Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Old Stephen Harper

I don't have very much to say about the debates. I watched the English one but didn't see much of the French one - less to do with linguistic preference than what was going on in my life those evenings. I enjoyed what I saw, even if I saw it as mere theatre and not very consequential. There is one thing Jack Layton said, though, that I'd like to comment on. Here is one representative quote:

...I remember a Stephen Harper once upon time, who came here to change Ottawa, who was going to stick up for the little guy. But you've become what you used to oppose, you've changed in some way. I mean you used to care about the environment and now we're back of the pack internationally. You said you'd clean up Ottawa from scandals and now we've got the most closed, secretive government we've pretty well ever had, with scandals and people stuffed in the senate and charged with fraud. Our healthcare system, you said you'd care about that, we've got people with no family doctors, what's happened to you? What changed?
I enjoyed hearing this on the night, and although it might be too little too late, I'd encourage Jack Layton to run with this. After all, it's a really useful strategy. Here's why: So far in this campaign, we've seenthe Liberals shift to the left and the NDP shift to the centre. Both are very actively courting each other's votes, with a notion that Conservative votes are stitched up, so they might as well each present themselves as the only real opposition to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, the assumption that 'Conservative votes are all stitched up' becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tory leaners become Tory core as they see little in the other parties to reflect their interests. Previous Tory hardliners now soured on the party will still line up to cast their vote for them, seeing no alternative. The assumption is that the Tories can only bleed to the Liberals, as the right would move more easily to the centre than it would jump straight over the centre to the left. But I think this shows a very significant reality, one that the mutations of both the NDP and the Conservative Party tend to conceal: the two have similar roots. The two were born as 'populist' protest movements critical of Ottawa-based 'élitist' politics. And yes, the two were both born of 'Western alienation'. Now, neither are very willing to remind you of that. Both want desperately to be seen as having legitimacy coast-to-coast. In the case of the CPC, though, they can turn their gaze east knowing that their Prairie populist core will stick with them. The NDP, on the other hand, seem at risk of permanently losing that Prairie populist vote. Which really will turn them into just-another-Liberal-party. The long-gun registry matters. And that's not been going well for the NDP. In voting against the Conservative private member's bill to kill the registry, Layton spoke about finding new alternatives, a new solution, etc. But I haven't heard anything about that. On the long-gun registry, the Conservatives' position is crystal clear, as is the Liberal and BQ position. All three are even willing to lose votes on it in order to gain votes from people passionately pro- or anti-gun. The NDP is lost. They could have brought out a new policy and said, 'this is how to breach the divide between urban and rural'. I don'tknow what it would have been, but it should have existed. It would have played well to the 'Ottawa's broken' idea of the NDP as the bridge between opposing interests. But there's more: the birth of the Reform Party in the early 1990s did more than just kill the PC vote out west - it gave the NDP a real thump, too. That's not as illogical as it seems: the paradigmatic differences between the two parties was less relevant than the idea that someone would stand up for regional interests in Ottawa, that an alternative to Liberal and PC governments that didn't care about 'the little man' in the West existed. People in the West have always craved this: in Alberta and rural BC, this once meant Social Credit, but elsewhere it has always meant NDP. Preston Manning had a folksy charisma that the NDP was starting to lose sight of. And in the West, people continue to vote for Preston Manning. People continue to see Stephen Harper as 'our man' (fair enough - the rest of the country sees Harper as 'the West's man' as well). The respect people have in the West for Stephen Harper is to a large extent based on a Stephen Harper who hasn't existed for ten years now. Jack Layton needs to seize on that and throw it in Harper's face. Layton needs, in every campaign stop in the West, to praise Harper. That is, to praise the man Harper used to be. To paint a picture of a man who at one time stood up for 'the little guy' but is now every bit the Ottawa élitist he used to hate. Paint Harper as a sell-out. Grab the 'Western alienation' vote. Why? Well, the best way to hand Harper another mandate is to allow him to keep all of his votes. In the past three years, Harper has been slowly working on shoring up his base. And what is remarkable is that no-one else has made much of an effort to erode it. It's a really bizarre turn of events that Harper has been able to 'widen' his tent by shoving more and more people in the front door and not allowing a single one to leak out the back. And it's the other parties' fault. Ignatieff isn't even trying. The Liberals could steal economic conservatives more easily than social conservatives, but Ignatieff has taken the tax-and-spend mantle and run with it. Elizabeth May has largely eroded Jack Harris's cross-spectrum consensus, returning the Green Party to its roots as a left-wing party (something that in other circumstances I would praise). Duceppe looked like being able to squeeze Harper out of Québec City at one point, but now I'm not so sure. And that leaves Jack... I'm astounded to find myself saying 'praise Stephen Harper in order to steal votes from Stephen Harper'. But that's the point - there are two Harpers out there. They share the same name and the same body (and the same love of Nickelback), so it's easy to confuse them. Layton nees to remind people of the differences betwen them. Not only will it stop the Harper majority, it could potentially sweep Harper out of power entirely.

1 comment:

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