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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Voters don’t trust the NDP to run the shop Add to ...

For those with a taste for nasty theatrics, the finger-pointing among British Columbia New Democrats has been a delicious spectacle.

The NDP lost the last election in B.C., an election they had expected to win. (So did the pollsters.) Ever since, the assignment of blame for the debacle has consumed the party, culminating in the leader and the party president quitting and the leaking of a memo from the campaign manager explaining that the loss was mostly everyone else’s fault.

Certainly there is much blame to share for a campaign gone wrong, but something much deeper plagues the party in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada. That something – the perception that the party can’t manage the economy – hurt the B.C. NDP and might contribute to doing in NDP Premier Darrell Dexter in the Oct. 8 Nova Scotia election. If the Nova Scotia NDP does indeed lose power, the party will be left governing only one province, Manitoba.

In B.C., no matter how hard the party tried to present itself as a responsible economic steward, at the campaign’s end too many voters had too many doubts about the party’s economic competence. Matters were not helped by leader Adrian Dix’s mid-campaign switch from neutrality to opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, a switch that was all about sopping up Green Party votes rather than demonstrating good economic management.

New Democrats across Canada resent the perception of their economic shakiness. They argue, quite rightly, that NDP provincial parties in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have run tidy governments, whereas Conservative ones have often racked up large deficits.

Moreover, New Democrats can’t figure out why the federal Conservatives brag about their economic record and insist they are focused on “jobs and the economy.” Just why Conservatives are accorded positive scores for economic management is indeed a bit hard to fathom, what with unemployment above 7 per cent, economic growth a meagre 1.6 per cent, and the country burdened by trade, current account and fiscal deficits.

We can do better than this, the NDP insists, but not enough people tend to believe them. Instead, the NDP is credited with being much better at redistributing wealth than creating it, which means in times of slow growth the NDP gets politically penalized. Nor does the NDP often see government programs it wants to kill or curtail, since expanding government rather than contracting it is part of the party’s DNA.

The party is also tempted by moralizing crusades – the latest being abolition of the Senate – that take the NDP far away from the central concerns of the largest number of voters. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair spent much of the summer hammering on the abolish-the-Senate, to no discernible political effect in large part because abolition isn’t going to happen.

Opposition leaders struggle in the summer to get attention. But one did this summer: the Peter Pan of Canadian politics, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. Everywhere Mr. Trudeau went, the crowds were large and apparently enthusiastic. His legalization of marijuana proposal at least got attention, which is more than can be said for anything the NDP expressed. Then he attracted two impressive people to identify with the party: Chrystia Freeland, an author and journalist and now candidate in Toronto Centre, and former army chief Andrew Leslie.

Their recruitment is part of a systematic Liberal effort to find people of substance to stand next to Mr. Trudeau who, for all his celebrity qualities and likeability, still lacks gravitas. Surrounding him with people of experience is part of an attempt to convey the impression that the Liberals are seriously preparing to govern again.

It’s not a good time for NDP-type parties in the countries whose economies most resemble Canada. Conservative or centrist parties, either alone or in coalition, are running (or soon will be running) Norway, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Spain, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The one Socialist government in a big European country, France, is in terrible political shape. The United States is split between a mildly liberal President and the Republican House of Representatives.

The NDP can run bad campaigns, as it did in B.C., or good ones, as it did federally the last time. Over the long haul, however, what counts for the party is a positive answer to the question: Can it run the store?

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