By Richard Tones and Brenton Walters
There is a litany of perspectives out there on the poor showing of the NDP and Thomas Mulcair in the recent federal election. They range from not being ‘left’ enough and corporate conspiracies to specific moments such as the niqab controversy and debate performances.
The problem is that although some have some of these theories have merit, the issues identified were symptoms and not the illness. We suspect our perspective will be seen as simplistic – but it might be just that simple.
The Liberals had a better product.
The Liberal machine put together a campaign that was just shy of perfect in political terms, and New Democrats know it. They had some particular advantages such as a leader with incredible notoriety, an enviable vote efficiency, manageable expectations, and a campaign just long enough to bring it all together.
On election day, voters that had identified as NDP supporters five weeks earlier voted Liberal. That is why Mulcair has 44 seats instead of ’just 35 more than the NDP had in 2011’.
With all due respect to Mulcair, the niqab didn’t matter in terms of electoral fortune – it was just a bump in the road. The results speak for themselves: the Conservative’s numbers barely moved from 2011, the Bloc dropped five points, and the Liberals went up over 20 points.
If the niqab mattered, it was only for a moment, and it wasn’t a vote-determining issue. In Quebec, the NDP finished a full 10 points behind the Liberals, who arguably had the same position.
More than 60% of Quebeckers voted for the two parties (Liberal & NDP) who had a position that apparently 93% of Quebeckers disagreed with. The Bloc started the campaign at 17% according to Nanos and ended at 19.3%, popping up over 20% briefly a full three weeks after the niqab story broke.
More Quebeckers voted for the Liberals and NDP in 2015 than in 2011. They just seemed to be attracted to the Liberals more – niqab be damned.
The NDP Economic Anchor
What has become the traditional attack by Liberals and Conservatives (or the litany of provincial coalitions of the two) is that the NDP doesn’t understand business, will increase taxes, and generally can’t handle money.
We have now seen three elections in a row where the NDP spent an entire campaign trying to prove they were up to the challenge: the 2015 Federal, the 2014 provincial in Ontario, and the 2013 provincial in British Columbia.
In each case the central message of the NDP was, “you can trust us with the bank card.”
The NDP is in the unenviable situation where they are in constant danger of being cut by both edges of the fiscal sword. If they don’t campaign on fiscal responsibility they fail to counter the primary attack on them, and if they do campaign on fiscal responsibility they are said to be saying whatever it takes to get elected – not to mention causing heartburn for their long standing base in labour and other social movements.
We’ve spoken to a lot of folks from within the party who agree that it is a frustrating position to be in and don’t have a particular answer on how to deal with it. Most (including your author) say that they would have run the same economic campaign – with only minor changes.
Our new theory? Ignore it.
In Layton’s speeches and debate performances he rarely rattled off economic data, and when he did bring it up it was always in the context of direct family finances such as bank fees. In contrast, you can’t find a speech from Mulcair (or Horwath, and Dix) that doesn’t talk about big economics.
This will irk some folks, but Trudeau talked about emotional issues at around 30,000 feet while Mulcair spoke about financial planning at about 100 feet. There is an interesting parallel to Layton v. Ignatieff.
In 2011 our roles were reversed
Jack Layton was an amazing leader and that helped greatly, but the product itself was superior to that of the Liberals in 2011.
In 2011, the NDP had a campaign with the same feel as Trudeau’s: it was high level with a larger message, one that appealed to voters without getting stuck in the trenches. We had a budget and lots of numbers, but it never got in the way of the larger discussion of values. We were much better at ignoring our largest negative, fiscal management.
If you want to test this yourself just go ask your ‘average voter’ friend to give you three adjectives on the Liberal and New Democrat campaigns in 2011 and 2015. You will find ‘average voter’ will use some of the same words to describe the Layton and Trudeau campaigns and conversely the same words to describe the Mulcair and Ignatieff campaigns.
Don’t mistake our mention of ‘product’ as meaning just Layton or Trudeau (or any other leader) alone. Having a leader that is naturally charismatic is incredibly helpful, but the package around them has to be just as dynamic, including a message that is more than a collection of policies – it has to all connect to a larger emotion. In 2015 we weren’t able to do that, while the Liberals were.
They presented voters with a near-perfect package: a charismatic leader, messaging that connected emotionally with a lot of Canadians, and (some) policies that supported that messaging. And so they won.
Richard Tones is Director of Government Relations at Wazuku. Previously, he had a successful career in the labour movement. He’s a veteran NDP campaigner, a former aide to BC cabinet ministers, and one-time candidate. He’s from one of the great hometowns: Maple Ridge, BC. His full-length bio photo was too edgy for this blog.
Brenton Walters’ firm Civil Communications offers campaign and communication services. He is a veteran campaigner including Tom Mulcair’s leadership and Vision Vancouver. He was raised in a small logging town on an island and then a small farming/hippy community outside a bigger town on a bigger island on the coast of BC. Diehard Whitecaps fan.
Thanks to both Richard and Brenton for contributing. Looking to add more perspectives at Rosedeer.com in the months ahead.