Saturday, November 19, 2011

Silver Linings: After Link, the NDP can rebuild

By John F. Conway
Planet S
November 17, 2011

The Nov. 7 election results are about what was expected since that suicidal day the NDP selected Dwain Lingenfelter as leader: a smashing victory for Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party (49 of 58 seats and 64 per cent) and a crushing defeat for Dwain Lingenfelter and the NDP (nine seats and 32 per cent).

No, that’s not quite true. Certainly, it was a crushing defeat for Lingenfelter, who lost his seat in traditional NDP territory, and many of his key caucus supporters went down with him — but the core of the party held firm, and the elected MLAs include some who represent the best traditions of the NDP. If the NDP had slipped below 30 per cent, the defeat would have been catastrophic. Now, the NDP can begin the serious rebuilding process that was postponed by the trip back to the Romanow/Lingenfelter past.

Just as the NDP defeat was all about Lingenfelter, the Saskatchewan Party victory was all about Brad Wall. The Sask. Party leader ran a near-perfect campaign: low key, humble and largely non-threatening (unless you happened to be First Nations or a trade unionist).

Wall refused to make many promises, and those he made were modest: balanced budgets and fiscal prudence, basically. He bragged about the boom times in “the new Saskatchewan,” the place to go to rather than come from, and voters liked it.

Brad Wall’s hands, therefore, are free during his next term. He can interpret his overwhelming mandate any way he wishes.

It’s clear that Wall learned well what not to do from his former boss, Grant Devine. Don’t promise the moon. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t get swept away in right-wing ideological fervour. Wall also kept his party’s right-wing hobgoblins in check, and there were few ideological missteps which might have provoked fear in the electorate.

His slogan, “Moving Saskatchewan Forward”, could just as well have been “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Voters liked Wall’s tune in the same way they like elevator music: it’s not unpleasant and can be easily ignored.

As a result, it was a deadly boring campaign characterized by shallow speeches, no big ideas and no sweeping vision. There was Brad Wall, beaming across the province: smiling, reassuring and declining to present himself as the big ideas innovator. Meanwhile, Lingenfelter, whose body language and facial expression telegraphed the certainty of the defeat he knew was coming, plodded on with some good, solid program ideas to help people who need help. Lingenfelter got his biggest boost in promising to get more of the potash wealth for investment in programs for people, but he apologetically minimized this by reassuring citizens and the industry that all he was asking for — begging for, cap-in-hand, in fact — was a nickel more on the dollar. But it resonated with the public. If any one thing saved the NDP from falling under 30 per cent it was this promise to get a bigger share of potash revenues for the public treasury.

The tasks before both parties are daunting, and flow from the election result.

Wall has made history with his 64 per cent win. But electoral politics these days are notoriously unstable, and there are some dark clouds on his horizon.

The Liberal party disappeared for this election, forcing a two-way race. This is always a problem for the NDP, since the right-wing and pro-business votes are united. Should the Liberals somehow return to the stage, the future for Wall will be less certain as he contemplates winning a third term in 2015.

A bigger challenge might be a huge caucus of 49 restive and elated Sask. Party MLAs, flush with victory over the hated NDP. Wall may have trouble keeping them in line and on message. Many of them hold far-right ideas, of the type which would cause public consternation if they’re blurted out. Wall held them in check during his first term and this election, but that may be difficult now that the Saskatchewan Party has decimated the NDP and achieved massive public support. If the far-right true believers decide it’s time to build the kind of socially conservative society they yearn for, things could get very messy.

Wall has also been criticized by some among his political base for not delivering on truly neoliberal economic values. He spends like the NDP. He has increased public investment in key areas of the welfare system. While he has nibbled away at the publicly owned Crown sector and supported some privatization moves in health care, some among his base, particularly in the business lobby, want a more aggressive push in these directions. And the first thing the business lobby mentioned in celebrating Wall’s victory was that they expect more tax cuts favouring business. Wall will be under enormous pressure to deliver. If he cravenly caves to the business lobby, he will be very vulnerable next time out.

Wall has already declared that his war on unions will continue — the first thing he promised before the ink was dry on the election results was that he was going after the trade union movement’s financial autonomy. He was clearly angry that the trade unions mounted an aggressive ad campaign against his government. Wall is determined to find legislative means to prevent unions using members’ funds for political action.

The war with unions will heat up if he goes ahead. The trade union movement is a formidable foe in Saskatchewan, particularly when its rank-and-file members are aroused and angry. History has shown that such a war is usually ultimately lost by right-wing, anti-labour governments, a bitter lesson learned first by Ross Thatcher and the Liberals in 1971 and then by Grant Devine and the Tories in 1991.

Even NDP governments have had to learn that lesson on occasion, as in the case of Blakeney’s defeat in 1982 and Romanow’s near-defeat in 1999.

The booming economy was a big factor in Wall’s victory. But the economic times remain uncertain, particularly for a resource commodity-based economy like Saskatchewan relying on world markets. Prices for Saskatchewan’s export commodities have been high and demand remains strong. But that could change quickly. The world needs our potash, grains and other crops, oil and natural gas, uranium and so on, but if another global recession hits, Saskatchewan could face some bad times. Resource commodity prices are very unstable, and are often the first and hardest hit in global economic downturns. People may need our resources, but if they have neither the cash nor the credit in the marketplace, they can’t buy them.

Wall’s huge victory is also potentially a house of cards. The sheer size of the landslide has diverted attention away from the dramatic fall in voter turnout — 76 per cent in 2007; 66 per cent this time. Wall and the Saskatchewan Party won 230,671 votes in 2007 for their 51 per cent victory. In 2011 preliminary figures indicate that the party received 248,574 votes for the 64 per cent landslide. Hence Wall’s support grew by only 17,903 votes.

Should the public become engaged for the next election, the results could change in an instant.

The NDP’s tasks are less complex than Wall’s, but more daunting. Can the party rediscover its social democratic soul, finally putting the Romanow/Lingenfelter neoliberal interlude to rest? Can it develop an inspiring program that grips the public’s imagination and revives the belief that democratically elected governments can intervene to bring popular social and economic justice? Can the party rebuild its base and organize it into an active, democratic political machine dedicated to winning power in order to build a truly different and better world? These are small questions, but they require big answers.

With the NDP’s old guard gone and discredited, perhaps the next generation can seize the party apparatus and build a movement capable of taking back the province from the business dictatorship that now rules.

If they do, politics in Saskatchewan could once again become interesting and inspiring.

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