Tony Blair wrested control of the British Labour Party away from the hardliners who had successfully run that party into the ditch in election after election, by concentrating on a small core of voters, and offering policies that were outmoded, anti-capitalistic and unappetizing to most British voters.
Thomas Mulcair faces the same problem that Blair faced: how to move a sluggish, redestribution-motivated, and out of date socialist party into the mainstream, so as to position it to gain power and implement its policies. Bruce Anderson describes Mulcair’s battle this way in the Globe & Mail:
But becoming Official Opposition presented a new, higher stakes version of the NDP’s traditional dilemma. A fork in the road seen many times before: veer left on the familiar road towards moral victory, or take the other, less familiar path, in search of actual victory. NDP ideologues want to believe that Canadians are moving towards them, that the party has no need to change in order to win. But NDP pragmatists see a need to claim territory around the centre of the political spectrum, by showing the party is more flexible and inclusive, and less dogmatic. In the next 18 months, this strain will intensify.
Unlike Blair, Mulcair did not run for leadership on a renewal mandate that clearly spelled out the ditching of outmoded socialist policies in favour of mainstream wealth-creation ones.
Instead, Mulcair is engaged in a stealth campaign to nudge a reluctant and bewildered socialist party into massive change. Why? Because massive change from redistribution based policies to wealth-creation policies are needed for the NDP to become credible in the minds of most Canadian voters.
Here’s some evidence of Mulcair’s most recent moves to the middle:
In some contrast, just last week Mr. Mulcair gave a speech laying out his direction on energy and the environment. In content and tone, it was a clear and strategic departure from the past. Gone were suggestions that slowing the pace of oil sands development would create a better economy in other parts of the country.Instead, his audience heard: “Canada’s natural resources are a tremendous blessing, and our energy sector is the motor of the Canadian economy. New Democrats want to capitalize on those unique advantages. … That development is vital to our economy and our country.”
Anderson correctly identifies a landmine that Mulcair has triggered in his move to wealth-creation rather than distributive politics:
One challenge idea for the NDP will be its commitment to the concept of “social license” as a precondition for future development. Mr. Mulcair argued “in the 21st century a social license is every bit as important as a regular license – if not more.” The problem with this lies not in the principle of trying to win broad acceptance for development – pretty much everyone agrees that this is ideal.But of course there is no agreed-upon standard of what constitutes social license. How much support is enough, how much resistance is too much?To suggest that social license is more important than an evidence-based, careful regulatory process and a political debate resolved by elected representatives is the kind of thing that might ultimately cost, not win, the NDP support.
Mulcair is sucking and blowing when he tables a “social licence” as being of equal or overriding weight with respect to resource development. It is a vague concept, only recently surfaced in Canadian resource politics because the Harper Conservatives and the oil and gas companies blew the need to properly consult with stakeholders in their desire to extract and transport tar sand oil.
Mulcair is right that the oil industry and governments need a better social mandate than they have sought in the past. However, he needs to flesh out exactly what the NDP believes is needed for a valid ‘social licence’ to be gained by the oil industry.
Does the NDP mean that the consent of every First Nations on a pipeline route is required (effectively giving each First Nations a veto on resource development in Canada)?
Does the NDP mean that the ‘benefits’ of any oil and gas developments are to be shared in a more meaningful way with First Nations whose territory is affected, and with various levels of government and other stakeholders?
If so, does Mulcair mean the ‘benefits’ flowing to both those who dig up the tar sands to produce the heavy oil as well as the benefits flowing to those who build pipelines must be shared with First Nations in BC, for example? This is a wider (but defensible) concept than that currently on the table, which is restricted to a modest share in the pipeline profits for moving heavy oil across BC. It would require the federal and/or provincial governments to levy additional royalties and/or profit participations on the production of heavy oil in Alberta.
By lurching to far from traditional regulatory approvals, Mulcair runs the risk of muddying the waters so much that his attempt to paint the NDP as pro-resource development will founder. Mulcair cannot have this cake and eat it at the same time, and he has to define his expectations far more clearly for his move to the centre on this issue to be at all credible.
The battle for the soul of Canada’s socialist party is now on.