By Erin Weir
Progressive Economics Forum
November 10th, 2011
It could have been worse. Political commentators were musing about the NDP falling below 30% of the popular vote and to fewer than half a dozen MLAs. In fact, it garnered 32% and elected nine.
With 3% voting Green, 1% voting Liberal and even fewer voting for other parties, the NDP is the only viable opposition. Either the NDP comes back or Saskatchewan becomes an Alberta-style one-party state. The challenge for progressives is to rebuild the NDP in Saskatchewan.
With Dwain Lingenfelter personally defeated, the NDP’s provincial executive and council will have to organize a leadership race. I see several good reasons to not hold the leadership vote until early 2013. I find myself allied with Malcolm (and possibly God) on this point.
Party and Policy Renewal
After the 1999 and 2007 electoral setbacks, many Saskatchewan New Democrats sought party renewal processes. Leadership races soon eclipsed these efforts. Members were less engaged in subsequent policy development because everyone knew that the leader and his key advisors would make the real decisions.
Delaying the next leadership vote would allow space for a more genuine renewal. Prospective leadership candidates could participate and set out their positions on the issues discussed.
Of course, 2011 is not just a replay of 1999 or 2007. The Romanow and Calvert governments suffered from a lack of progressive policy. In opposition, the NDP was slow to articulate policy alternatives and instead made ineffective personal criticisms of the Premier.
But ultimately, the party produced a very progressive and popular platform in 2011. (Having prepared and presented the platform’s fiscal framework, I do not claim to be an impartial observer.) As Greg Fingas correctly argues in today’s Leader-Post, the NDP had a great message but the wrong messenger.
The Saskatchewan NDP is pointed in the right policy direction. However, this agenda would benefit from some refinement and popular education. A later leadership vote would give this process time to play out.
More Potential Candidates
A quick leadership vote could restrict the field of potential candidates to the shrunken caucus. Anyone from outside would face serious doubts about their ability to get a seat in the Legislature. Even if a current MLA agreed to step aside, it is not obvious that the NDP would win the resulting by-election during the coming year.
By early 2013, it is more likely that a couple of MLAs from both parties might retire, creating openings at the Legislature. Given at least some decline in Sask Party popularity over time, a rebuilt NDP could be more confident of a leader from outside of caucus winning a by-election.
Waiting until 2013 would provide more opportunity for those NDP incumbents who have served only one term or less to develop themselves and define their policy priorities. This approach would facilitate a stronger field of candidates, from both inside and outside caucus.
Defence Against Negative Ads
The next NDP leader will presumably be met with a barrage of negative advertising from the Sask Party. New Democrats would do well to elect a leader who will be less vulnerable than Lingenfelter to such attacks. But it will also need a communications strategy and war chest to counter them.
Delaying the leadership vote until 2013 would prevent the Sask Party from negatively defining the NDP leader before New Democrats have the organizational and financial resources to fight back. This timeline would still leave at least two years to positively define and establish the new leader before the 2015 provincial election.