Time is of the essence. It looks like we’re going to the polls in February or March (thank you, Karlheinz Schreiber), and we cannot let this opportunity to defeat Stephen Harper slip through our fingers.
John Baird’s last-minute climate change cave-in notwithstanding, the whole world is watching – literally.
Polls show Canadians get it. Baird’s Bali bull is out of step with the majority. But with the right united and the centre-left parties each individually weak and competing for the same voters, how will we translate our numbers into a political mandate?
Without a paradigm shift in the way the Liberals, Greens and particularly the NDP conduct politics among themselves, we won’t.
There are just too many ridings in which hopeless Green and NDP campaigns will take enough votes to do each other or the Liberals in – and vice versa. That’s how we got Harper.
We need to see real results in the next four years. The fate of humanity may actually be at stake. We can’t leave getting there to the roll of the dice on election day, hoping Schreiber will be our magic bullet.
What we actually require is a new level of political discussion and collaboration that rises above the pure partisanship of old. The environment isn’t just an issue any more. It’s about attuning ourselves to realities that go radically beyond the old frames. That is just as true for politics as it is for everything else.
We need something very new to Canada, a centre-left-green coalition – an electoral coalition at the very least. Stephane Dion and Green leader Elizabeth May have already shown an interest.
But the truly big shift is that this new form of political cross-engagement can’t just be something the leaders do. It will need to happen at the grassroots as well.
It’s actually the NDP, from top to bottom, that’s in the deepest trouble right now. And it’s the party that’s in the pivotal position to either block or make this coalition happen. Should the NDP rise to this unprecedented opportunity to lead in the next few months, that decision could well be its political salvation.
Right now, NDP leader Jack Layton faces the classic strategic-voting nightmare. Dion will be stealing his thunder not just on the environment but all over the policy map, from poverty to seniors and beyond. Layton’s tired and excluding “working families” spin isn’t going to convince anybody that “only he can stand up to Stephen Harper.” Because he can’t.
There’s no time for rhetorical flourishes ungrounded in reality. It would be completely self-defeating to follow Tinkerbell advice and “choose hope” again, as Layton asked us to do last time, or the new slogan, “Choose peace,” when the party can deliver on neither.
Why “vote for hope” knowing we’ll just wind up with Harper instead?
Desperate to carve out turf for himself, Layton’s old-school, highly partisan approach during this government session has led to a serious loss of credibility. Take the Liberal- and Bloc-supported motion last spring that would have set an actual deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Layton’s refusal to support that motion on the grounds of a too-long timeline was bizarre to any but the most ultra-left. If not for the NDP’s votes, our troops would right now be preparing to come home in early 2009.
Throwing his vote with Harper, Layton gave the impression that he would rather score debating points against the Liberals than get anything important done.
He needs to show Canadians he can lead us toward real – not just symbolic – accomplishments, or the party could well be wiped off the map. This time, the party needs to find a new way to dance with the Liberals and the Greens.
First, we have to be completely honest with ourselves no matter where we sit on the centre-left-green spectrum. There are only two possible choices for prime minister. Stephane Dion it must be.
In addition to being the only choice, Dion is not a bad choice. Demonizing him (or Elizabeth May) in the tradition of former NDP federal campaigning will only serve to discredit the NDP itself.
Dion has actual environmental cred and will not be George Bush’s yes-man on the world stage. That is job one right now. And, unlike the Tories, the Libs do not make an ideology out of bankrupting the state. That is crucial.
Yes, the Liberals have an appalling record on Kyoto, but everyone knows they follow but do not lead public opinion. Unlike in the Martin/Chretien days, the new urgency about global warming provides political capital for action. This and Dion’s enviro rep make for a promising combo.
And no matter how Layton slings the mud, Dion’s left-leaning campaign promises focusing on poverty aren’t completely hollow in the context of the Kelowna Accord and national daycare policy we almost got before the NDP pulled the rug out from under the previous Liberal minority government.
Dion is doing what’s expected right now – talking to the left about not wasting their votes on the NDP. But the Liberals know they need to think outside the box because they have a leader with no magnetism and no TV appeal or campaign money. It’s a challenging thought, but that’s an opening the NDP could step into.
Dion’s extraordinary deal with Green party leader Elizabeth May last April was an example of their willingness to move beyond the tried and true. Dion promised not to run a candidate against May in her Central Nova riding, currently held by Conservative Peter Mackay, and she promised not to run a Green against him in his home riding.
It’s a good prototype except that the Liberals came in third last round in Central Nova. The NDP, which lost by only 3,273 votes, was left out of the equation.
To her credit, May says she knew when she made the deal that popular NDPer Alexis MacDonald, who pulled those votes, had confirmed that she wouldn’t be running this time out.
When the deal was announced. Layton did what he thought he had to do. He huffed and he puffed: shame shame, shame. But none of that is going to change the fact that if the NDP were to join the gang-up in Central Nova, May would almost certainly defeat Peter Mackay.
And in return, I’m sure the Greens would back off some other riding where their support spoils a high hope for the NDP. That’s two seats closer to positive climate change negotiations than we are now.
But is it democratic? Well, that all depends on how it’s done. Here’s where the new politics of the whole come in. We now understand that we all need to take personal responsibility for how we treat the planet in addition to demanding corporate and political change of others.”
So, too, must the NDP grassroots and individual campaigns in particular take responsibility for the whole of their behaviours, not just their good intentions. The change we need can’t just come from the party leader’s dictates any more.
And that is true for the Liberals and Greens as well.
Let’s take the Central Nova riding as an example. If Layton swooped down and said to first-time NDP candidate Louise Lorefice and her riding exec that she should step down and support May, there would be howls from one end of the country to the other. It would be a political disaster that would serve no one.
If Lorefice and her riding executive, however, sat down together and democratically decided to lie low and suggest campaign workers support other campaigns this time around, who could assail them? That’s the power the word “democratic” in the name “NDP” gives them.
If they connected with Greens running some other hopeless campaigns spoiling the NDP’s chances and asked that they deploy their troops elsewhere in return, wouldn’t that just be grassroots democracy in action? The weak Liberals and needy Greens have shown that they are open.
And it isn’t just candidates and party execs who need to get engaged. We all know our own ridings. Let’s make our feelings known to local party execs and candidates ASAP.
What if any of us who are asked to donate money for any of these vote-splitting campaigns sent our support back with the comment “Don’t use this money to elect a Tory”? Or if we decided not to contribute, one that says, “I won’t contribute to elect a Conservative”? That could work to open the minds of party stalwarts.
Of course, it isn’t all in the hands of the grassroots. With even a few of these types of grassroots initiatives giving him permission to change course, Layton could start to work politically to ensure his party gets more seats and political clout from the deal.
But first, as leader, Layton needs to develop a new, less partisan style of communication than we have seen from him so far. He basically needs to rise above the “I’m the only one who’s right and everyone else is wrong and bad and should be ashamed of themselves” posturing of the past.
Listen, no one in his or her right mind wants to work with people who spew this kind of attitude. Who wants that in a leader any more? It’s an insult to our intelligence. We are now savvy enough psychologically – thank you, Oprah – to know this is actually the language of low self-esteem.
Imagine an NDP that, in addition to pointing out shortcomings, was able to acknowledge the accomplishments of others even if they don’t come from the party. That would turn heads and model a new approach that could lead to greatness.
Here’s a politically painless example of how Layton could start laying down some new inter-party architecture and go beyond the alienating partisanship we’ve seen too often. He could make it known right away that he supports May’s right to participate in the leaders’ debate. She’s earned it personally and at the polls. Democracy demands it.
The only excuse for the NDP to shut her out is narrow self-interest. Layton would gain new-school political points, and the delicate process that needs to unfold could begin. Come on, let’s get started.