New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton should not be discouraged by the criticism he has received for his new stance on the war in Afghanistan. To be sure, he would have benefited from getting fully prepared to explain and elaborate on his call to withdraw Canadian troops. Watching his news conference, it became clear he wasn't. But in a broader assessment of the Canadian political landscape, Layton's approach is a move in the right direction.
Indeed, as the NDP faithful gather for their convention in Quebec this weekend, the party needs to focus on mounting a much more energetic opposition to all of the basic policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
It is time for Layton to recognize that the strategy he has been following since the last election campaign has been a double failure. The NDP has neither seized a great opportunity to expand its base of support, nor fulfilled many of its key functions as Canada's main party of the left.
NDP leaders remain understandably preoccupied with a long-standing problem. According to polls, vast numbers of Canadians seem progressive leaning, and in particular seem to embrace many NDP platform planks. Yet so many of these same voters routinely tune out the NDP, or slip away at election time.
With the Liberal party stuck in a malaise, the NDP built its recent strategy around finally breaking through with progressive-leaning voters. The plan, explained openly at public meetings and clearly evident in Layton's actions, has been to moderate the party's policies and, above all, to continue to focus their attacks on the Liberals.
During the spring, hope seemed to be running high that the Liberals' credibility with many voters had been irreparably damaged and thus the NDP's main goal has been to forestall any recovery. Another key part to this strategy is to avoid intense assaults on Harper and the Conservatives.
During the past election, the NDP went so far as to have Ed Broadbent and other senior party members try to "undemonize" Harper and claim he was moving to the centre.
Since then, the NDP has often declined to come out with guns blazing during the (many) instances when Harper has courted controversy. In fact, Layton has appeared content to be consulted by the Tory government more often than by the previous Liberal government of Paul Martin.
Since few voters are likely to switch from the Tories to the NDP, Layton's advisers seem convinced that devoting energy to bashing Harper is fruitless. At worst, it could bolster the Liberals' favourite tactic of raising fears about Harper's ideology and appealing to progressive-leaning Canadians to "vote strategically" to stop the Tories.
But the NDP's approach is based on a basic misunderstanding of how to win over progressive-leaning voters. Why is it that Canada's party of the left keeps getting hurt by voters' desperation to find any means to defeat the right?
Instead of running away from the continuing rise of hard-line, right-wing politics, the NDP must lead the charge against it. Instead of kicking the Liberals while they are down, the NDP must try to step over them and become the best and most effective alternative to the Conservatives.
Given the Liberals' lethargy and startling inability to agree on basic policy questions, the NDP's chances to emerge as Harper's chief opponent have never been better.
The few instances where the NDP has taken a strong stand have revealed Harper's sizeable vulnerabilities. Last spring, MP Peggy Nash led a campaign against Gwyn Morgan, Harper's nominee for a new public appointments commission.
Nash was on solid ground after Morgan expressed views about multiculturalism and immigrants that were clearly repugnant to any progressive-leaning Canadian. Not only did Morgan's nomination fail, but Harper proceeded to cancel the entire commission in a stunning fit of juvenile petulance.
More recently, the NDP received considerable attention when it criticized Harper's stand on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. It was a bitter disappointment that the NDP failed to pursue its protests more vigorously, leaving Nash's misplaced comments while on a trip in Lebanon to get more press.
The party did not do nearly enough to decry the Conservative government for foolishly continuing its unquestioning support of a military campaign that took a terrible civilian toll and is now seen by most Israelis as a miserable failure. The NDP must respond as progressive-leaning Canadians cry out for someone to hold the Prime Minister to account for acting like a junior American ambassador.
Altogether, seizing the role as the toughest opponent to the Conservative government is the smartest strategy and the best way for the NDP to uphold its core values.
It is also required for the party to maintain its basic credibility. Canadians of all political stripes understand intuitively that fighting against the right is a central duty of the left. This is also the best way for the NDP to re-energize the base that is yearning to take on Harper.
None of this is meant to impugn the integrity of Layton and other NDP leaders, or accuse of them "selling out" the party's principles. These types of denunciations have been another problem in left politics for too long.
Nor is this meant as a call on the NDP to engage in cheap and empty wedge politics, which have generally been specialties of neo-conservatives. Rather, this is a plea to the NDP to wake up, remember who its most dangerous opponents are, and recognize the deep craving of so many voters for a determined and intelligent resistance to the continuing gains of the far right.
Dave Goutor is an assistant professor in the Labour Studies Program at McMaster University.
Layton must change NDP tactics
Par Dave Goutor