positions–they’re quite similar. That is not simply my opinion but an opinion that has been repeated frequently by news commentators and bloggers throughout the NDP leadership debates. Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen however, have each presented some of the more controversial ideas.

Nathan Cullen’s idea is that in ridings held by Conservative MPs, the NDP should cooperate with Liberals or Green Party members and only offer voters the one candidate most likely to get elected. Cullen blatently challenges NDP orthodoxy with this idea and asks members to face a difficult question and consider a difficult solution. His challenge is straightforward and worthwhile, considering it is important to keep the party on its toes and open to grey areas. But it’s not a successful proposition.

My understanding is that Cullen thinks cooperation between the entire group of “progressive” voters will bring defeat to the Conservatives. Recognizing that the parties are different and constituents hold different positions, he essentially says that those differences can be temporarily put aside for the cause of unseating Harper’s Conservatives (the Conservative government is thus a worse reality than a bit of pre-election compromise).

Cullen argues admirably for this position. I’ve long been completely against strategic voting, which is essentially what this amounts to, but found myself nearly swayed by his arguments. Still, in the end it doesn’t sit right. There isn’t a solid way to overcome the feeling that this cooperation disenfranchises some voters. Worse, just because A isn’t B, doesn’t mean A is more similar to C. That is to say, an NDP voter that disagrees with Conservative approaches or positions may disagree just as much with Liberal approaches or positions–they are three very different parties. Cooperation under a “progressive” banner doesn’t really make sense without strongly complementary parties. Additionally, such cooperation also risks splitting up some of the parties’ bases in a way that could inadvertantly help the Conservatives. This is explored in statistics from 2nd choice vote intentions1 in the last election.

Instead let’s look at Thomas Mulcair’s challenge. Mulcair’s challenge, on the surface, sounds more timid than Cullen’s. Exploring it, I think it’s actually a more ambitious proposition and much more likely to be a successful choice. In a sense, he also argues to bring “progressives” together except Mulcair’s method is to convince non-NDP “progressives” that the NDP is the right choice. When accused of wanting to move the NDP toward the centre of the political spectrum, Thomas Mulcair has repeatedly countered that he instead wants to move the centre to the NDP. In a Toronto Star article (10 February 2012)2, Mulcair explained:

“We have to renew. We’re one of the only social democratic parties to never have renewed itself. One of the things that we did in Quebec was that we reached out beyond our traditional base.

We identified ourselves as progressives but we didn’t stick with some of the 1950s boilerplate.”

Note, that this statement doesn’t provide any evidence that Mulcair wants to move the party toward the centre. He’s addressing a problem that the way the NDP communicates its vision and agenda can come across as sounding tied to past stereotypes. Like it was crafted to address the issues of a populace from, as Mulcair puts it, the 1950s. Canadian society today is very different. We communicate in different mediums using different ways of expressing ourselves. Issues that are most important today, while in some cases were also important in the past, have a modern context, which isn’t properly addressed through an aging political vernacular.

For example, if you consider the recent “Occupy” protests you see that, though they remain significant, we don’t talk about class struggles in the same way as we used to. We have new environmental concerns that impact our everyday lives in ways that weren’t even conceivable previously. Warfare is different, we have “cyberattacks”, and there is a whole host of other issues that link together because of our modern technology, which we didn’t count on in years past. Slogans that used to help people propel messages often sound quaint now (or sometimes border on silly)–it’s easy for everyone to get details on the ramifications of just about any position, instantaneously online. We need to think about the content of slogans or soundbites operating differently and addressing the current, modern context.

What Mulcair proposes is hard because it requires that the NDP open a critical eye on itself when it’s at its most successful time in history (if success is measured by quantity of MPs). Mulcair’s proposition doesn’t necessarily entail that the NDP has to change any of its positions but it does mean that positions the NDP has, it has to really focus on ways of communicating that speak to people outside the core base of NDP voters while keeping that base firm. The NDP has to really free itself of stereotypes, which too many Canadians lazily fall back on as excuses not to vote NDP.

Those arguing against Mulcair’s challenge often point out that the NDP got its best results ever by largely sticking with its way of communicating. Continuing to do that risks causing the party to plateau and stop growing. It won a record number of seats but never enough to form a government. Now it needs to capitalize on those and go further. The way not to plateau is to fearlessly face itself and do the extra work Thomas Mulcair recommends. It’d be nice if the “new” in New Democratic Party took on some significance about a party that’s willing to constantly renew itself, critically facing its own approaches to ensure they’re relevent and meaningful.

The difficulty in Mulcair’s challenge is in the how. How can the NDP renew without straying from important social democratic principles that make it the NDP. How can the NDP develop a modern political vernacular that’s truly indicative of current social contexts? As a possible answer, I suggest again that the NDP and Green Party merge.

Reading the platforms of both the NDP and the Green Party, I found that they rarely contradict each other, frequently are pushing for the same things in the same ways, and where they do not, the platforms are usually complementary.

It’s interesting how the NDP, by nature of its fundamental principles, tends to approach issues with care for systemic problems. I think the social democratic worldview tends to require seeing a bigger picture and how things relate. The NDP doesn’t always communicate this through a lense that meshes with our modern discourse. The Green Party, by contrast, is newer. It frequently terms its policies in the context of a holistic approach and doesn’t get bogged down speaking to a legacy of stereotypes. It also, perhaps because of its more recent origins, does a good job of defining many of its issues in a vernacular that seems at home in current discourse. The NDP would benefit from using some of the Green Party’s discourse to influence and invigorate its own. This could happen in a productive way, through the discussions and planning that would have to ensue if the parties were to merge.

Getting the Green Party to merge with the NDP would not only increase numbers, it would open up an ideal, structured opportunity for the NDP to renew itself. Finally, rather than risk distorting the electoral process in an awkward form of cooperation, merging the Greens with the NDP would unite a significant portion of what is generally considered the “progressive” vote. It would do it in a way that gets member buy-in without risk of disenfranchising anyone and less risk of turning off core supporters. It supports a process of renewal to carry the NDP beyond what it’s accomplished thus far.

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