Drew Brown Tackles the Complicated Question
This is a pretty loaded question. In all honesty, it would probably require at least thirty pages and a research grant to give a satisfying answer. If you’re an Honours student in MUN Poli Sci looking for a thesis topic, feel free to take this idea and run with it, because we’re long overdue for a proper study. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts to get us started.
A LESS FUNNY RHINO PARTY
October 2011 was a pretty jovial time for the NDP – not exactly “Scott Andrews grope-y jovial,” but a happy time nonetheless. Despite being robbed of Official Opposition status thanks to our joke of an electoral system, they were at the top of their game. “Moderates” like Dale Kirby and George Murphy made the NDP look like a sensible alternative to Kevin Aylward’s Liberal trainwreck. The provincial party could still tap into the legacy of Jack Layton (Peace Be Upon Him) as a rallying point for local progressives.
Fast forward a few years and it’s like someone dropped an atom bomb. The party split down the middle because the leader was stubborn and the caucus insurrectionists couldn’t be arsed to organize a proper coup. The party leadership would rather sink the vessel than rock the boat, and other lifelong reformers jumped ship in droves rather than put the work in to try and turn things around.
Christ, guys. I’ve seen episodes of Hoarders where things were better organized.
That the NDP is an institutional joke goes without saying. They aren’t unique in this – the Liberals and the Tories are also basically held together by a bargain-bin führerprinzip – but they’re exceptionally amateurish in a province where politics is characterized by amateurishness. The seed of an Efford/Grimes explosion lies at the centre of every political party in the province; God knows there was enough backroom cloak-and-dagger in the latest Liberal and Tory leaderships to set the whole works up in flames. But they also collectively had enough sense to keep from airing their dirty laundry to the local media. Against this basic instinct of political self-preservation, Lorraine Michael’s first response to a caucus revolt was to offer David Cochrane an exclusive interview. Even Pope Benedict XVI had the sense to resign without inviting a camera crew into the Curia.
The party has no institutional memory of success. Few of the people working in the party have ever gotten a taste of victory. There is little clear sense of what works and what doesn’t, which makes it hard to both attract good candidates and give them the support they need to run a winning campaign. How many people haven’t voted NDP just because a candidate never knocked on their door and actually asked them? It’s hard to win when you only know how to lose.
TWO’S COMPANY, THREE’S A CROWD
Most of us believe the business of government is (or should be) business. There’s some quibbling over how much social support is necessary to keep that business going, but there’s no dispute about the ultimate end. Healthcare and education spending is justified by how much more or less productive (ie. profitable) it makes citizens; employment insurance keeps money flowing to make sure the economic wheel stays greased in hard times more than out of any human concern.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians generally aren’t looking for grand romantic visions of the Great Society from our politicians, and heaven forbid any social service is set up in our backyard. We just want a good set of accountants and project managers. Whether they come in red or blue is secondary, and mostly depends on which party currently appears to be more fucked up than the other.
Plus, let’s be honest: partisanship is a tribal identity, like the religion you’re born into or the sports team you root for. More of us come by and stick with these loyalties because it’s a family or community tradition than through rational reflection. Compared to the Liberals and the Tories, the NDP have pretty shallow historical roots.
They also don’t offer a compelling political alternative to the status quo. I’m not saying there is no alternative – sad as it is, my entire life is staked on the hypothesis that there must be a better way – but the provincial New Democrats don’t offer it. They generally tend toward mushy welfare-state policies that haven’t been in vogue since the early 1970s and they pitch it with rhetoric as stale as the song rotation on K-Rock.
Worse, every attempt to “modernize” the NDP has been interpreted as a call to move the party to some nebulous place called “the centre,” making it functionally indistinguishable from the Liberals. Or, at least, the “socially conscious progressive party” that the Liberals (and even the local Tories) imagine themselves to be. In this case, you have to ask why we’d even need a third party at all.
THINGS COST MONEY
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a gambling mentality about politics. We like to bet on the winner. We like to get a seat at the table. We like to have someone “on the government side,” because we understand (and accept) that infrastructure and other patronage is handed out by the good graces of The Party in the person of our MHA. This is not an endorsement. It’s the reality of the situation.
Money works the same way. Businesses and other donors like to give their money to the winning team for largely the same reason. When a government is riding high – or an opposition party is poised to take office – money will flow into the appropriate coffers. The Liberals, for instance, are close to paying off their debts, and I would bet the Tories are going to go into a similar-sized hole if and when they try to wage a full campaign in a doomed election.
It’s pretty unhealthy to have all this corporate cash bankrolling the province’s political process; he who pays the piper calls the tune. But the NDP are in a bind because of their reliance on union donations. Union money makes up the majority of the Dipper war chest, but labour can’t come close to matching the uncapped corporate wealth flowing into the other parties. It’s all well and good for the NDP to be the political wing of labour in the province, but without getting unlimited private donations they will never beat the political wing(s) of business at their own game.
At the federal level – ironically, thanks to the Conservatives – contributions are capped and campaigns are largely powered through smaller, grassroots donations. If the NDP really believes its claim to be “speaking about the issues that matter,” then getting a large number of small donations from ordinary people shouldn’t be a problem. They should easily outpace whatever the Liberals and Tories could scrape up once corporate donations were capped. Cutting off the unlimited flow of union cash would no doubt hamper the NDP in the short term, but given that they’re guaranteed to be on the margins for the next decade, this is probably the best time to dig in and lay the groundwork for long-term gains. It’s either that, or keep tilting at windmills for another forty years.
AND IT GOES ON LIKE THIS
I could keep going, but like I said, it’s pretty hard to give a satisfactory explanation as to why the NL NDP haven’t elected more than five MHAs in the half-century they’ve been operating here, especially in the space of a print column. I don’t have all the answers and I am not paid enough to look for them. This is a job for an enterprising young political scientist or similar such nerd. But hopefully this is at least some food for thought. From what I’ve seen, half the party’s battle is acknowledging that there’s a problem.