Provincial NDP leader Howard Hampton told loyal supporters on election night in his Fort Frances headquarters, "I'm not going anywhere," after the party's slightly improved 2007 vote totals. He meant he'd be staying on as head of the party, but he was accurately predicting the NDP's fortunes in the years ahead if it continues on its unelectable path.
The party has become too efficient at putting an upbeat spin on downward or dead results, and claiming moral victories from very visceral defeats. The latest spin on its lame-assed showing in this year's vote is just another delusional take.
In 1990, the NDP formed a provincial government with 37.6 per cent of the popular vote and 74 seats. This year it won 10 seats and 16.7 of the popular vote. Why is anybody in orange land smiling?
NDPers whisper that they are still years away from shaking the public hate for their only elected premier, turncoat Bob Rae. But the Conservatives are at least back in the running with Ontario voters despite the more recent reviled reign of PC Mike Harris.
The fact is, the NDP lost because its members don't even contemplate winning. It's as if the party's 1990 rule were some distant Summer of Love memory, a freakish convergence to be nostalgic for but never to make happen again.
There's always an excuse for the party's languishing on the sidelines, and this time we're to believe the NDP wasn't heard because John Tory's belly flops and gaffes drowned out its message.
Yet other parties did well campaigning on the very platforms that should be heavily identified with the social democratic party. The Green party, which barely existed in 1990, scored huge popular-support gains pushing the environment, an issue NDP supporters thought their party owned.
And as Mayor David Miller correctly points out, the Liberal party was re-elected defending - and selling - increased taxes to better our quality of life. This defence of public service spending has been a cornerstone of the NDP. The vision of better schools and more efficient hospitals has caught on with Ontario voters, so why aren't they getting the message from the NDP?
The NDP's campaign - and it's the same situation for the federal party - sounds like you've heard it before. It didn't sell then, so why would it sell now? NDP leaders drone on about the rights of "working families" and invoke other compromise-created, flat phrases to deaden the passion of their potential politics of hope.
Dalton McGuinty looked compassionate, John Tory and Frank De Jong came across as visionary and passionate, while Hampton and his NDP were dull and dreary, the good-for-you medicine nobody wanted to take.
Party members should be horrified that the NDP finished behind the Greens in any ridings at all, and ashamed of the series of 2,000-to- 3,000-vote finishes its candidates endured across Ontario. This is a party in crisis, no longer the default choice of those who want to protest or even change things. Voters aren't rejecting NDP ideas of public services and defending the environment, they're rejecting the NDP.
It's not a Howard Hampton problem; it's a party problem. Until the NDP stops building its campaign around getting re-elected in its handful of semi-safe, working-family-rich ridings, it'll remain a minority voice.
It needs political shock therapy so its well-incubated ideology can sound as fresh as the Greens' and as attainable as the Liberal party's. It needs to toss over the table and start again, take chances with how it expresses itself and dare to be exciting. Hampton was at his best in the campaign when briefly, near they end, he freaked out at reporters and berated them for not caring about the "real issues." If he'd been that passionate throughout the race, the people would have responded. Don't say the safe thing; say the scintillating thing. When McGuinty invoked a compassionate province full of caring and sharing during his excellent victory speech, he sounded like an NDPer - and that's what Ontarians were happy to vote for. Maybe with some changes, next time they'll vote for the NDP, not just for its policies.
10 WAYS TO RESCUE THE NDP
1. Take a risk on an exciting young leader like Adam Giambrone after a few more years on council, or on George Stroumboulopoulos (c'mon, he loves Tommy Douglas) when he tires of his Hour gig close to 2011. Don't be afraid to look outside the tired party pool; this isn't thinking outside the box, it's thinking outside the coffin. From Michael Ignatieff to Brian Mulroney and John Tory, the traditional parties have never been afraid to try someone without legislative experience, so why is the NDP so timid? Beg Sarah Harmer to run for a seat to help Save the Niagara Escarpment in the Burlington/Oakville area.
2. Stop whining and sell a vision of hope. Watch Mr. Smith Goes To Washington 100 times. People love dreams and dreamers. Offer more sizzle and less grimy ground beef.
3. Don't accept "career candidates," lovable losers who keep running in no-chance ridings. Try recruiting exciting new faces who might actually break through instead of repeating past defeats.
4. Create think tanks of progressives - no, screw that, throw loud parties for appropriate activists - and get like-minded people who haven't been around the party for years to give their take on why they've lost interest and how the party can again be a choice.
5. Lose the green on lawn signs and go with a unified orange look. While a little late, the decision to finally give the public a colour to hang on the party was a wise move into identifiability with a positive pigment that suggests fresh.
6. Never use the term "working families" again. Who isn't for working families? And using the word "working" so front-and-centre and so often just feels like, you know, work.
7. Remember the party's agrarian roots. Farmers and urbanites in Ontario could come together around preserving agricultural land, creating safe farming practices and providing healthy, local food for cities.
8. Lose the Bob Rae apologia. He's the Liberals' problem now. Hell, the fact that he bailed showed he was never a real NDPer when he was making all those crazy calls. Spin, dammit, spin.
9. Reach out. Spend less time at the Labour Day march at the CNE and more at V Fest on Centre Island next Labour Day weekend. The NDP will find more potential new voters at events like rock fests than it will waging shadow-puppet battles at tired and nostalgic labour movement events.
10. Get the progressive pickle out of your ass and smile when you say that, pardner. Lighten the fuck up and sell some more dreams and less detail-drenched strategy.