CANADA

The New Democrats’ dilemma

Linda Diebel September 12 1983
CANADA

The New Democrats’ dilemma

Linda Diebel September 12 1983

The New Democrats’ dilemma

Linda Diebel

The political fortunes of the New Democratic Party and leader Ed Broadbent sagged noticeably last week when Brian Mulroney’s Tories claimed a previously safe federal riding in British Columbia. The byelection loss in Mission-Port Moody, east of Vancouver, clearly stunned an already demoralized party, raised fears about the NDP’s ability to hold western seats in the next election and undermined Broadbent’s increasingly shaky leadership. The party’s federal secretary, Gerald Caplan, cautioned MPs to have “the common sense not to say very much out loud in the next week.” Still, on the eve of this week’s caucus in Nova Scotia, Regina East MP Simon de Jong told Maclean’s, “If there is somebody out there who can save us seats and broaden our base, I’m sure Ed would be the first to resign.”

The NDP’s prospects have never seemed bleaker. The latest Gallup poll gave the party a meagre 16 per cent of the popular vote—a disastrous 10-point slide in 18 months. Party strategists are nervous about the extent of the collapse of the Liberal vote in the West. They are well aware that Mission-Port Moody— the Liberals plunged to just five per cent of the popular vote from 15 per cent in the last election—could signal worse to come. In the West, as elsewhere, the NDP needs a three-party split in the vote to win. Head to head fights with the Conservatives in the 25 NDP seats in the West could cost them dearly in their current power base. Noted de Jong: “To have to get 51 per cent of the vote to get a seat—I don’t even want to think about it.”

Even more damaging than the polls, according to many party members, is the numbing sense that the party has lost its purpose. Broadbent, a former political science professor, has long been criticized for his “academic” leadership style, but lately MPs have started to publicly criticize the party’s inability to define a clear message and convey it to the public. Vancouver-Kingsway MP Ian Waddell said that the party is “still dealing with the problems of the 1960s in the 1980s.” De Jong is blunter. “What we lack,” he said, “is any kind of thought-out and articulated strategy.” In his own defence, Broadbent argued last week that the public is not ready to accept NDP policies. “It’s not that we are not understood by the public,” he said, “but that we are too well understood.” For Broadbent, the latest speculation comes just two months after a stormy national convention in Regina which featured oblique but public attacks on

his leadership. Just as troubling is the recurrent feud between the party’s western stronghold and an Ottawa and Ontario contingent that outsiders ac-

cuse of running the show. As Alberta NDP Leader Grant Notley pointed out, “Four vital positions, including leader, national secretary, chief party whip and acting house leader, are filled by people who come from within a 100-mile radius of each other [in southern Ontario].” Eastern domination of the party, westerners argue, causes eastern-influenced mistakes. In 1979 western supporters watched anxiously as the federal caucus joined the Liberals to defeat the short-lived Joe Clark government. And Broadbent’s decision to support the Liberal constitutional package—despite anguished pleas from within caucus—is still regarded as his most devastating tactical error. De Jong, one of

four western MPs who publicly broke ranks over the issue, says that there is not enough western input in policy. “We have all kinds of good, freewheeling discussions in caucus,” he said, “then nothing happens.” But Broadbent stiffens at suggestions of an eastern mafia. As he told Maclean’s: “One of my closest friends in the party is [British Columbia NDP Leader] Dave Barrett. You can’t get much farther west than that.”

The NDP’s problems run even deeper than an East-West split. Party strategists point out that the Tories are still benefiting from a cross-country swing to the right. As Peter Warrian, a labor economist and member of the party’s national executive, put it, “The Tories successfully exploited a climate of fear.” Furthermore, the Mission-Port Moody results served to underline the party’s inability to clearly determine the kind of election campaigns that it wants to run in the 1980s. In British Columbia insiders complained that the party had failed to run the “negative Tory-bashing” campaign they had promised supporters and to take advantage of more sophisticated polling techniques available to them. While the Tories ran a slick, well-organized campaign, the NDP forces—dispirited and exhausted after their May 5 provincial election defeat to Premier William Bennett’s Socreds—were unwilling to concentrate on the federal byelection. One campaign organizer reported that little more than door-to-door canvassing was done in the riding.

The task facing the caucus as it meets this week at an Atlantic seaside resort is to solve some of the party’s crucial problems. If the NDP does not succeed, warned Saskatchewan MP Doug Anguish, “there will be no reason to put us into a governing position.” As de Jong explained: “Fundamentally, our economy and society are moving into the postindustrial era, and we can no longer continue to offer people merely a vague statement of principles. We have to find viable programs for a technological age.” As the caucus grapples with such major policy questions, the grumbling over Broadbent’s leadership will likely be silenced. Burnaby MP Svend Robinson, a frequent caucus rebel, predicted, “There will be some soul-searching and agonizing and wailing and beating of chests, but I’m optimistic.”

Besides, the party must face the reality that unless Broadbent chooses to resign his leadership, he cannot be formally challenged until the next convention in 1985. And party dissidents no doubt remember that the last challenger to his leadership—a university student at the Regina convention—hid for 40 minutes in a washroom to escape reporters and, in the end, dropped out.