Monday, August 29, 2011

What Now?

This is hardly the first, and won't be the last, post on the future of Canada's New Democratic Party after the loss of its most popular and successful leader in its 50-year history, but he's my humble take on what's likely to occur.

First, forget the notion that the NDP are totally up the creek without a paddle. While Jack Layton was more or less the only reason for the success the NDP saw in the May 2nd election, the result of that success is that those who served and helped that dream come true can now put their expertise to good use, as well as pass it on for future Dipper generations. Because the fact is, while Layton's charisma was the reason people went out to vote for him and his candidates, the organization he pushed and fought to build within the NDP was effective enough to actually make use of his charisma. Even with Layton's passing, the party he helped build still exists.

But this is all the NDP has to look forward to at the current moment. They are in a good position, with a strong organizational team and the fact that they're the Official Opposition, with all the media attention and respect that comes with it. After all, the general rule is that if you're the second largest party, you'll benefit more when the first-place party starts to lose its support. For better or for worse, continue to expect the NDP in second place in national polls thanks to their gravitas in Parliament.

After that, it starts getting a lot more troubling. The New Democrats built themselves up as a brand, but the fact is that brand was utterly tied to the persona of Jack Layton. Even when the news of his cancer broke back in 2009, none of us could honestly think of an NDP without Smilin' Jack Layton. He was what the NDP was, and into the near future will continue to be.

And that right there is the number one risk to the NDP. Because the NDP was essentially Team Jack Layton (TJL), any future leader is going to be measured up to him. The next leader of the NDP is going to have to be as witty, as charming, as organizationally intelligent, and sometimes as nutty, as Jack Layton was, or there is going to be a dive in the polls. But we all know there is no one that even comes near Jack Layton on the roster of potential NDP leaders. TJL will the benchmark for all NDP actions in the near and possibly long-term future, just as Trudeau still remains to this day the Liberal benchmark.

That's the one issue with such popular leaders - they tend to overshadow the party brand. And when they leave, the party invariably suffers when the next leaders fail to match up. There is a general consensus that this is what happened to the Liberal Party, after both Trudeau and Chretien; the loss of two larger-than-life leaders meant that the next leaders were overshadowed, which meant that their own flaws were magnified as well (as in, Martin was nowhere near as decisive as Chretien, etc.).

Sometimes this is cured by a spell in Opposition, where the party itself becomes a stronger force to contend with, in terms of the power fights between the party, the caucus, and the leadership. When the brand is rebuilt, voters tend to gloss over leadership questions when the incumbent party is doing poorly. Good examples of this are found everywhere in provincial politics: Ontario's transition from Ernie Eves to Dalton McGuinty, Quebec's election of Jean Charest's Liberals, the recent election of David Aylward's PCs in New Brunswick, and to an extent one can claim the 2006 election of Stephen Harper's Conservatives followed this pattern.

Another way the "leadership gap" is solved is when another nearly-as-popular or more popular leader comes and takes over the party in question. This is the eternal hope for the federal Liberals, though the fact is, May 2nd should have taught us something: leadership is an important focus for a challenging party, but so is a strengthened brand. You can have crappy leaders but a fairly respectable brand that people will vote for - and the fact that the Liberals did have some respectability and strong incumbents was our only saving grace on May 2nd.

Anyways, this is a pretty risky way to try and stay on top (or second, as it were) because of the risk associated with trying to find a popular leader. Ignatieff was popular for a time, but only in the long run did we learn how his flaws and the ease of attacks against him would work against us. It's been different for Harper, who has never been tremendously popular, and won a majority on the backs of an Orange Scare in the GTA and other regions. However, because he's seen as competent, he's worked out in the long-term for the Conservatives.

But no one actually knows until time moves forward. The NDP may pick someone who seems popular at the time, but in the long-term becomes a liability. In that case, it's up to the party to make up for the shortfalls in the leadership.

And that's when we get to the heart of the issue: the NDP as an entity itself is not a strong brand. Sure, they have a good organization, but this was an organization brought about by a leader who became the party's brand. The New Democrats spent a lot more time pumping up Jack than they did themselves as a brand. If they fail to rectify this, fail to get a leader as good as Jack (bet money on that), then they will lose seats in 2015, barring a total, utter collapse of the Conservative Party per 1993.

It would be worse if they suddenly realized that the Liberals started pulling the same tricks they did themselves in the recent campaign. I know people keep saying the Liberals are doomed to an eternity in third place, et cetera, but the same thing the NDP did to us, we can do back to them if they're not careful. All it takes is a competent Liberal leader and a message that the NDP and their leader simply aren't cutting the job as Opposition/government-in-waiting, and we'd likely see ourselves climbing over them again. It's easier said than done, of course, but so was getting the Dippers into Official Opposition.

So, here's the conclusion. The NDP need to get a leader as popular as Jack Layton, or they're screwed barring a 1993 collapse. Or, they need to build up their brand as a trustworthy, competent brand, and have a competent leader to coast their way to the top. If they can't do either, then they could face troubles ahead.

Now, its a long time before the next election, and anything can happen. But the fact is, there are simply some laws you can't get past in politics. The biggest for the NDP being that they lost the man who was the brand, and therefore a lot of their appeal. And in politics, when things start rolling downhill, it's extremely hard to push it back up.

The loss of Jack is a major turning point in their history, just as his election was. If they make the right decisions, they can become the government and show Canadians how the NDP governs. Get it wrong, and they could end up right where they were before. And those decisions will be coming up within the next weeks, months, and years. We'll see whether the political drama of the NDP ends on a high or low note soon enough, I think.

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