The apparent gradual decline in NDP fortunes over the course of this gruellingly long campaign has carried a morbid fascination for me. As polls stand today, the NDP are thoroughly out of this race now (at least in terms of forming government), the Liberal Party seems to be on the gradual uptick and the Cons, though they received a racist bump in the polls, are basically holding steady. The polls at the moment seem to point toward a fairly large number of people switching from the NDP to the Liberals in the past few weeks, and the Liberals are now ahead in Ontario and threaten to actually overtake an NDP lead in Quebec that once seemed unassailable.
Predictably, there is a lot of blog-chatter concerning these recent movement in the polls. Is the NDP decline a result of a poorly run campaign? Is it a result of Tom Mulcair's apparent abandonment of traditional NDP leftist ground? It is it a demonstration that is ultimately, despite temporary shifts, an expression of the long-standing status quo of the Conservative/Liberal strangle-hold on Canadian politics.
Let me say right off that it doesn't appear to me that the NDP decline is a result of the party's abandonment of its leftist tradition. As far as I can see, people are simply partisan, they care surprisingly little about what 'their' party's actually policies are. The majority of people seem to be lead around by the nose by their party and fall continually for their talking points and various emotional appeals. Supporting a political party seems, for many people, like supporting a sports team - it is not a rational decision, that is just "my" team and I am sticking with it. The most obvious demonstration of this attitude is actually the Conservative Party. There is very little that is conservative about the contemporary Conservative Party, yet their base of support remains remarkably steady. You would think that a Conservative PM running six or seven straight deficits would turn off Conservative voters, but it doesn't. Harper once said, and most conservative say they agree, that stimulus spending does nothing to help the economy and that running a deficit under any conditions is just an attempt to buy votes. But Harper's total performative hypocrisy on this matter has done nothing to the core of Conservative support. Furthermore, though Harper has made guns (particularly assault rifles) easier to get in Canada, he has dubious credentials on the libertarian front - he has significantly increased police and state powers, something Conservatives (particularly of the North American variety) usually say that they strongly oppose. Harper has done nothing to protect the environment. On the contrary, he has basically gutted most of our environmental protections. Hardly a traditional conservative value. Harper has done nothing to further the social conservative cause either. He never made any attempts to limit abortion and left gay marriage alone. Harper is not 'conservative,' he is 'corporatists' plain and simple. But people who vote Conservative have simply chosen their team and are sticking with it. Rightly or wrongly, many people (and many traditional NDP supporters included) contend that the NDP has abandoned their traditional left position in many ways, yet their core support appears to remain unchanged. It is very difficult to contend that the NDP of today is anywhere near as left as the NDP of Ed Broadbent, but the core remains unshaken.
I also don't believe, as some of my blogging peers contend, that the NDP has fallen in their fortunes because they have run a poor campaign. The NDP has certainly run an uninspiring and uninspired campaign, but then so have the other two major parties. The NDP has failed to be bold or particularly interesting but there has been nothing that I could say that could be defined as a "gaff" in their campaign. In fact the Liberals have been the only of the three major parties that could be said to have run a "good" campaign and that is only because Trudeau has exceeded expectations and has not particularly faltered.
I think the NDP decline is fairly simple to explain actually. It is the result of two factors. The first is that the soft support in Quebec has evaporated, and the second is that its apparent support in the rest of the country was largely illusory. The NDP support in Quebec began to evaporate when they released their fiscal platform. I think that Mulcair's deficit fetishism is the primary factor in the NDP losing support in that province. It seems that Quebecers are tired of "austerity" attitudes and they were just turned off by Mulcair's apparent need to stick to a "balanced" budget. Proof of this is that since Trudeau came forward with his "infrastructure" investment plan, the Liberals have been on the steady rise in Quebec and are now nearly tied with the NDP in a couple of polls. I think that the Niqab issue has been relatively small in actual voting intentions. Both Mulcair and Trudeau have been fairly clear in articulating their support for the court's decision and the need to support religious freedoms, but the Liberals have been on the uptick while the NDP has faltered, suggesting that this is not the primary factor in voter intention changes. The second reason that the NDP has fallen in the polls is, I think, that the high status that they enjoyed in the polls in the first part of the campaign was a kind of false reading. I think that during those heady days of the Duffy trial a lot of Conservative voters were pissed off and embarrassed to admit that they would support the Conservatives, and since many Con voters would never vote Liberal on principle (and would particularly never vote for someone named Trudeau), and since Mulcair's political style seems similar to Harper's, this skewed a lot of polls and created the illusion that the NDP had a chance at forming government. A lot of Con voters were just saying that they were going to vote NDP out of anger with no actual intention of voting for that party. As the election has neared and the Cons have effectively diverted a lot of attention away from their terrible corruption and incompetence, some of the supposed support for the NDP has just dissipated. Meanwhile, the Liberals (again, rightly or wrongly) have managed to place themselves in the perception of many as somewhat revitalized party with a slightly left of centre slant. This has meant that some voters have returned to the party and some people who are soft NDP voters are thinking maybe the Liberals are a worthwhile alternative to Harper. Furthermore, as the election nears I suspect the Liberal numbers will rise as the "anyone but Harper" crowd sees the Liberals as the party most likely to beat the Conservatives.
However, the falling fortunes of the NDP doesn't trouble me that much. I think that there is little doubt that the political discourse in the world and Canada is changing. As I have said before this change is a result of the near total failure of Neo-Liberalism to deliver greater prosperity or equality, the growing precariousness of people's lives, and the entrance of a new generation into political life. The first significantly noticeable change in this regard was the so-called "Occupy" movement. We are now seeing changing attitudes in economic orthodoxy everywhere, increased talk of the need to address inequality, genuine movement in the IMF and World Bank, and a change in discourse among many political parties. These kinds of changes are very slow and they have barely arrived in Canada, and so far have left our politicians largely untouched. But the very fact that a national leader like Trudeau is talking publicly about running deficits with the intention of investing in infrastructure is a sign of this shift. The truth is that regardless of one's political beliefs, it is pretty clear that neither Trudeau nor Mulcair represent a deep change in political policies. And because of the depth of Harper's threat to even basic democracy and civility in Canada, this election is not really representative of the looming political shift that is just beginning. Anyone who is not stupid enough to support the Conservatives is largely in panic mode hoping to get rid of this political pariah and get to a government, any government, that actually respects the Constitution, the rule of law, the traditions of democracy and Westminster and won't continue to dismantle the very basics of our political system. Getting rid of Harper (if we can actually do it) if the first step in a long journey. I am not too worried about the apparent falling fortunes of the NDP because ultimately I believe that Mulcair is, like Harper, yesterday's man. And in the political change that is coming the NDP as well as the Liberals will have to rebuild themselves in response to what will be radically different views about government and the economy in the coming 20 years.