Good policy, not “populism”, will make the NDP ready to govern

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In an article by Alex Ballingall published on Saturday, Avi Lewis is quoted saying that the federal NDP should “chug this Kool-Aid [of populist politics] rapidly if they don’t want to be wiped out.” This is a strange metaphor to use in this context, given its widespread association with the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, which claimed 918 lives. In the vernacular, “drinking Kool-Aid” has come to connote wilful acceptance of ultimately self-destructive delusions out of unthinking (normally political) group loyalty. This probably isn’t the best framing to use when you come bearing advice—especially not when the advice includes tips on effective political communication.

Regardless of framing, however, Lewis’s advice is not good. His view seems to be that the NDP should not develop actual policies. While he expresses approval for Jagmeet Singh’s latest call for measures to make sure the rich pay their fair share of taxes, he then expresses disappointment that Singh followed through on this slogan by proposing actual policies pertaining to tax fairness. “Why go for something that you have to explain?” Lewis asks. Instead of proposing policies, Lewis suggests, the NDP should stick to making “demands” delivered in simple phrases like “Federal Jobs Guarantee”.

A major problem here is that Lewis appears to have confused party politics with mere protest. Political parties normally do not confine themselves to making demands of those in power; rather, parties aspire to hold power themselves. Of course the NDP may, in its capacity as a part of the parliamentary opposition, make demands of the government. But the party’s job is also to go beyond making demands and present a credible alternative government. As such, the party must develop policies of its own that can be implemented if the voters entrust it with power; if the party can’t or won’t do this, then obviously the voters would be wrong to entrust it with power.

Lewis’s advice, then, makes sense only if the NDP is conceived strictly as a protest party, and not as a legitimate contender for power. Speaking as a New Democrat, I think that’s hogwash. Canada needs a social democratic government, and the NDP is the only party offering that option. New Democrats therefore owe it to the country to be a party that is worthy of consideration as an alternative government. Making reasonably detailed policy proposals available for public scrutiny and debate is part of what it takes to live up to that standard, and I’m pleased to see Singh following through on this.

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