Yesterday's election in Nova Scotia produced the first NDP government east of Ontario , and a majority at that.
How did Darrell Dexter manage such a feat, and what lessons does it hold for other jurisdictions in Confederation?
Basically, it comes down to one thing: Dexter followed the correct path.
The NDP is split between two broad traditions.
On the one hand is the patient and incremental path of Tommy Douglas, drawn from prairie social gospel and sifted through a filter of Roy Romanow pragmatism and Tony Blair centrism. It remains the dominant stream in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
This stream isn't the abandonment of past principle its opponents allege. In fact, it is utterly consistent with Douglas's philosophy of demonstrating competency in order to be trusted to bring about change. Douglas and finance minister Clarence Fines prudently managed the finances and carefully planned for debt reduction and balanced books. The massive change they brought about in Saskatchewan took place over decades, with medicare only introduced in 1962, 18 years after Douglas first came to power.
This stream of the NDP is the one Dexter firmly aligned himself with: pragmatic, centrist, "conservative progressive."
The other stream of the NDP comes out of a more radical tradition of demanding immediate change. Dave Barrett's government in British Columbia in the early 1970s is perhaps the best example. It blew through the province like a comet, left a nationalized insurance system in its wake, and burned out three years later to spend another generation in the wilderness.
But most of the followers of this tradition never achieve government. It is more about the journey than the destination, attempting to win over Canadians to an undiluted socialism rather than to moderate to the realities of the political system and the values of the public.
For instance, Michael Laxer and his neo-Waffle " Ginger Group " recently wrote Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath to demand the party issue a comprehensive manifesto as soon as possible and stop focusing its resources primarily in winnable ridings.
"Many party members had reservations relating to the "push to win " strategy that prioritized certain ridings for party resources at the expense of others. We feel that this strategy should be abandoned, as it has failed to produce any tangible results during an election. The NDP should instead adopt a policy that ensures each riding association has the ability to reach every household in their riding at least once during an election campaign. We should force the other parties to have to engage us seriously in every riding in the province."
To argue that the NDP should devote as much money, time and effort in Leeds-Grenville, where they finished in fourth, as Thunder Bay-Atikokan, where they finished just 36 votes behind the winner, is taking the extremely long view.
And rather than a detailed manifesto, the Nova Scotia victory was propelled by a platform that could charitably be called short.
But this is the challenge that bedevils the NDP: in a party long nurtured by claiming moral victories and mythologizing the past, how much can ideology be compromised for power?
Dexter's victory appears to be the result of three things.
First, the leader himself is personally appealing, warm and trust-worthy. Darrell Dexter carefully managed his image as a pragmatist and non-ideological politician, avoiding the firebrand rhetoric common to NDP opposition parties elsewhere. The NDP campaign was based around their leader, rather than party or policy, as their rightly assessed that their leader was the strongest asset of the three with the general electorate.
Second, the party was focused on power over policy. Taking the HST off of home heating is bad policy and good politics, the equivalent of the GST cut pledged by Stephen Harper in 2006. The pledge to balance the budget was disingenuous at a time when the state of the finances is in flux, but necessary communications short-hand to demonstrate a commitment to sober management of the books. There was no vast manifesto of detailed pledges to addressing every faction the party grassroots feels is rightfully aggrieved, but a slender leaflet designed for sales, not debate. In fact, the platform was silent on poverty, arguably the core issue to the NDP across the country.
Third, the voters thirsted for change, and it wasn't on offer from the other two parties. The Liberals were focused on the economy, smart given they were the most trusted on the issue, but missing the desire for something new among a frustrated electorate. The Conservatives broke Wells's fourth law of politics, "the guy who auditions for the role of opposition leader will get the job." By making his entire campaign a screed against the NDP, Rodney MacDonald auditioned his party for the role of opposition, not another term in government.
To their credit, the NDP caught this mood and built their campaign around turning their liabilities into strengths. Untested became unsullied. Radical became really going to change things.
Today, the Nova Scotia NDP is waking up with a light step and a song in their heart. Everything seems possible.
In a few days, as the weight of the fiscal crisis settles on their shoulders, as the magnitude of the service reductions required to maintain their balanced budget commitment become clear, that step will be far heavier.
With a majority government, there is no one else to blame.
With a five year term, there is no escape.
With the fiscal crisis underway, there is no alternative.
It will be an incredible test of Darrell Dexter's political skills if he can hold the NDP together during the tumult ahead. Bob Rae, widely acknowledged as a blue-chip politician, was unable to pull off that trick in Ontario.
The two streams of the NDP - pragmatic and ideologue - are about to be much more visible in Nova Scotia than they have heretofore.
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