Until the Progressive Conservatives plunged into their divisive leadership crisis last month, the New Democrats constituted only a dispirited, sometimes ineffective band of 32 MPs in the House of Commons. Popular support for the party had plummetted from a heady 26 per cent of decided voters in February, 1982, to a dismal 20 per cent last month, according to the Gallup poll. The party lost an April provincial election that it could have won in Saskatchewan and it captured just one of the two byelection contests it expected to take in October.
Now, however, New Democrats in Ottawa are displaying a new sense of confidence and commitment. And it is all because of the Tories. “Only two weeks ago we were terrified that we could not save half the caucus in a federal election,” admits a senior strategist. “What the Conservative bomb really means is that now we can save our caucus—and maybe do a little bit better.”
The NDP has been quick to exploit its
unexpected good fortune. Last week key caucus members fanned out across the nation in a two-week public relations campaign to convince Canadians that their party has become the real opposition. Although it is too soon to predict what effect the party’s activities will have on its popularity standing, the prospect of a bitter Tory leadership fight has clearly reinvigorated the NDP. The party has at least gained a breathing space and at best it might face Conservative and Liberal parties split by divisive leadership struggles in the next fedf eral election—a situation in which the NDP could move to occupy both the left and the centre of the political spectrum and spread its appeal. And, at a more mundane level, the money Conservatives spend clobbering each
other will not be spent attacking the
Party strategists believe that the NDP is only partially responsible for its own problems. Because public opinion polls indicate that Canadians want to see the Liberals defeated, the NDP appears to be caught in the traditional third-party squeeze, with the electorate choosing to vote for the party that has the best chance of ousting an unpopular government. As long as the Conservatives could claim undisputed eminence in the polls and maintain a facade of unity, federal politics was reduced to a two-party race, and the NDP was sidelined. At the same time, party insiders feared that many voters had also rejected their economic prescriptions. Said NDP Leader Ed Broadbent: “Although we are saying that now is the time for the government to play a more direct role in the economy, my belief is that, because of terrible Liberal mismanagement, most people of Canada do not want more involvement by the state in the economy. Therefore, our message could be getting through, but a number of people simply don’t like the message.”
The party’s luck began to change when a commission of Canadian Roman Catholic bishops issued a powerful New Year’s message that fuelled a new economic debate. Basing their plea on “basic gospel principles,” the bishops insisted that priority must be given to the “real victims of the current recession”—the unemployed and the disadvantaged. It was the traditional NDP line, prompting both the party and labor representatives to joke that God was on their side. “The bishops helped enormously to turn the tide of political reaction away from the right, away from the possibility of a Reagan society in the north,” declared NDP federal secretary Gerry Caplan.
That stroke of good fortune was followed by Joe Clark’s decision to hold a leadership convention. Two weeks ago the New Democrats surveyed the resulting disarray in Parliament and put together a five-page strategy to promote the message that a Liberal government is a bad government, the Conservatives “don’t care about people—they are catering to the right-wing element”—and the NDP has “workable solutions” to the economic crisis. The party reasons that it can use the period leading up to the Conservative convention “to capitalize on the disarray in which the
Tories now find themselves.”
The revitalized NDP attack has been carefully orchestrated. Such key caucus members as House Leader Ian Deans, trade critic Lome Nystrom, job creation critic Ian Waddell and priorities chief Rod Murphy took part in hotline shows from Cape Breton to Victoria last week with attacks on the Liberals and the Tories. They also put forward economic solutions for regional problems and reminded listeners that the NDP is the only party to oppose testing of the cruise missile in Alberta and Saskatchewan—another issue that has come to life in the past few weeks. For his part, Broadbent refrained from strident partisan attacks and travelled instead to northern Ontario and Saskatchewan to preach the party’s economic platform.
The NDP has launched its new drive after several years of crippling internal turmoil. On the policy front, the party was deeply divided last fall when Broadbent flirted briefly with the Conservative belief that the deficit should not be increased as a means of stimulating the economy. The leader recanted late last year and called for “a planned increase in the deficit.” That reversal was timely since the Liberals are expected to increase the deficit in their March budget to create employment with such economic development projects as railway construction. Meanwhile, the NDP’s internal wounds are finally healing after the party split, largely along East-West lines, over the Constitution issue in 1981.
Despite their optimism, party members realize that the joy may be shortlived. If Peter Lougheed runs for and wins the Conservative leadership, he could wreck the NDP’s western base—26 of its 32 seats are from west of Ontario. But the other leading Tory contenders are viewed with equanimity if not glee. The leadership of the NDP itself is not an issue, despite some discontent on the left wing of the party, even from the likes of Svend Robinson, the Burnaby MP shuffled unhappily out of the justice critic’s post recently. Even if this is only because there are no credible alternatives to Broadbent’s steady, if occasionally uninspired leadership, it does mean that the NDP can offer voters a kind of stability that neither of the other two parties can muster. “Since we’re the only party that knows its leader and its policies, we’re going to be in a pre-election position for a lot longer,” says Manitoba MP Murphy. “That’s an important position for us because we have to work harder to sell our message.” The party’s big gamble is that the public will like what it hears — if it is finally paying attention.
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