I was a relatively strange child. My family likes to tease me about my respective fear of clowns and butterflies, but even weirder than that is this: I loved electoral politics. Even at a very young, I was captivated by the experience of watching as numbers poured in for the different parties.
To be sure, this enthusiasm was not unrelated to my sports obsession--I relished the competitive aspects of elections, the fact that there were winners and losers, and the sense that the stakes seemed so high.
Long before I had a thorough grounding in the philosophical underpinnings of political parties and leaders, I had a notion of who the good guys were: the NDP. Of course, this was pure socialization. My parents voted for the party and so I cheered for it. This, too, coalesced with my attitude to sports. I was a perpetual backer of the underdog and the NDP was the eternal underdog. Even as a child, I never imagined that the party would win the election. Rather, I clung to every seat, fantasizing about what it would mean to win forty or fifty in the House of Commons.
As I grew, I came to understand the social, political, and economic world for myself. This drew me both towards and away from the NDP. My socialist inclination obviously taught me that the party was indeed the most viable option for my vote come election season. And so, NDP is how I voted, often going to considerable efforts to ensure that my ballot would be cast in a riding in which it had the genuine potential to elect an NDP candidate. (I should add that this would not be necessary in the more authentically democratic proportional representation model of politics.)
At the same time, I have become increasingly aware of the limitations of the NDP in regards to its critique of status quo politics in Canada. It is not an anti-capitalist party. In the last provincial election, I voted left of the NDP, knowing my vote was in vain.
Nevertheless, in the absence of alternatives, I continue to support the party. And so, as I'm sure you can imagine, my long-entrenched, realist, cynical understanding of it's limited potential was all but obliterated during the last federal election.
As is my wont, I spent that election holed up in front of the television, anxiously (and I don't mean rhetorically--I'm talking visceral, heart-pounding, blood pressure rising, palms sweating tension) watching the votes flood in. Of course, the Conservatives pulled in a majority government even as the NDP rocketed to 102 seats. Still, something remarkable had happened. The party that (sort of) represented my political beliefs had become an actual contender! My more naive side--no doubt produced in part through the experience of watching underdog teams actually pull off upset victories in the world of sport--actually felt hope (much as it did, despite myself, in seeing Barack Obama win the American Presidency).
It was hope built on a tenuous foundation. The new found success of the NDP was not the product of a national shift to the left premised on a growing distaste for the inequities caused by neoliberal capitalism. That was what I wanted it to be, but it was not what it was. Rather, the NDP's success was the product of two simple and related contingent factors.
The first of these was the tremendous charisma of leader Jack Layton. The second was the increasingly untenable organization of federal politics in Quebec.
Quebec is the most left-leaning region of the country, yet the only viable progressive federal party in the province has been the Bloc Quebecois, a French-Canadian nationalist party with little incentive to work in concert with other federalist parties. As the enthusiasm for separatism has waned, so too has the relevance of the Bloc.
The 2011 election was a perfect storm. Quebec was seeking a new leftist alternative, and Jack Layton, himself born in Quebec, child of a popular politician, charismatically offered himself forward in that role. The result was 59 seats for the NDP in Quebec and the sense that the party's fortunes had finally shifted.
And then Layton passed away.
There was little suspense, really, over who that leader would be. Understanding the nature of the hand that feeds them, the NDP selected Thomas Mulcair, a popular MP from Quebec. On the surface, this choice could not be more logical, given the context I have just described. Unfortunately, it is a catastrophic miscalculation.
The second problem flows directly from the first. Because Jack Layton cannot be replaced, not oneof the candidates up for NDP leadership would have been able to sustain the party's success. There is three quarter's of a century's worth of electoral evidence for this. The most important quality for the party to consider in regards to picking a leader was policy (or at least, it should have been). The party's role is as the 'conscience' of parliament, as the party that introduces progressive policies, even if they are only ever implemented by other parties that appropriate them. This is unsatisfying, but not insignificant.
However, because of the desire to reproduce the success of Layton in Quebec, the party has chosen, for all intents and purposes, a Liberal as their leader. They have moved toward centre. In my mind, there is no perceptible difference now between them and Bob Rae's Liberals. The two parties might as well merge. Such a manoeuvre--the shift to centre--whether it involves a merger of the left or not--is the death of the last vestige of anti-capitalism in NDP policy. It signals a shift to a U.S.-style system that offers no alternatives whatsoever to neoliberal globalization.
And so, in one stroke, the party has sacrificed its position as national conscience, even as it faces the prospect of electoral slippage.
It's enough to make one long for those bygone days of underdog status and perpetual failure. At least then there was something to hope for.