Monday, 12 January 2015

LORRAINE MICHAEL AND THE NDP’s LEGACY OF UNREQUITED LOVE

It is trite to say Lorraine Michael loved being leader of the New Democratic Party. It was as if her years as a social activist had prepared her for the role. Of course, the love wasn't always requited. Things did not go as she might have liked, either. But, then, seldom do they for most leaders. Her resignation, last week, suggests an appraisal of her performance is required, as well as that of her Party, as it heads into a new leadership race.

It also goes without saying Ms. Michael will be recognized and applauded for having won five seats in the last election; the NDP’s previous best achievement was just one. For most of the Party’s fifty-four years of political history, the number was zero.

That success was due, in part, to her personal credibility, intelligence, and the passions that inspired her well-articulated support of social policy issues.  The fact that the additional seats were won when the electorate was still suffering “Dan-gue” fever added to the achievement; the NDP enjoyed popular support reaching 20%, according to CRA Polls (a virtual tie with the Liberals), up to the time of its sudden implosion.

It is easy enough to dismiss the Party because Messrs. Kirby and Mitchelmore left in a fit of pique amidst a full blown caucus revolt; undermining its progress and Michael’s leadership. Their move certainly impacted the Party’s fortunes, but I am doubtful it is the sole cause.


The NDP failed to lever the Party’s brief growth spurt, to become a bigger, better defined ‘idea’.  Had Ms. Michael insisted on changing her Party, in an effort to make the political roots of the NDP deeper, the exit of the two caucus members might have been an incident rather than a catastrophe.

The change to which I refer speaks, in part, to the NDP’s inability to converse in matters economic; but its political capital is also limited.

While, at the federal level, Jack Layton’s personal charisma had immense popular appeal, his capacities were not only in the manufacture of lip balm; he was still able to allay popular fears the NDP could not be trusted, in spite of its seemingly unbridled social policy agenda.

Locally, the NDP never achieved that credibility.  Neither Ms. Michael nor her predecessors exhibited the capacity, or the interest, to develop an economic policy agenda that could be assessed. 

Any Party that refuses recognition of a government’s financial limitations exposes its own. 

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael
For that reason, the NDP is, and has always been, less a political party than an advocacy group.

The Party boasts alignment with labour, with citizens on the lower economic strata, with the few who believe in unrestrained state involvement in social programs and in the economy, with select causes and social issues. But most of the people who embrace those same ideas are not aligned with the NDP.  They will not vote NDP.  

NL does not have the population size or voter demographic large enough to sustain multiple parties. Implicitly, if the role of a political party is to get elected, a status that affords influence on the passage of laws and the potential to form a government, one would expect the NDP to take actions that broaden its voter base. 

 A strategy of reform and inclusiveness is one from which the Party has recoiled; it seems afraid to wander outside its comfortable pew suggesting, perhaps, it is hidebound by ideology; handcuffed from even displaying the desire to embrace political pragmatism.  But this argument is incomplete.

The NDP has watched public service bloat on a huge scale, at the expense of sensible social programs and public infrastructure; surely it cannot be so inward looking not to have noticed. It advocates for the poor and under-privileged; but it does not speak their language. The problem is even larger.

Labour, in this province, is decidedly middle class.

Labour unions have demonstrated no capacity to represent middle class interests beyond those that affect the work place or that have a direct bearing on the size of its dues paying membership.

Unions use the NDP as a convenient mouthpiece for their self-serving purposes; but the financial, organizational and popular support labour can theoretically give the Party, (what it needs to thrive), is missing. The NDP likes to exhibit its love affair with organized labour; but there, too, the love is unrequited. The Party’s potential larger constituency understands it plays second fiddle in the arrangement and votes for another brand; one with which it perceives better alignment.  

When the NDP was 20% in the Polls was a perfect time to attempt making it more relevant. Lorraine ought to have consulted the scribbles of British PM Tony Blair on how he converted the Labour Party from what the Economist described as "...a grumbling socialist backwater into a centrist electoral machine...". Of course, she would have had to put her 
e-reader on fast forward to get past the Iraq decision and Blair's Messiah complex; Mow Mowlam, his 'case-hardened' Minister of State having once opined, Tony "thinks he's fucking Jesus".  

Ms. Michael’s inability to sustain the Party’s growth was not the only failure recorded during her tenure.

She was unable to engage the NDP in even a shallow assessment of the most dangerous public policy initiative in our history – the Government’s approval of the Muskrat Falls project.  She chose, instead (like the Liberals), to pick at the fringes of the issue.

Undoubtedly, in making this choice, Ms. Michael shielded the Party from rebuke by her trade union cohorts. I doubt she was taken in by the polar vortex of uninspired nonscence of a Danny Williams, as were so many others. Regardless, willfully blind, she made a conscious choice to risk not just advancement, but the very maintenance of the social programs that are the NDP’s hobby horse. As U.S. $50 oil and Nalcor’s overruns join with Tory incompetence in inflicting fiscal pain on the province, the NDP may wish it had been more courageous. 

Likely, for all these reasons, the NDP’s fortunes in the next election will, again, replicate its previous lengthy period of drought. At least, Ms. Michael has afforded her Party a glimpse of itself as something larger.   

On the most practical level, the NDP needs to learn what other parties seem to have forgotten: the love politicians seek from the public is unrequited because it is not love, but leadership, they desire.

Ms. Michael’s successes as a politician, adds to her stellar record as an educator and social activist.  

This scribe, one of her former students, has always been grateful for her unwavering dedication and professionalism. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent assessment of Lorraine Michael and the provincial NDP's strengths and weaknesses. It's good that she intends to run again in her own riding. We need her voice.

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