Abacus has a poll out on September 27 that has very bad news for Mulcair’s NDP. The NDP support in Quebec, its heartland, has plunged over the past week, dropping like a stone, while the other parties are ticking upwards:
And this anti-Orange Wave has dragged the NDP down nationally as well:
In Battleground Ontario, the race has become a two-party race since the middle of August, with the Conservatives and Liberals slugging it out, and Mulcair’s roll-the-dice read my lips: no deficits gambit causing NDP support to slide:
Ontario voters believe that the main job of any national government is to protect the economy, and to make it grow. Mulcair shed the confidence of many when he decided to turn himself into an economic HarperLite candidate; he will not regain that confidence because there is nothing he can do now to change his fatal choice.
What went wrong for Mulcair?
It’s really very simple. Tom Mulcair should have studied Tony Blair’s leadership of the UK’s New Labour Party with just a little bit more application.
Mulcair inherited from Jack Layton a party that was really a party of protest, not of government: the same problem that faced Blair. But Blair set about changing the Labour Party in a different manner to that adopted by Mulcair.
Very early on, Blair understood that his party had to change, in order to appeal to a wider group of voters. As he put it in his autobiography, A Journey: My Political Life:
As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s and the defeats kept coming, I became ever more convinced that there were crucial bits of a governing coalition missing for Labour. Where was our business support? Where were our links into the self-employed? Above all, where were the aspirant people, the ones doing well but who wanted to do better; the ones at the bottom who had dreams of the top? ... Where were those people in our ranks? Nowhere, I concluded…But it seemed that the party and the voters were in two different places, and so the party had to shift against its will. My own feeling, however, was: the voters are right and we should change not because we have to, but because we want to. It may sound a subtle difference, but it is fundamental.
The crux of the matter was the Labour Party and the economy; this was enshrined in the party’s constitution, that called for nationalization of assets. Here’s Blair’s take on just how deep the change in his party had to be:
Clause IV was hallowed text repeated on every occasion by those on the left who wanted no truck with compromise or the fact that modern thinking had left its words intellectually redundant and politically calamitous. Among other things, it called for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” ... At a certain level, it meant a lot and the meaning was bad. Changing it was not a superficial thing; it implied a significant, deep and lasting change in the way the party thought, worked and would govern.
Mulcair faced the same problem: how to modernize what was essentially a kind of aged hippy protest movement into a lean, mean fighting machine that would appeal to a wide swathe of Canadian – and very conservative economically – voters.
Mulcair changed the constitution of the NDP to slice out similar nationalization and anti-capitalistic policies and values, true. But in the process, he failed to communicate the essence of the change to enough voters – especially in vote-rich Ontario. He was too muted; the party slid the changes through and then kept quiet about it. My guess is that Mulcair did not want a vigorous public debate about the nature of the changes within the NDP, because he feared this could split the party and there was not much time left before the next election.
Mulcair should have shouted from the rooftops how much the NDP had changed, taking a leaf from what Blair learned from the best politician of the past fifty years, Bill Clinton:
I always remember him saying, “Don’t forget: communication is fifty per cent of the battle in the information age. Say it once, say it twice and keep on saying it, and when you’ve finished, you’ll know you’ve still not said it enough.”
Mulcair has not done that, and he has run out of time to do it.
Blair had a vigorous internal debate within the Labour Party, and finally forced through the changes, setting the signposts for the election campaign:
The pathfinder was already switched on: growth was the key; investment, not tax cuts; redistribute, but carefully and not touching income tax; keep the middle class onside, but where growth and redistribution allowed, focus on the poorest; then, in time, you could balance tax cuts and spending.
Mulcair seems to be lacking a similar pathfinder for the NDP in this election. He has been left straddling the old NDP and the new NDP he has tried to forge.
And he has not been helped by the publication of a manifesto by diehard socialists, slap bang in the middle of the election, that seem to many to deny the shift Mulcair has pushed for.
So when Mulcair announced read my lips: no deficits, he had not prepared the soil enough for these seeds. The party itself seemed surprised by this channeling of Bush Senior; and his anxiety to appear “safe” economically with this mantra, simply forced him into the straitjacket of a visionless plan for the next four years.
This duality was noticed in Ontario, and many made up their minds that having Mulcair control the country, with all the vast power that our prime ministers have under our style of government, was a high risk choice. Read my lips: no deficits achieved the opposite result from what Mulcair wanted it to. It increased the perception of a leader who would say anything to get elected, rather than reassured voters who desperately wanted change.
The polls show this change in Ontario. That change is set, now.
In Quebec, something else has happened. Jack Layton was admired for his personal attributes, and became the non-politician of choice as compared to Harper and Duceppe and others. The Orange Wave was not just a protest wave against the sterility of the Bloc-Conservative way of doing things; it was also a vote for a man and his values.
Tom Mulcair is no Jack Layton, and voters in Quebec are now sifting through the differences. Mulcair’s passion is hard-edged, while Layton’s passion was softer, more personal. Mulcair’s pathfinder is not as clear as Layton’s was: you knew with Layton what his basic values were, and felt confident that he would take the country to places consistent with those values. His heart led his values.
Voters in Quebec are not so sure where Mulcair’s heart would lead them, and so they are changing their minds about the NDP as a viable choice for Quebec, and for Canada.
The decisions of the changed blocks of voters in Ontario and Quebec have now altered the election. The range of choices is narrower now.