Toronto Star

NDP repeats same mistakes so it achieves same results

- ISH THEILHEIME­R Ish Theilheime­r has held top positions in the Ontario NDP, including vice-president and leader’s adviser. He lives in Golden Lake, Ont.

Another election, another disappoint­ment for the federal NDP. It’s chronic. Of course it’s always going to be uphill for the party, but that’s no excuse. The party’s leadership appears to have a culture that causes it to repeat the same mistakes, campaign after campaign. For instance:

When the NDP’s leader polls highest in popularity in the pre-election period, the NDP usually plans a “popular leader” campaign that plays up the leader and plays down policies the party’s brass thinks might be unpopular. Thomas Mulcair’s one and only campaign was this way, as was Jagmeet Singh’s in 2021. In 2014, the party smothered “Angry Tom,” who exposed and critically weakened Stephen Harper in favour of “Smiling Tom” — to disastrous results. In 2021, with the climate crisis and social justice on the minds of switchable younger voters, the party played up the leader and failed to proclaim a vision. “We can do better” just isn’t a clarion call.

NDP campaigns are often tone-deaf. The NDP campaign in my own very conservati­ve riding was fuelled by younger activists coming from the climate change and social justice movements.

They motivated many new activists and achieved the highest vote for the NDP in the riding since the ’70s. That kind of energy undoubtedl­y exists across Canada, but Singh’s tax-the-rich, do-better campaign failed to tap into it.

One of the treasured credos of the NDP is “stay on message.” In the past, this made some sense. In today’s environmen­t, with news cycles measured in hours, if not minutes, staying on message often means relegating oneself to meaningles­sness. Singh’s repeatedly having to fall back on tax-the-rich rhetoric as the debate changed in the campaign undoubtedl­y left a lot of voters cold. The game changed a lot through this campaign — from “Stop O’Toole” to “Stop Trudeau” but the NDP simply plodded along on message and of no real relevance or interest to national media.

Much of the lack of relevance comes from the party’s lack of candour. Part of the NDP culture is to never admit it cannot be elected to govern. Therefore, it never gets to play its best hand — as a crucial player with balance of power in a minority setting. It was astounding that Singh did not emphasize his own truly significan­t Parliament­ary achievemen­ts during Trudeau’s last minority government. If only he’d said, “Vote NDP and we’ll keep the Liberals on track,” instead of pretending to run for government; that candour would have attracted attention from media and support from voters. Always saying, “We are running to govern,” makes the party look delusional.

This ties in closely to Mouseland — Tommy Douglas’s revered fable that is so much at the heart of the NDP’s culture. In Mouseland, NDP founder Douglas argued that both Liberals and Conservati­ves are the same, just different-coloured cats, from the point of view of little guys — mice. It’s a nice fable, but it doesn’t always stand up. There are good reasons for progressiv­es to dislike Liberal government­s, but to argue that Liberals and Conservati­ves are basically the same, and to threaten to support Conservati­ves, as Singh did in this campaign (thought not in the last, which was helpful at the time), is seen as dangerous. Most Canadians have noticed sharp difference­s between Liberal and Conservati­ve government­s; they are by no means the same and saying so makes the NDP look out of touch.

Finally, the NDP never seems to have an end game (see “staying on message”). How, especially, does it counteract predictabl­e Liberal calls at the campaign’s end for strategic voting to stop the Conservati­ves? Usually, the party does this by hiding from the issue, asserting it doesn’t exist. In my riding this year, the young NDP campaign activists attacked the issue by publicizin­g polling data that appeared to show the NDP as having the best chance at beating the incumbent Conservati­ve. Guess what? The NDP, which has finished third federally here since the1970s, finished second by a long margin and ahead of their party’s national percentage, which hardly ever happens.

It is unfortunat­e the NDP leadership continues to repeat past mistakes, to the party’s and Canada’s detriment.

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