Thursday, June 26, 2008

NDP Strategy Suggestion: Look West

Western Canada has long had an affinity for progressive populism. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 set off the labour movement within Canada and left a strong impression on Tommy Douglas, who would go on to lead the Saskatchewan Co-operative Commonwealth Federation to victory.

The Liberals, in many ways, soured their chances in the Parries. The National Energy Program was the first blow and made most of Alberta inaccessible to the Federal Liberals. Jean Chrétien’s tasteless sandbag photo ops, during the 1997 Red River Flood and the (horrendously ill-timed) election that same year ensured that never again would the Liberals possess 12 MPs in Manitoba.

The NDP could have capitalized on this Western discontent had they listened to Dave Barrett. Instead, they put all their eggs in the Eastern basket, especially trying to make inroads in Quebec. Focusing on Quebec has brought the NDP some gains, but only recently after gruelling and tedious work. I'm not saying that Quebec ought to be ignored, the NDP should target ridings that are Anglophone and multicultural, like many in Montreal, or ridings with many workers who are disaffected with the BQ and looking for a social democratic alternative. But an equal effort must be made to make inroads west of Ontario.

There are many left of centre who are west of Ontario. These western progressives are concentrated in western Canada's urban centres, like Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria. There are some family farmers who may also fit the bill of "western progressives", mainly organized in groups like the National Farmer's Union.

Since 1919 matters have undoubtedly changed. Due to the rising cost of farm equipment, agriculture has been a field mainly restricted to those with upper level incomes. The low income and middle income farmers that made up the base of Tommy Douglas and Ed Schreyer aren't as prominent today. Most rural ridings are a sea of Tory blue. Even urban ridings in cities like Edmonton that extend far out into the countryside yield Tory MPs.

The strategy I suggest to counter this, which might be a bit simplistic as I'm not a professional strategist, is to target urban westerners in such ridings on issues that resonate well with urban dwellers. Issues like poverty alleviation, social programs and the state of infrastructure in Canada’s cities. Then target farmers on issues like rising agricultural costs, the plight of family farms and preserving the Canadian wheat board (this is a polarizing move and will only give the NDP pro-Wheat Board farmers, hopefully it'll be enough). If such a two-pronged approach is tried in Western ridings that encompass both urban and rural elements, it will yield a few more seats for the NDP in the west.

Of course, the New Democrats shouldn't just market their policies towards western Canadians; they should consult westerners on policy matters. Have open town halls meetings where people west of Ontario can voice their opinions to New Democratic Party officials. Have membership drives west of Ontario and attend/speak at National Farmers Union rallies.

The New Democratic Party of Canada could get back into Saskatchewan, shut out the Liberals from Western Canada, and lock onto the Western progressive vote if they followed a strategy similar to my proposal.

I'd think the your second-last paragraph only hints at probably the most important opportunity for the NDP in the West.

For some time now, Reform in its many incarnations has taken loads of Western votes based on fomenting anger against Ottawa - partly by playing up direct citizen action, partly by attacking the most glaring examples of misuse of power. But now that the Cons are in government and have been no less crass in their patronage than the Libs, there should be enough of a protest vote up for grabs to put plenty of seats in play if the NDP becomes the leading voice for the same causes (which has been part of the party's principles in any event).
I agree that distrust with corruption in Ottawa has been a real contributor to Western discontent and I'd say that the NDP would benefit if they marketed themselves as the "honest alternative" to Liberal and Conservative corruption. The NDP would do wise to highlight some of Broadbent's suggestions for ethical reforms, especially in the West. This would show real teeth and substance behind their (hypothetical) "honest alternative" theme. Also, the NDP would get real credibility if they mentioned their involvment in improving the Federal Accountability Act and even mentioning some of Gary Doer's campaign finance reforms (albeit he's a from the third way centrist Blairite wing of the party, but it couldn't hurt).
I ought to note that this wouldn't result in an ineffective "protest vote". The winning of many ridings west of Ontario would drain the Conservatives of their solid western base, inhibiting their attempts to form a majority government unless they win a lot of seats in Ontario and capture the entire Quebec ADQ vote. It would also prevent the Liberals from forming a solid block in all of Canada's cities (lets face it, cities in general are more left-leaning than farming communities on average). So both the Liberals and Conservatives a potential majority maker, strenghtening the NDP and providing them with the balance of power.
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