The New Political Landscape : the NDP Plays a Dangerous Game

It was only two short years ago that the NDP, under the late, great Jack Layton made their best ever showing at the polls. The NDP received 30.6% of the popular vote, just 9 percentage points behind the majority Conservatives. That meant a gain of 67 seats and made the NDP the official opposition for the first time ever. The federal Liberals, for their part, dropped all the way down to 34 seats. The Liberal Party, at that time, appeared to be on its death bed.

After Jack Layton's passing, the NDP elected Thomas Mulcair to the leadership despite some concerns that the he would take the party too far right. After this weekends convention there is little doubt that Mulclair is steering the party toward the center. The problem is that the center (slightly right on economic matters, slightly left on social matters) has been the traditional territory of the Liberals. In 2011 this would have seemed like sound strategy. The Liberals were weak and adrift, but since that time and especially starting today the Liberals are showing new life (to put it mildly).

Newly minted Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is staggeringly popular:

[via David Akin]

This will leave the NDP and the Liberals fighting for the exact same ground and despite their higher numbers the NDP may be in for a tough fight. Recent polls show the Liberals beating, not only the NDP but even the Conservatives and possibly by enough to form a majority government.

Of course we are still, probably, two years from an election and the new Liberal leader has yet to be tested. With that said though there is something about this kind of popular surge that defies conventional wisdom. The NDP and the Tories will go after Trudeau on three primary points:

  1. He is too young and inexperienced.

  2. His policy positions are vague and, in many cases, nonexistent.

  3. He is (related to 2 above) all style and no substance.

Stephen Harper reportedly has ads waiting to say these things. Unlike the attacks on Dion and Ignatieff though, it may not work. The list of 'weaknesses' above is pretty much identical to the list of charges leveled against a young Senator from Illinois in the 2008 Presidential Election. Obama, like Trudeau, was relatively inexperienced in federal politics. He ran on 'hope and change' in kind of a vague, general way but rarely got into specifics. Barack Obama, obviously won in part based on his platform but also in large part because he was charismatic, personable, likable and not George W. Bush.

Both Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper have reputations as alphas and bulldogs, they are both tough and agressive but if they are too agressive they run the risk, like the 2008 Republicans, of coming across as mean spirited. Voters hadn't fully made up their minds about Dion or Ignatieff when the attacks began but they've already decided that they 'like' Trudeau and beating up on someone people like is not the same as beating up on a stranger. Further to this, in debates, if Harper and Mulcair let their agressive natures take over they allow Trudeau to win just by appearing to be confident, reasonable and 'nice'. If you have an actual election between the 'good cop' and the 'bad cop' the bad cop will lose every time, even if they're saying the same things.

So, to return briefly to where I started, this is the fight the NDP has chosen. They have decided that they'd like to take on Trudeau on the Liberal 'home turf' of the center-left. If the NDP has alienated and/or demotivated their socialist caucus they may even be going into the fight with a diminished base.

The primary goal of every self respecting Canadian should be to remove Stephen Harper from power at the earliest  possible opportunity. In the 2015(?) election, strategic voting will definitely be in full effect and, in general, most Canadians will vote for the candidate and party that is most likely to unseat Stephen Harper. It seems that somehow, despite the outcome of the last election, Thomas Mulcair is now the candidate who must prove that he can do that.
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