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It was clear from the beginning of the election campaign that the key to victory for the NDP was to promote clear left policies to galvanize the anti-Harper vote, capture the anti-austerity mood and push the Liberals into irrelevancy.

Tacking Right

Despite an initially mixed message, the NDP surged in the polls at the start of the campaign to take the lead on the basis of its proposals for affordable child care, an increase in the corporate tax rate, the $15 federal minimum wage and its promise to abolish the scandal-plagued Senate. The NDP was viewed as the only credible opposition to the Tories and the party’s support grew as it appeared to tap into the anti-Harper and anti-austerity mood in society.

However, Mulcair’s message then shifted to the right. The NDP has since supported small business tax cuts, blocked pro-Palestinian candidates on the left from running in the election, proposed spending $250 million on an extra 2500 cops, has promised to balance the budget and vowed “not to entertain the thought of a deficit”.

In fact, as election day nears the party is shifting increasingly to the right. Even the announcement of the NDP’s pharmacare plan was unable to change this perception.

This revealed that there is very little enthusiasm for the NDP’s proposed reforms – this is not hard to understand as people realize that most of these proposed reforms rely on potentially unmanageable strings attached, in terms of the provinces and many wouldn’t be implemented until a second NDP mandate. Now it seems that by pinning his hopes on a second victory, Mulcair won’t even see a first.

Even Chantal Hébert recently explained that “Jim Flaherty could have signed off on the fiscal framework the NDP presented on Wednesday [September 16, 2015]. It borrows more from the late finance minister’s budgets than it offers original content.” After detailing some of the issues and potential roadblocks she added “Given all of the above, it is hard to connect enough dots to get a solid take on the big picture of the first NDP federal government. But reading between the lines of the fiscal framework, that government hardly looks like it was worth the sixty-year wait of the Canadian Left.”

Recession and austerity

The announcement that Canada has entered recession fundamentally changed the nature of the election campaign. Under the pressure of the economy the parties would be judged by their response to the downturn and the prospects of economic crisis.

By the end of August, with the NDP tacking right and Mulcair preaching balanced budgets, it seemed clear that Trudeau had developed a clearer understanding of what people were looking for.

“Why does [Mulcair] want to take billions of dollars out of the economy in a recession, and what public investments will he be cutting to do that?... Let me tell you this, the choice in this election is clear. It's between jobs and growth or austerity and cuts — and Tom Mulcair just made the wrong choice."

And Trudeau was right. The NDP had the opportunity to position itself against austerity and solidify its position in the polls. On the basis of galvanizing the anti-austerity and anti-Harper vote, the NDP could be taking the fight to the capitalist parties and Bay Street. It would be carrying the debate and would have all the momentum.

By moving left the NDP would have forced the Liberals to the right. This would have forced the Liberals into a Tory-lite position of cuts and austerity. Instead Mulcair, in an effort to reassure the bosses, shifted right so as to present the NDP as the responsible managers of capitalism. By moving right the NDP allowed the Liberals some space to the “left”. They didn’t have to move very far mind you given how far to the right the starting point was. It was only on this basis that the Liberals were able to opportunistically outmanoeuvre the NDP on these questions, which the bourgeois press has taken note of.

“By opting for the ex-Liberal Mulcair as leader, the NDP chose the Blair approach to the future of the left. Mulcair now finds himself advancing a significantly more enthusiastic line on government austerity, somehow, than the Trudeau Liberals do.”

With the NDP preaching balanced budgets in the face of economic crisis, Trudeau was able to capitalize on something everybody was beginning to understand: on the basis of an economic downturn with commitments to balanced budgets and the outright refusal of deficit spending, the NDP platform would be untenable and would amount to policies of austerity.

“The NDP’s forerunner, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, dedicated itself to eradicating capitalism when it was founded in 1933. But today, under leader Tom Mulcair, the party has moved so far to the centre that the Liberals are laying claim to the left.

“Mulcair, who came to the NDP from the Quebec Liberals, pushed to have all references to socialism removed from the NDP’s constitution in 2013. And in this campaign, it is the Liberals who are proposing deficit spending to boost the Canadian economy. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau even sought last week to claim the mantle of CCF founder Tommy Douglas as he accused Mulcair of aping Conservative budget austerity.

“‘Canadians are smart enough to do the math,’ Trudeau said. ‘They know you can’t be Tommy Douglas on Stephen Harper’s budget.’”

Of course, this is the traditional manner in which the Liberals have always campaigned. They campaign slightly to the left in order to cut across NDP support and then renege on all of these proposals and govern from the right. The more the NDP has shifted to the right, the fewer differences there are between the two parties, the fewer the steps the Liberals need to take in order to do this. Trudeau initially seemed to have forgotten this and appeared doomed to irrelevancy at the start of the campaign, but it appears he has now been informed of this lesson of history and has cynically assumed the space on the “left” vacated by the NDP. Trudeau’s “left-turn” is a complete sham. But he was only able to do this because the NDP left that space open for him in the first place.

Mulcair, the NDP and the ruling class

As the prospect of moving into 24 Sussex neared, Mulcair’s campaign was no longer directed at the electorate. Perhaps counting his eggs before they hatched his campaign is now directed squarely at the ruling class and Bay Street – he wants to reassure the capitalists that he and the NDP are pragmatic moderates and “ready to govern”, that they represent an “experienced” steady hand. These slogans are only designed to assuage the fears of the ruling class.

To reassure the capitalists in the face of recession, Mulcair has insisted that the NDP would balance the budget and would not consider deficit spending. This was meant to demonstrate to the ruling class just how “responsible” an NDP government under Mulcair would be and that they could be trusted to implement the necessary cuts and privatizations. It thereby also informed the working class that on the basis of balanced budgets the NDP will implement austerity, something we have explained it will be forced to do as long as its program remains within the bounds of capitalism. This will be all the more true with Canada in recession.

The NDP apparatchiks bemoan the fact that the media are not attacking the Liberal deficit in the same way as they would attack an NDP deficit. What do they expect! The corporate media understand their class interests and the fact that the Liberals are their party. The NDP repeats the line that Tommy Douglas balanced 17 budgets while implementing Medicare. They miss the convenient fact that this was during the period of post-war reconstruction with growth rates averaging over 5%. We now live in a period of capitalist stagnation and slump and staying within the capitalist “balanced-budget” mantra means that there will be no money for improvements – only austerity. However, we should clarify that Marxists are not in favour of deficits either. To make real change in favour of workers and youth would take massive investments in human and physical capital. On the basis of capitalist private ownership this would lead to a ballooning debt burden or tax rates so high as to choke off all investment. We say, if there is a contradiction between what the workers need and what capitalism can afford then capitalism needs to go. The vital thing is to mobilize people over key demands and that is what the NDP must do if it is to win.

The polls have spoken

Following this shift to the right the NDP’s lead began to shrink earlier in September and the party now finds itself trailing the Liberals. Against all reason and expectation Trudeau and the Liberals have managed to position themselves to the left of the NDP on the question of the recession, austerity and spending and the NDP is now bleeding support to the “left” to the Liberals.

A recent Léger poll shows NDP support dwindling across the board. Support for the party in Quebec has dropped eight points over the past three weeks to 38 per cent. This is very revealing as nowhere is the will to fight Harper and austerity greater than it is in Quebec. Support for the NDP was high in Quebec not because of Mulcair and his promises to balance budgets, the language of which people in Quebec understand very well, but because it was perceived as the only viable alternative to the Harper Tories and the only party that would stand against austerity. If the NDP continues its shift to the right its support will rapidly disappear in Quebec.

What has led to this turnaround for the Liberals in the polls? As a recent article in The Globe and Mail recently explained:

“A key number in the Léger poll is that Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party is described as the party that “most embodies change” by 28 per cent of respondents (up seven points), ahead of Mr. Mulcair and the NDP at 26 per cent (down 6 points).

“The poll found the NDP benefited from issues that dominated the early days of the campaign, such as the criminal trial of Senator Mike Duffy. However, the Liberals have won voter support with its economic plan, including a promise to nearly double infrastructure spending and go into deficit to spur economic growth that was made in late August.

“‘Justin Trudeau has managed to embody change in this campaign, a lot more than the NDP, especially in relation to the issue of the deficit. In my view, this is where things started to change,’ Mr. Léger said.”

The polls are speaking rather loudly – victory will go to the party that best represents change, the party that can capture the anti-Harper mood. If the anti-Harper and anti-austerity vote firmly coalesces around Trudeau and the Liberals the NDP will be doomed. Under these circumstances NDP support in the polls could vanish very rapidly and Mulcair will suffer a crushing defeat. Core NDP supporters looking for a left-wing alternative to the Harper Tories will become disillusioned and will have very little reason to vote. The soft left and the strategic vote could very easily be swayed to the Trudeau camp. Mulcair and co. are operating on the mistaken belief that by moving towards the right, they will be able to broaden electoral support. In fact the opposite is true, and this is being borne out before our very eyes. Especially with Trudeau attacking from the left flank - why vote NDP if you can get a similar program by voting Liberal? We know that Trudeau’s so-called investment is via contracting out and public-private-partnerships, but Mulcair has failed to explain this to the voters. Instead he is attacking the Liberals from the right instead of the left – playing right into their hands.

The situation developing in the federal election is reminiscent of what happened to the Olivia Chow campaign in Toronto’s 2014 mayoral election. Chow had big name recognition and was the star candidate. As she was associated with Jack Layton and the NDP, she was seen as the candidate of the left and the anti-poverty and anti-austerity vote was initially coalescing around her. She was well out in front with some polls putting her support at almost 50%. Rather than present herself as the anti-austerity candidate her campaign was entirely aimed at presenting herself as “moderate”, as she attempted to pander to Bay Street. From the point of view of workers and youth, with no inspiring policies, there was no reason to vote for Chow. Support for the Chow campaign collapsed rapidly and she suffered a humiliating defeat coming in a distant third.

From the beginning of the campaign until recently, most polls showed the NDP slightly ahead of the other two parties, with NDP support receiving its biggest surge in mid August. While the NDP’s current drop in support and slip to 3rd place are not fatal in and of themselves given the closeness of the race, the reversal of the trend itself is significant.

To beat the Harper Tories and Trudeau Liberals the NDP must differentiate itself to win. The more Mulcair approaches the capitalist parties in terms of policies the less likely it is people will vote NDP. If people want Liberal and Tory policies they will vote for Trudeau or Harper. But that’s not what people want. People want change and a left alternative to the policies of austerity. Workers and youth looking to defeat Harper and the Tories must start organizing now and fight for this change.

With just a little under a month to go before election day there is still time for the NDP to turn around its recent reversals and win. The NDP could present a strong anti-Harper, anti-poverty and anti-austerity platform on the basis of a bold socialist program with proposals for living wages, trade union rights, democratic reforms and social policies that could inspire workers and youth. These are the policies that will win the election.