Boredom and the New Democrats

Charles Gordon April 2 1984

Boredom and the New Democrats

Charles Gordon April 2 1984

Boredom and the New Democrats


Charles Gordon

It is not surprising that the NDP is getting a new pollster. Pollsters are supposed to produce good numbers, otherwise why have one? The NDP’s numbers have been terrible for months.

If you were the NDP you would be shocked by the polls. Your party has been minding its own business, behaving itself, raising the usual questions in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, in the period in which the most recent polls were taken, the Tories were squabbling among themselves, fighting each other for nominations; the Liberals were grumbling about their leader, now gone for all intents and purposes; the economic recovery was slowing, and unemployment was still high. Yet here, in the polls, the Tories are holding on to a good lead, the Liberals are gaining, and the NDP is falling back. If you were the NDP, you wouldn’t like a pollster much if he gave you figures like that.

You might hire a political scientist to explain it all to you. He would tell you about shifting demographics, the growing importance of single-interest groups, the decline of traditional patterns of political loyalty formation, the upsurge in regionalized issue orientation—all this plus the cold winter we’ve been having and the increasing popularity of front-wheel drive.

So you would fire the political scientist, of course, but where do you go then for an understanding of what has happened to your party? Right: to a movie critic. The thing the political scientist neglected to tell you is that the people demand to be entertained. The competition for the voters’ attention is intense-television, movies, sports, not to mention the boom in home entertainment gadgets of one sort or another. If a political party wants anybody paying attention to it, it has to provide more than probing questions in the House and a clear stand on El Salvador.

It has to give the people what they demand—intrigue, suspicion, jealousy, naked ambition, the stuff of the human drama, plus the occasional thump of a body hitting the carpet. The Tories are masters at that, and it is worth noting that their popularity really began to take off in the days when the headlines were full of plots against Joe Clark’s leadership. The Liberals are tidier in their bloodletting, but their pickup in the polls has coincided with the most intense period of Trudeau-must-go

mutters from impatient members of his party.

Bloodletting will continue at an accelerated pace as the Liberals club each other about the head in the run-up to their leadership convention. The Tories, too, cannot be expected to slacken off. Although there was a danger, after their convention, that they would actually begin liking each other, it was never really serious. Soon, party members discovered the language issue, and bodies began to thump on the carpet again.

The Tories have never lost the knack of putting on a great show, and the Liberals, after years in semiretirement, are returning to showbiz with a vengeance. It is Dallas on one channel, Dynasty on the other. And on the third—well, some documentary on the danger of some newly discovered food additive. While the Liberals jostled each other for position in anticipation of the Trudeau re-

‘If the NDP wants to find out how to get people to pay attention to it, then it should hire a movie critic ’

tirement, while the Tories slapped each other on the back, forgetting to take the knives out of their hands, what were the New Democrats doing? They were getting along. Oh, there was a mild kerfuffle at their convention last summer when a couple of them, loudly amplified by a dissension-starved press, talked a little about leadership. But nothing came of it. One guy actually said he would run against Ed Broadbent, ran away from reporters and then, when trapped in a washroom, refused to say why. Finally, he said he wasn’t running after all. The media took their cameras back to more interesting parties, and the usual 1,032 people, interviewed in their homes for the Gallup poll, decided that the NDP was worth only about 13 per cent of their voting intentions.

Assuming that a three-party system is worth keeping—and it is, if only because it confuses the Americans—the NDP has to do something. So far, all it has done is criticize the other parties. Most recently, the NDP leader has called the Liberal-Conservative fight a “battle of the banks,” referring to the business affiliations of Brian Mulroney and the

putative leader of the Liberals, John Turner. All that accomplishes is to make voters wonder why the NDP doesn’t have a bank too.

Besides, as we have seen, criticizing other parties creates far less excitement than criticizing your own. The voters have more leisure time these days. Unemployed voters have the most leisure time of all. The people crave entertainment. They need a sense that the leadership of the NDP is worth having. How can it be worth having if New Democrats are not hacking themselves up into little social-democratic pieces over it?

Here is a three-point recovery program for the NDP:

1. Support further cruise missile testing. That will create instant dissension within the party, demands for the leader’s resignation and a considerable amount of furtive knife work by wouldbe successors. The importance of opposition to the cruise as a platform has been overestimated. Cruise opponents flocked to the Liberals to support the Prime Minister’s peace initiative. When the cruise was tested they said, “I didn’t hear anything.” Above all, the cruise, as an issue, is only an issue. Issues are not entertainment.

2. Increase support for the National Energy Program. A wider rift between the federal party and the provincial parties needs to be created in order to attract the voters’ attention. The Tories, with their bitter in-house struggle over the Manitoba language question, gave a textbook example of how that can be accomplished. The federal New Democrats were able, in 1982, to alienate some Western supporters and cause division within their caucus by supporting the Liberals on the Constitution. That was promising, but there was little follow-through. In general, supporting Liberal policies has worked well for the Tories, as Manitoba shows, and the NDP should try more of it.

3. Develop secret policies. The NDP has been too obvious about its policies. The politicians creating the most interest, Turner and Mulroney, have kept their policies pretty much to themselves. Men of Mystery are always exciting. If Broadbent were to declare that the NDP’s policies were none of anybody’s damn business, the party would take a giant step forward into the politics of the ’80s.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.