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Election 2015

Turns Out, the NDP Just Wasn't Ready

With a campaign strategy that failed to inspire, it squandered the chance of a generation.

Bill Tieleman 27 Oct

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

"I think we emerged from this with a lot of hope for where we can go from here... We have a lot of opportunity going forward." -- Anne McGrath, NDP 2015 election campaign director

What?! Let me get this straight: the NDP blew its best chance of winning government in history, squandered its lead and dropped by 59 seats -- over half from the 103 it won in 2011 -- and there's "a lot of hope" after the election?

The NDP also lost one million votes from 2011, despite higher turnout, and for the first time in Canadian history saw a third party, Justin Trudeau's Liberals, leap frog over the Official Opposition to win 184 seats -- and there's "a lot of opportunity?"

McGrath's comments are delusional. The NDP's monumental defeat was so devastating that it may take a generation before even a chance to form government happens again.

But McGrath wasn't alone. NDP leader Tom Mulcair's special advisor Brad Lavigne's statements were equally absurd.

"It went so well, for quite some time," Lavigne told Global TV on election night from Mulcair's Montreal campaign headquarters. "Mr. Mulcair ran an incredibly strong campaign and had the support of a good number of Canadians for, I think, 55 of the 78 days, so a lot to be proud of."

"Are you not stunned by these results? This is not at all what you guys had gamed out," an incredulous Global reporter Mike Le Couteur asked.

"This was certainly going to be an election about change. And Mr. Mulcair was a big part of that. He paved the way with the prosecution of Mr. Harper in the last number of years in the House of Commons and in the first number of weeks in this campaign," Lavigne replied.

"I guess, if there's anything to take away it's that we weren't able to be that agent for change on election day. But so much to be proud of, so many wonderful incumbents returning to Ottawa, so many new folks in our caucus..." Lavigne smilingly concluded.

A lot to be proud of? The NDP lost one-third of its support from 2011 and dropped to just 16 seats in what was its 59-seat Quebec power base, while losing all its Atlantic and Toronto MPs.

And it didn't go well enough for high-profile NDP MPs Megan Leslie, Peter Stouffer, Jack Harris, Paul Dewar or Pat Martin, who all lost their seats -- nor for defeated MPs Jinny Sims and Jasbir Sandhu in Surrey, B.C.

Even the late NDP leader Jack Layton's Toronto Danforth seat was lost to the Liberals, while his wife Olivia Chow lost by a two-to-one margin trying to win back a seat in Toronto's Spadina-Fort York.

This kind of denial from the party's senior campaign officials does no good; rather, it tries to deny the need for a critical analysis of what went wrong.

Mulcair has now appointed McGrath to set up a review commission to an election post-mortem.

Let's consider this an open submission.

Battles of the blands

First, the federal NDP's 2015 loss and the failed campaign strategy are hardly unique. Take a look at the depressing BC NDP campaign of 2013, when the BC Liberals snatched away what many assumed was a guaranteed victory for the provincial New Dems.

There was also the disastrous Olivia Chow campaign for mayor of Toronto, where she fell from frontrunner to a "jaw dropping" third.

Then there is the thumping the NDP took in the federal byelection in Chow's former Toronto riding at the hands of Liberal Adam Vaughn, as well as the 2014 Ontario NDP provincial campaign by leader Andrea Horwath that alienated some supporters while ensuring Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne won a majority government.

Those NDP "battle of the blands" recent campaigns all had several elements in common:

• A mistaken belief that a conservative, play it safe, front-runner, government-in-waiting type strategy would succeed no matter what;

• A focus on risk-averse platforms designed not to rock the boat with centrist voters who might worry what an NDP government would do;

• Running like pale Liberals instead of colourful New Democrats, leaving voters to pick the real thing over the imitation version;

• Weak, mostly content-free advertising focused on the leader only;

• Very few strong social democratic campaign promises that might excite the base; and

• An inability to pivot as circumstances changed during the election.

When the NDP moves to a boring middle road, its Liberal opponents have been able to outflank it on the left -- despite their centre-right governing records -- and offer a more exciting, vibrant brand of government activism than the bureaucratic New Democrats are willing to provide.

In some of these campaigns, senior party officials like McGrath and Lavigne, along with former federal NDP leadership runner-up Brian Topp (now Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's chief of staff), Nathan Rotman, and other NDP veterans played key roles.

For example, Topp ran then BC NDP leader Adrian Dix's 2013 campaign with Lavigne and McGrath assisting, and several senior federal NDP veterans were involved in the Chow mayoralty campaign.

But regardless of the cast, the plot is all too familiar: a campaign that begins with high hopes of victory ends in bitter defeat.

A bad start that got worse

The 2015 campaign that many thought would see Mulcair as Canada's first NDP prime minister started badly and steadily got worse.

At his August campaign launch, Mulcair inexplicably tore a page from Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "alienate the media" playbook and refused to take questions from reporters.

In just the first hour of his campaign, Mulcair managed to echo the disdainful tone Harper took with the media throughout his tenure -- a bad sign indeed to a national press gallery that expected more from the NDP.

Mulcair also refused to participate in national debates unless the media-despising Harper was present -- that meant ditching the national television broadcasters' consortium English debate. With neither the prime minister nor opposition leader willing to take part, what has been the most watched TV debate in the past was cancelled.

Mulcair also bailed out of a debate on women's issues for the same reason.

But those serious missteps weren't fatal, and indeed Mulcair didn't shun the media quite like that again. It was the next one that was.

Balanced budget 'a fatal error'

Astonishingly, on Aug. 25 Mulcair announced that an NDP government would balance the federal budget immediately and thereafter, despite Canada being in a technical recession and despite NDP plans for significant spending on a national child care program and other priorities.

The die was cast. Just two days later, Trudeau reversed his own position that Liberals would balance the budget to boldly state he would run three years of modest deficits of up to $10 billion each before balancing in the fourth year.

It was the clearest differentiation between the two parties fighting to be the change agent, and it put the NDP on the same side of the ledger as Harper's Conservatives.

While the NDP may have believed this was a brilliant stroke, the Liberal campaign team was privately elated at Mulcair's move.

"My biggest concern in the summer time was that they were going to do that before we did," Trudeau's chief of staff Gerald Butts told the Huffington Post in a post-election feature.

The Liberals knew deficit spending would let them be more generous than the NDP in a recession.

"Deficit was the proof point that you were willing to take a risk for the courage of your conviction. We weren't going to tell people that you could have your cake and eat it too. We were being honest," Butts said.

It helped that both the Alberta and Manitoba NDP government were running deficits, undercutting Mulcair's correct but not convincing argument that NDP provincial governments had an admirable financial record for the most part.

It also was of assistance that Ontario's Liberal government was re-elected last year despite big deficits, noted David Herle, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's key strategist and CBC TV commentator.

"To judge from the NDP campaign and the NDP platform, it's like they didn't watch the Ontario election," Herle said.

"The fact that one would run modest deficits in order to invest in the economy right now is not left-wing thinking; it's centrist thinking. That's the platform that Kathleen won on. That's the ballot question she drove against [provincial Conservative leader Tim] Hudak.

"[Ontario NDP leader Andrea] Horwath took herself out of the debate, just as Mulcair took himself out of the economic debate with his platform. And I don't understand how they made that same mistake twice in a row. It was a fatal error," Herle concluded.

Niqab hurt, but wasn't all

Shortly after its no-deficits denouement, the NDP began its long slide from first to third place in the polls.

On Aug. 24, the NDP was at its campaign high point of 37.4 per cent in aggregate polling results compiled by the CBC and analyst Eric Grenier, with the Conservatives at 28 per cent and the Liberals 26 per cent.

By Sept. 18, when the niqab issue was reignited by the Conservative government asking for a stay on a court decision granting Zunera Ishaq the right to wear the Muslim face covering during her Canadian citizenship ceremony, the NDP slide was well underway, with the party below 30 per cent and effectively tied with the Conservatives and Liberals.

While the niqab issue definitely hurt the NDP, with its large Quebec caucus the most affected by anti-niqab sentiments, Trudeau took an equally strong position in favour of a women's right to wear what she wants so long as her identity has been privately confirmed.

Many observers have argued that the niqab was the turning point for the NDP -- when in fact the Liberals with an identical position won 40 Quebec seats last week, the most of any party.

The argument that the NDP's slide in Quebec over the niqab lowered its polling nationally and therefore made voters looking for which party could defeat Harper move to the Liberals is neither convincing nor backed by the polls.

Terrible, not terribly visible ads

The niqab was not the NDP's only problem. Its advertising campaign was terrible -- and not terribly visible.

While the Conservatives targeted Trudeau as "just not ready" and then savaged Mulcair -- and while Trudeau's team took the risky but effective strategy of directly addressing their leader's readiness with a powerful ad showing him telling voters what he's "not ready" for (Conservative failures) -- the NDP was in another world.

Mulcair ads, when seen at all on television, were mostly about his background coming from a large, hard-working family. These are standard and necessary ads to establish who the leader is, but they dominated the NDP airtime and continued far too long at a time when the Liberals were talking about the campaign.

Later ads featuring a smiling Mulcair talked about the need for change, but were light on content and failed to contrast the NDP with its opponents.

Only one truly hard-hitting NDP ad aired, attacking the Conservatives with relish over its ethical lapses -- but it failed to call on voters to elect the NDP to clean up.

And in B.C., at least, it seemed there were far more Liberal and Conservative ads on TV and radio than NDP ads.

Listening to talk and news radio during the campaign was to hear Mulcair denounced three times an hour by Trudeau, who did not hesitate to attack the NDP and say it and the Conservatives would not spend money that was needed for infrastructure and more -- only his Liberals would.

And then, three times an hour on the radio the Conservatives attacked Mulcair as a "career politician" who would ruin the economy -- without any hint of irony that Harper was a career politician who was running Canada in a recession.

Only in the final 10 days of the campaign did NDP radio ads appear to counter the steady stream of negative messages that listeners had heard for months.

Another irony: while the word "workers" seemed to completely disappear from the NDP lexicon, to be replaced exclusively by the vague term "middle class," Harper talked about workers repeatedly in radio ads.

Meanwhile, the NDP put all its advertising stock on a questionable claim that it "only needed" 35 seats to beat the Conservatives, but the Liberals needed 100 -- based on the parties' standing when Parliament was dissolved.

For some voters, the "numerology" approach smacked of arrogance to presume the NDP "owned" those seats and could count them in advance of the election.

Some minor gains

The NDP did have some successes despite the national campaign failure.

In B.C., the party added two net seats and faced down the Green Party on Vancouver Island, winning all but Elizabeth May's Saanich-Gulf Islands seat and vanquishing Conservative cabinet minister John Duncan. The NDP also won three seats in Saskatchewan after being shut out previously.

The new 44-member NDP caucus does indeed have many impressive individuals and it is the second largest sent to Ottawa in the party's history, though in 1988 under leader Ed Broadbent there were 43 MPs in a smaller house, and the party took a slightly larger popular vote.

But the fact that the NDP not only lost an election it could've won, but also lost its Official Opposition status and is now relegated to third place, makes talk of minor gains much too painful.

Those who criticize campaigners should also admit their own failings -- and mine were clear.

The Liberals in B.C. have been mostly dormant for several elections, going into the 2015 campaign with just two MPs and few second-place finishes, but I obviously underestimated the strength of their campaign in Metro Vancouver when I wrote about their chances in early August, while they were still in third place.

With some good candidates, they cleaned up and were able to take the most seats -- 17 -- of any party in B.C., primarily from the Conservatives but two from the NDP.

Nationally, the Liberals ran a brilliant campaign. They took risks with policy shifts that pivoted to take advantage of opponents' mistakes; they created repeatedly memorable images of Trudeau that highlighted his abilities and countered the Conservative attempts to belittle him; their advertising was convincing; and they didn't give up early on when in deep third place.

In the end, this election showed that it was the NDP, not Trudeau, that was just not ready -- not ready to show they could govern Canada by campaigning effectively to win.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

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