Don’t Leap off a Cliff: What the NDP Can Learn from “The Longest Suicide Note in History”

The 1983 British general election was a memorable one. The Labour party ran on a strong left wing platform, proposing to unilaterally eliminate Britain’s nuclear arsenal, leave the European Economic Community, abolish the House of Lords, and nationalize several of the corporations that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had privatized. The result of this platform was electoral disaster. The 1983 election result was Labour’s worst of the post-war period. Their platform was described by one of Labour’s own MP’s, Gerald Kaufman, as the “longest suicide note in history” and a pro-Labour journalist compared the party’s campaign to the Battle of the Somme. As Canadian New Democrats reflect on the disappointing 2015 election results, they would do well to keep in mind the disaster that was the 1983 Labour campaign. A shift to left, and to the proposals presented in the Leap manifesto, might seem appealing after moving to the centre resulted in an electoral failure, but such a shift is likely to lead to a worse, not a better, election result.

The recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as British Labour leader and the success that Bernie Sanders is having in the American Democratic primary have led many to suggest that more extreme left-wing campaigns can be lead to electoral success. There is good reason to be skeptical of this argument. The two graphs below show how far left Labour and the NDP are respectively from their strongest competitor (for Labour the British Conservatives and for the NDP the Canadian Liberal party) and the vote share that Labour and the NDP has won for most of the post-1945 elections in Britain and Canada*. The trend indicates that the more to the left Labour and the NDP are compared to their competitors, the worse they do.  When Labour moved left in 1983, 1987, and 1992 they recorded some of their lowest vote shares in post-war history.  The success of the NDP in the 1980s and 2000s, by contast, matches with a move by the party to the centre of the political spectrum.

Labour Positions and Vote Share

NDP Positions and Vote Share

The limitations of extreme left campaigns may even be demonstrated by the Corbyn leadership and Sanders campaign. Even though Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has tied the Conservatives in some polls, only one poll since the 2015 election has Labour over 35%, which is is worse than all but four post-war Labour results. Corbyn has not inspired a revival in Labour fortunes, though the ability of the Conservatives to benefit from this has diminished as the British electorate has become more fractured. For all of the success that Sanders has had in his Presidential bid, he is still falling short of the number of delegates Five Thirty Eight (an American election forecasting site run by Nate Silver) predicts he needs to win the primary.

None of this will be surprising to political scientists or economists. Median voter theory suggests that vote seeking parties should converge on the centre of the political spectrum because that is where most of the undecided voters are. As a party moves further to the left, it distances itself from many of the voters who are undecided and increases the likelihood that they will support the part’s opponents. The further a party like the NDP moves to the left, the more it moves away from moderate left voters, and the more it allows the Liberals to win the support of moderate leftists. This should be particularly concerning for the NDP given that polls conducted at the end of 2015 showed that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had a strong approval rating amongst New Democrats. Moderate New Democrats that like Trudeau would probably have no problem voting for the Liberals if the NDP moves too far to the left. On the other hand, more left wing New Democrats are likely to stick with the party, even if it offers a moderate platform, because it faces little competition on the extreme left.

This makes the proposed Leap manifesto problematic. While some of manifesto can be squared with a moderate progressive agenda, there are other proposals that would create a lot of difficulty for the NDP electorally. The commitment to end investment in infrastructure related to the development of fossil fuels is problematic for a country whose economy is heavily reliant on exporting resources. This is not just a problem in Alberta, where the soon to be only NDP provincial government (the Manitoba NDP looks likely to loose the upcoming April 19th election) opposes Leap. In British Columbia Adrian Dix’s opposition to pipeline development contributed to his surprising election defeat. The party would have difficulty justifying opposition to any pipeline development to the significant numbers of Canadian workers who work in energy related industries across the country. Opposition to a large number of trade deals would be problematic for a country that has an economy that is largely reliant on exports. Such opposition is unlikely to be popular with Canadians who work in manufacturing, resource, or agricultural industries that rely on access to foreign markets to be viable.  Winning the support of these voters is essential if the NDP wants get back to the levels of support it saw in the 2011 election.

The alternative to Leap also is not the rejection of concerns over climate change. Despite rejecting Leap, the Notley government in Alberta has committed to introducing carbon pricing and to making investments in green energy. Refusing to oppose all trade deals does not mean refusing to oppose ones that are particular problematic, and could allow for opposition to a deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Similarly refusing to oppose all pipeline development does not preclude requiring new pipelines meet strict environmental and safety standards and refusing to support the development of pipelines that fail to meet such standards. Many moderate Canadians want to see an NDP that is committed to environmental protection and worker’s rights, but not so steeped in ideology that it rejects development projects and trade deals essential to the Canadian economy without careful consideration. An NDP that wants to win government, and to implement the kinds of progressive policies that the Notley government has undertaken, must demonstrate to Canadians that it is willing to strike a careful balance between the need to protect environment and economic development. The Leap manifesto fails to do this.

There is, finally, reason to be skeptical of the argument that a proposal such as Leap is the only way that the NDP can differentiate itself from a progressive Liberal government. There are a number of different policy areas in which a moderate left critique of the Liberals, along the lines of what the NDP proposed in the previous election, can be powerful. Despite Trudeau’s commitment to feminism, his government has no plans for a national child care program and is selling arms to one of the most misogynistic regimes in the world in Saudi Arabia. Both of things were pointed out by Stephen Lewis at the NDP convention. The Liberals have no plans to introduce pharmacare, meaning that under the Liberal government Canadians will have access to a public healthcare system but not to assistance in paying for the medication that system tells them they need. Even the middle class tax cut the Liberals campaigned on disproportionately benefits the upper-middle class, and while Trudeau has committed to electoral reform, he has yet to make a commitment to introduce a proportional electoral system to Canada. These critiques of the Liberal government can all draw on aspects of the moderate platform that the NDP put forward in the most recent election. The party does not need to take a radical step to the left in order to provide a progressive critique of the Liberals and to differentiate themselves on the national political scene.

The disappointment of the 2015 election result has many New Democrats understandably concerned for the future of the party. The strong NDP result in the 2011 election had the party rightly believing it could compete for government, and in light of that, its fall back to third place can only be seen as a disappointment. It is mistake to attribute that disappointment to the party’s move the centre. Indeed, when the NDP has taken more centrist positions it had consistently performed better than it has when it has taken more extreme left positions. There is hope that an NDP that presents a moderate critique of the Trudeau Liberals can increase its share of the vote and build enough strength to challenge for government once again. If the NDP responds to the 2015 election by adopting a more extreme left platform, such as one based on the Leap manifesto, they risk losing the significant gains that the party has made over the course of the 2000s.

* Party positions are taken from the Manifesto Project Database.