Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Alert: Rex Murphy disgruntled!

It’s been a while, folks! But on the eve of the NDP’s big conference, I had to just make a somewhat-related comment on Rex Murphy’s latest pontification on Tom Mulcair’s popularity conundrum. Which isn’t as much of a conundrum, or a crisis, as people will make out in the midst of the LPC race.

Rex’s musings on what Mulcair should and shouldn’t be doing can be found here:

http://www.cbc.ca/thenational/indepthanalysis/rexmurphy/story/2013/04/11/thenational-rexmurphy-081113.html

It seems to me he’d advise the Opposition Leader to try and have it both ways: come on out with bigger, bolder, more distinctive ideas – but at the same time don’t have ideas that are too big, or bold, or even distinctive.

On how to work a referendum, Murphy says that he “doesn’t get” 50%+1 as a democratic concept (it’s clearer to me than the idea of the Liberals’ “clear majority,” and much, much clearer a mandate than the plurality our government governs with). He doesn’t like Dutch Disease, for the same reason most neurotic patriots don’t like it – it smacks too much of a problem, and Canada doesn’t have problems! He thinks going after Harper is tired – what do you suggest? Don’t go after Harper, and thus actually become the “hermit” that you’re already seeing?

Anyone who thinks that Tom Mulcair is suffering because he has charisma issues has to remind themselves who got 39% in the last election. Mulcair knows that – and, for better or for worse, he emulates aspects of it. Just like Harper, he punches clearly on a discrete set of themes, and then goes tactically under the radar when it suits him.

You don’t have to love it, of course, but no one can say that isn’t a recipe for success in Canadian politics.

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Filed under: Politics, , , , ,

The case for an NPD-Q

A year, now, since Québec first crested the Big Orange Wave, and still, the NDP continue to thrive. It prompts a brand-new big idea: isn’t it time to build a provincial New Democratic Party in Québec?

Will six be enough for the thirsty masses?

There used to be one, though we’re forgiven to have forgotten. The federal party prompted a divorce from its wayward disciple (and forced a name change) years ago, as the provincial NDP-Q narrative became too nationalistic, its friends too unsavoury, and its aims too divergent from the English Canadian federal party.

Those conditions have changed. The NDP is no longer an English Canadian federal party. It’s a binational, bilingual, federal social democratic party that proves it can appeal directly to, and draw strength from, Quebecers. It’s the kind of party that many of us want the country to effectively be. And so?

And so, it’s a fool’s errand, some will say. Once you fracture the federalist vote between the provincial Liberals and a would-be high-profile NDP-Q, you give the Parti Québécois all the room in the world to dominate provincial politics for a generation and more. You virtually guarantee another referendum, and that’s just irresponsible.

Maybe. But I think that oversimplifies the complexities of Québec’s electoral landscape, and denies trends we’ve seen emerge in the sovereigntist camp itself, which is evolving towards several discrete left-right identities, manifest in distinct and new partisan agents. Can federalists be so bold?

Politics in three dimensions

Québec fascinates through its multidimensionality. You aren’t trapped within one of those false left-wing/right-wing 2D dichotomies, you’re also forced to consider your sovereigntist/federalist position. And your place in one spectrum need not have any bearing on your place in the other, creating all kinds of exotic creatures. Federalist socialists and separatist neoliberals might seem rare specimens, but they aren’t – they just don’t have their own parties.

This is changing, at least on the sovereigntists’ side. There are evolutions in how they self-identify. Québec federalists continue to organise as federalists, while the sovereigntists are beginning to organise as leftists, or rightists, or safe centrists. There’s no longer a sovereigntist coalition – hence, we witness the CAQ over there on your right, the PQ holding the fort left of centre, and QS on the chaise longue with the Karl Marx teddy bear.

Just a theory, but this partisan diversity may have emerged precisely because the Parti Quebecois stopped prioritising its sovereigntist identity, and started prioritising its identity as a broadly left/centre-left party. Something that could strip social democratic federalist votes away from the PLQ. It works – that happens. But the strategy will have angered Péquistes who wanted sovereignty front and centre – and it’s driven them to forge new parties, which can then only be organised and differentiated along distinctive left/right lines.

That Québec federalists continue to huddle together in uncomfortable left/right coalition might strike us as savvy and electorally advantageous. But it doesn’t appear to be working at the mo. The apparent fracturing of the sovereigntist vote isn’t hurting the PQ’s position – indeed, they are in safe majority territory. What can smart federalists do?

Play the Péquistes at their own game, and recognise that you can fight for soft nationalists and soft federalists at once. That’s what the Orange Wave was.

A New Democrat Backdraft

A provincial NDP could go to the student protests and say “We’re with you. You don’t have to go to Québec Solidaire to voice dissent against neoliberal policy, you can do it with us.” It could go to the provincial Liberals and say “most of you are more progressive than you let on. Come on, all you Mulcairs, come on in.” It could pull soft federalist social democrats back from the PQ as well as pulling support from the Liberals – something QS and CAQ aren’t in reach of doing. Besides, the very novelty of a provincial NDP could win it quick and early rewards from a public that’s in a very up-for-anything, disestablishment-minded mood. The trick, from there, is to hold such rewards – but the federal NDP are doing it pretty impressively.

Coalitions such as the Parti liberal du Québec are sustainable only insofar as there is a coherent opposite threat – look at the B.C. Liberals! That motley crew of Socreds, Tories and federal Liberals sought nothing more complex out of life than to suppress the B.C. NDP. But that coalition looks set to dissolve into incoherence, merely because an upstart actual Conservative party has entered the provincial scene.

A Whole New Mosaic

B.C.’s Liberals are a mosaic made with cheap glue, and if social democrats in Québec are bold enough, they’ll find that Charest’s Liberals are in a similar condition. His internal coalition could be just as easily usurped by a challenger that is able to establish a different kind of coalition – one that’s more coherent, and involves Québec’s mass of federalist/soft nationalist social democrat orphans in a meaningful way.

An NDP-Q would be risky, would ruffle feathers, and would rumble the status quo. Sounds like a goer.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A vote for reality – a congratulations to the NDP

Quel jour! Quel nuit! And, for most New Democrats, thank god it didn’t take two jours and two nuits to finally sort the question out.

Indeed, poor me – UK clocks leaped ahead one hour into summer time yesterday, leaving me drowsy-eyed in front of the CBC live feed at 2 a.m., still waiting for final results, and already slipping into semi dreamstate. For a moment, I thought I saw Puff the Magic Dragon giving his acceptance speech.

Puff, it wasn’t, and that is for the best. The NDP have done exactly what I hoped they would – they have voted for reality. They’ve invested a great deal of support in the candidacy of its old guard, as manifested through Topp, but have given even more to the spirit of innovation and inventiveness manifest in Thomas Mulcair (and, to an impressive extent, Nathan Cullen).

Topp’s impressive totals surprised me, but were something of a reassurance that the purest strain of the party’s social democrat soul is strong, coherent and vocal. Topp’s results will perhaps serve as something of a check against some of Mulcair’s more radically centrist views – and perhaps that’s already evident in Mulcair’s announcement that Libby Davies will remain as Deputy Leader.

As a digression, I frankly see Davies’ re-appointment as a missed opportunity to create a new generation of leadership – bringing two 2012 candidates (ideally, Cullen and Nash) into a joint deputy leadership would have helped heal new rifts, and would triangulate nicely across three provinces and three discrete factions. But, perhaps Davies’ re-appointment demonstrates that Mulcair isn’t as worried about his relationship with fellow 2012 candidates as he is about his relationship with the party’s old guard. So, his show of respect for her probably has its merits – or, at least it has a logic. 

One thing surprises me a great deal: once Nathan Cullen dropped from the ballot, his 15,426 delegates split much more evenly between Topp and Mulcair than I’d ever have guessed. On the final ballot, Mulcair’s numbers grew 23.3% from his third-round results, which was enough to put him over the top – but Topp’s numbers grew 27.8% from his third-round results. That the proportion of Brian Topp’s growth should have been higher after the elimination of Nathan Cullen is not the way many people will have expected things to go. Cullen and Mulcair were very alike, not in style, but in their comfort in challenging convention and appealing to members and to caucus much more than to party brass. So, yes, surprising.

As for the acceptance speech? Yes…. Mulcair’s fifteen minutes were widely panned, from what I can tell, and rightly so. Quite staid and unbelieveably reliant on notes – it can only be called an uninspired litany. A lament for apathy rather than a call to arms. Compare it against his interviews, and it’s hard to actually square that it’s the same Mulcair. 

But that he excels in interactive spars and in issue-specific debate, if not in grandstanding before large, friendly crowds, is the more important thing – we’ll see him at his best in the House and in debates. If he gets pumped by opposition, great – there’s plenty of it ahead.

As has been recounted all throughout this race, there has been an emerging tension (if largely imagined) between two concepts of “victory” – the electoral versus the moral. It is right to be tense about that question, but wrong to view an absolute dichotomy there. There isn’t one.

New Democrats, just like all of us, have a responsibility to their own ideals to make them real. Dreams of a better world are not ends in themselves – they are only the inspired motives to action. And, for political parties, the means to action are electoral victories. That’s irrefutable. It’s no sin, it’s the duty of anyone running for office – and it’s the only way to properly respect the wishes of the majority who rejected Harperism. In Mulcair, they’ve got a leader who’s completely to grips with that.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , , , ,

Decisions, decisions – who’s to lead the NDP?

Since posting those NDP leadership candidate impersonations, part of me wishes I could buy them all a round and say “no hard feelings!” While another part of me just wants to poke fun at them again.

But the main part of me has been thinking about who to vote for (were I a member!)

It’s been an interesting contest to me, in that the original unity around directing all criticism towards Harper has shifted into a more healthily competitive discourse amongst the candidates themselves. They’re looking to differentiate their visions. Topp swings left, Mulcair ducks to the centre.

Cullen’s been a surprising master of it. He has maintained this solidly “non-partisan,” open-door discourse, emphasising unity among all progressive Canadians, whether Green, Liberal or New Democrat, but has been able to simultaneously speak like a tried and tested partisan tactician. Through denying that he saw Tom Mulcair as a Liberal, he nevertheless made the Mulcair-Liberal connection explicit on national TV. He talks of beating Conservatives as the ends in itself – the nobler mission. All the while, he successfully frames himself as least partisan of the lot. Incredible stuff.

Ultimately, what’s been guiding my thinking is a conviction that, if there’s any quality an NDP leader needs to have from here on in, it’s to be tough, intelligent and sportsmanlike at once. A power forward with a winning smile. God, I think I want to vote for Jarome Iginla.

To me, this rules out everyone bar Cullen and Mulcair. For all Brian Topp’s acumen and his extensive campaigning background, he has not personally been tested electorally, and I think is too unaware of his communication tics. People don’t simply look past that. Whether we take the example of the Liberals plumping for Stéphane Dion, or Britain’s Labour plumping for Ed Miliband, I think it’s doom to select someone who may have the principled policy but not the means to communicate effectively. Principled policymakers always have a role in cabinet, as senior aides, as party strategists – but not necessarily as leaders. Ironically, I think if there’s any job Brian Topp is well-suited to, it’s as NDP party president…

I have no enormous affection for Paul Dewar or Peggy Nash as leaders either – great senior members of cabinet, yes, and they’re media-friendly and have an appealing frankness about them. But I’m struggling to see them unify the party effectively, or to get down to the bare-knuckles work of dismantling Stephen Harper.

So, it’s Cullen or Mulcair! Pros and cons?

Cullen’s Pros

Brilliant orator, committed environmentalist, bleeding charisma, able to talk about big reforms in a realistic way. If anyone can carry off Jack Layton, it’s Nathan Cullen – and so, even as a British Columbian, I think he’s supremely capable of courting and retaining the Québec vote next time round.

He strikes a phenomenal balance between principle and strategy, and expresses optimism without naivety.  That’s a powerful set of attributes, and he deserves to go far.

Cullen’s Cons

The joint nomination thing. I don’t think he genuinely wanted this to define his entire candidacy, and wanted to use this as an example of his “box-thinking-outside-of-ness” and his would-be commitment to devolving to the grassroots. He’d surely prefer to shift the narrative to mixed-member PR by now, instead of everyone focussing on the joint nominations proposition, which just doesn’t come off as very well thought out.

Also, could Canada elect a 42-year-old Prime Minister in 2015? Is that relative youth necessarily an advantage if the NDP need to convince Canadians that they’re “safe”?

Mulcair’s Pros

Despite some people’s anxiety that he’s too close to the centre, I think it’s essential that that’s where the leader is at. One essential quality of a party leader is to bridge the interests of the dedicated dogmatists and the larger popular masses – it takes some conniving to do it effectively, but that need not be viewed as a threat to the party faithful.

Look at any successful political party and you’ll see leaders tacking centre, and backbenches and grassroots extending away from it into the traditions and the manifesto – and that’s as it should be. Again, a UK example: Britain’s Tories are filled with the traditional anti-European, anti-poor, fox-hunting schoolboys, but in David Cameron they’ve found a leader who doesn’t frighten the general masses (at least not enough for my liking). Perhaps the backbenches aren’t perfectly content to see a leader look so “liberal,” but then they remind themselves that they get their way over Cameron time and time again.

Leaders will always listen to their parties, as Mulcair will listen to his.

Besides, his record as Environment Minister in Québec is greener than green – this is no Progressive-Come-Lately. More than that, his decision to abandon the Charest Liberals for their obfuscation of his strong green policy direction, I think, disproves any slur that he’s a phony. What kind of phony in their right mind would have left a high-profile provincial cabinet post to later run as a New Democrat in Montréal, in those days anyway?

His thick skin and proven experience mean he’ll appear more than a damp squib in front of the Harpermachine. I think he has the capacity to appeal to soft Liberals and non-partisans who simply want a good political and economic manager who’s free from the corruption and the arrogance of the Harperites. 

Mulcair’s Cons

Not as eloquent as Cullen, and perhaps not as inspirational. But of course, anytime I say that party leaders need to have outstanding social nous and boast Obama-esque smile-wattage, I remember…. Canada elected Stephen Bloody Harper.

He might not connect as well or grow memberships at the pace that a Cullen could – but I think this is mitigated by the fact he will be a steadier, steelier hand on the wheel, and the party will be in winning shape in three years.

Decision?

I think I’ve concluded that, were I voting for NDP leader, I’d select Nathan Cullen as my Number One, and Thomas Mulcair as my Number Two. Ironically, I would do this with the clear hope that Mulcair actually wins the thing…! Perhaps that’s daft on my part, but I don’t think Cullen is going to win this race, and probably shouldn’t, but I’d like him to finish with an impressive delegation of first-choice ballots to bolster his role in the new shadow cabinet. And, from there, a future government.

I’m convinced it would be a thing of beauty to see Mulcair as leader, with Cullen and Nash holding a joint deputy leadership of the party – what a great bridge-building arrangement! Triangulating three provinces, three distinct strengths, and three streams of left/centre-left appeal. 

That’s it! Cards on the table! Now let’s just hope Martin Singh doesn’t come up the middle.

p.s. – if you want to have a play at voting before the big day, try Skinny Dipper’s useful Demochoice poll – rank your own candidates and see how they’d fare in an election simulation. http://www.demochoice.org/dcballot.php?poll=NDP2012NPD

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The NDP Leadership Candidates – a wee little parody

The NDP leadership candidates have been through dozens of debates, yet people have complained that some candidates remain a mystery. It’s clear what we need – a series of grotesque caricatures of each and every one of them.

The Seven Hopeful Remaining have presented themselves, in the main, as pragmatic visionaries, gentle and reliable in their manner and agreeable even in argument. No question that they’re showing off the best virtues of the party.

But they’ve shown enough in the way of difference, in style and substance, for us to be able to grossly take the piss out of them all. So, my fellow New Democrats and/or Lefty Waverers! If confused as to who to vote for, look no further than the following video summaries for guidance!

Nathan Cullen!

 

Niki Ashton!

 

Paul Dewar!

 

Thomas Mulcair!

 

Peggy Nash!

 

Martin Singh!

 

Brian Topp!

What more could you possibly need to go on?

I’ll post something in the coming days with some actual thoughts on the race and my own snowballing impressions…. though doing these little videos probably gives the impression that I favour none of them… 🙂 

Filed under: Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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