Theirs is a hard campaign for me to cast judgment on. There are many arguments to call it a great success, and arguments to call it a failure as well. So I’ll break it down into the good and the bad.
They knew exactly who they were speaking to and what their message was, and Jack Layton was a master of delivering that message and sticking to his script with ruthless message discipline. Theirs wasn’t a muffled message at all. They would stand up for regular people: Harper wouldn’t, and Dion didn’t. Layton hammered this home effectively and persuasively.
They also reacted to changing events with ease and skill, using the story of the day, such as market meltdowns, as a jumping-point to insert their own narrative (kitchen table, regular folks, jobs) into the media story, ensuring more coverage than another stump speech would have gotten. Another example is promising government funding when the Montreal Formula 1 race was canceled. A small thing, and frankly a bit if cynical opportunism in my mind, but a good example of the kind of inexpensive, bite-sized pollicyettes that have served the Conservatives well and play well in target groups. And in got them in the news.
The NDP articulated politically-attractive policies and communicated them well, resonating with their target voters. With the exception of the chalkboard/Dion cartoon ad, I thought their ads were aggressive, to the point, well articulated and effective, and very visible on the airwaves.
They were rewarded for their efforts with increases (small, but still increases) in seat count and popular vote share, and at least the appearance of momentum.
I have to confess to not being a fan of Jack Layton’s style. I guess you could call him the anti-Dion (which is both good and bad I suppose), he oozes politician but for me he lacks sincerity and comes off gimmicky. I frankly found his performance in the English debates embarrassing, I thought he was overly aggressive to the point of being rude and flip. Obviously not everyone shares this view, he received generally good reviews for his debate performance and consistently high marks for leadership, but for what it’s worth that’s my take.
I also must confess a degree of frustration that legitimate questions weren’t raised about his leadership qualities. He lost four candidates in this race, and it should have been five. What’s more, he stood by each of them until public pressure forced them to quit. How did these people get past vetting? And how did Layton not fire any of them, particularly Jullian West who exposed himself to teenage girls and asked them to “paint him”, instead defending them until they quit? To me that speaks to a massive failure of leadership, and yet Layton skated through it unscathed. Impressive in a tactical sense, depressing in a moral sense. Perhaps it speaks to an apathy of the public to these kinds of political attacks, they’ve just come to expect this of all politicians.
On to more substantive policy issues. As I said, the NDP was successful at crafting politically attractive policies targeted at key voter groups and selling them with skill. Despite being politically attractive though, they were largely bad ideas that, if ever implemented, would be economically disastrous. Just scrap the softwood lumber deal with no new deal in place? Renegotiate NAFTA with the likely US election winners want concessions FROM Canada? Raise corporate taxes going into a recession? Policies that sound great on the surface, but with critical thought raise serious questions.
Lastly, on the bad front, the NDP borrowed heavily to spend the maximum in this campaign, including a heavy ad buy. Despite this, and despite a weak Liberal campaign with a vulnerable opposition record and a leader they ridicule as hideously weak, they still managed just a handful more seats and a small vote increase. And no ground gained in Quebec. Far from the Broadbent-like results they'd hoped for. Will they ever get a chance like this again?
I suspect most NDPers will declare victory and move on, satisfied with another incremental improvement, and the chance to take a larger opposition role in parliament with the Liberals likely to be in leadership disarray for six months. And Layton did run one of the best, if not the best, campaigns of this election. For that, they deserve full credit, and it's hard not to call it a victory. But with a new notations.
If they do seriously hope to form government some day though, or at least, as an interim step, be the official opposition, while they declare victory in public they'd be wise to do some serious introspection in private.
While reading post-election media coverage, I was struck by this passage:
Said Gerry Scott, the NDP manager for the campaign in B.C.: "I think a lot of the less-than-firm-Liberals chose the Conservatives over us . . . Lord knows why."
I think its rather telling that Gerry doesn't know the answer to that. I don't think it's exactly a mystery. Until the NDP finds the answer to that, they won't be able to take the next step forward.
Leadership issues: I don't think Jack Layton needs to worry about challengers for his job. He performed solidly in this campaign, and can claim small victories. However, with some other contenders in caucus now like Tom Muclair, Layton may be under more pressure than before to start delivering results. They won't be satisfied with incremental progress forever, not after he has raised expectations higher.
Tomorrow: Part Three: The Conservative Party Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers