After almost 17 years in power, the Manitoba NDP have been handed a pink slip by voters. The recent provincial election has resulted in the NDP's seats being reduced by more than half in the province, and a Progressive Conservative majority government being formed in its stead. Once again, yet another NDP government is being forced to learn the consequences of moderation and betrayal.
How did we get here?
In many ways, the Manitoba NDP's defeat was determined as early as 2013. That was the year the Personal Sales Tax (PST) in Manitoba was hiked from seven per cent to eight per cent. This highly unpopular move came after NDP leader Greg Selinger explicitly stated that an NDP provincial government would not raise taxes. This was seen as a betrayal by working Manitobans, who would end up bearing the brunt of the increase at the checkout counter. Corporate taxation, by contrast, would remain virtually unchanged. In fact, taxable corporations in Manitoba pay no taxes on their first $10 million of paid up capital at present. This likely left many to wonder what the point of the Manitoba NDP was in the first place.
This disillusionment was reflected in a steep decline in support for Selinger. Two months before the election, public opinion polls put him at an abysmal 19 per cent. Disapproval was more than triple that figure, at 72 per cent. This earned Selinger the not-so- honourable title of "Canada's least popular premier,” and left the Manitoba NDP in a miserable position.
It was only a matter of time before this backlash was reflected in the NDP itself. In November 2014, five cabinet ministers in Selinger’s government launched an open revolt against the premier by resigning from their positions. The reasons cited included “turmoil” in the wake of the PST debacle and “grave concerns” for not being able to speak their minds in government. This marked the first time in Manitoba history that a sitting premier was openly challenged by a member of their own party. In the coming days, polls revealed that a majority of Manitobans believed it was the right decision for the so-called “Gang of Five” to challenge Selinger. Major fault lines in the party also began to emerge in the wake of the rebellion. So as to resolve the crisis, a leadership convention was then called for March 2015.
The 2015 leadership race
Apart from Selinger, the race for leader included former cabinet minister Theresa Oswald, a leading member of the “Gang of Five,” and former transportation minister Steve Ashton. Notably, all five of the rebel ministers, including Oswald, admitted that they had also supported the PST hike while in government. For this reason, it came as no surprise that Oswald’s program amounted to little more than a superficial reordering of Selinger’s initiatives. Unfortunately for her, a set of policies by any other name smells just as foul!
While Ashton did not oppose the PST hike, he also held the position that Manitobans should be asked to decide in a referendum. However meagre, this served to distance him from the other two establishment candidates. Ashton (who also happens to be the father of federal NDP MP Niki Ashton) had run against Selinger in 2009 on a platform of returning power to the rank-and- file and reverting the party to its social justice and labour roots. Although initially unsuccessful, Ashton’s 2009 campaign was attributed to growing the Manitoba NDP’s membership from 5,500 to 14,000 in a short span of time. For these reasons combined, Ashton was widely seen as the left wing candidate in 2015.
Although he captured an impressive 30 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, Ashton was narrowly defeated by both Oswald and Selinger. This can be explained by two reasons. Firstly, the weight of the party apparatus and trade union bureaucracy was stacked against Ashton, with their share of delegate votes going overwhelmingly to the establishment candidates. It did not matter that Ashton actually held a majority of rank-and- file constituency delegates at the convention. Secondly, Ashton’s campaign was admittedly a far cry from the likes of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. Those campaigns used slogans like “revolution against the billionaire class” and terms such as “socialism” to mobilize millions around them. By comparison, Ashton’s campaign would have appeared moderate. At times of such deep crisis, no less than a bold, socialist program would be required to pose a real alternative to the Selinger agenda. This could produce a groundswell of enthusiasm even greater than that of 2009, extending beyond existing party activists and reinvigorating the trade unions. It would be impossible for the party bureaucracy to hold such a movement back.
Failing to do this, the race was thus narrowed to Oswald and Selinger. In other words, it was two rival gangs of hyenas competing for scraps. Selinger only managed to reclaim the leadership by the narrowest of margins (51 per cent to be exact), which only goes to show the lack of enthusiasm for either candidate. Henceforth, it would be the same Manitoba NDP of 2013 heading into the 2016 provincial election.
An uninspiring campaign
There is no reason why the results of this election couldn’t have been different. The reason being that the Manitoba NDP’s main opponent, Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives, could have been very easily defeated. Pallister is widely known to hold both anti-union and pro- privatization views. He is also seen as out of touch by the overwhelming majority of working Manitobans. Shortly before the election, it was discovered that Pallister had spent close to 20 per cent of his time as opposition leader at a private vacation property in Costa Rica. That would amount to 240 days of absence since 2012. Pallister defended his actions by telling a news conference that “Like all working people, I wrestle with the balance between working time away from my family, and time with my family.” If only someone had reminded Mr. Pallister that not all “working people” can afford prime Caribbean real estate!
The Progressive Conservative platform itself contained so few substantial promises that The Winnipeg Free Press referred to it as “a little anemic.” But how did Selinger’s Manitoba NDP plan to defeat the out of touch, uninspiring Pallister Progressive Conservatives, fail? By being just as out of touch and uninspiring!
Many of the Manitoba NDP’s key proposals, from infrastructure spending to reduced ambulance fees, were the same as featured in the Progressive Conservative platform. In the case of ambulance fees, the projected reduction figures are even identical. As for the PST, which had become the defining feature of Manitoban politics for the past three years, Selinger would not even rule out a future increase in taxes! This only goes to show how out of touch Selinger and his compatriots really are. Pallister, on the other hand, was deft enough to promise a reduction to seven per cent during his first term in office. Whether or not he intends to keep it, this promise alone may have been enough to steal the election.
Rather than put forward a bold program, Selinger hoped it would be enough to undermine his opponent. Selinger warned that Pallister was intent on privatizing the health care system, and that he would seek to undermine unions, among other things. These are not illegitimate claims by any stretch of the imagination. Only after they’ve been elected will the Conservatives reveal themselves as the anti-worker, pro-business party that they truly are. But this means little coming from the mouth of Selinger, who himself attacked workers when he increased the PST.
It is one thing to criticize your opponent, and another thing entirely to champion a real alternative. For example, we often hear about how well Tom Mulcair performed in his role as opposition leader. And in so far as his debating skills are concerned, we admit that this is true. But was this enough to save the federal NDP from electoral defeat, and for Mulcair to retain his job? Absolutely not! Why? Well, working people already know that there are problems. What they need are ambitious solutions, and in this regard, Selinger's campaign was sorely lacking.
And the winner is…dissatisfaction?
This can help us to better understand the actual results of the provincial election. On election day, Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives managed to pick up 40 seats in the Manitboa Legislative Assembly with 53 per cent of the popular vote. This is in contrast to Selinger’s NDP, which only managed to win 14 seats and 26 per cent of the popular vote. On a superficial level, this could be considered a “swing to the right” on the part of the electorate. But things are far from being so simple.
In fact, a much more notable swing has taken place in Manitoba – a swing away from all of the candidates. In the lead up to the provincial election, The Winnipeg Free Press took note of the fact that “Pallister’s main competition isn’t from another leader or party, but the level of the electorate’s dissatisfaction.” The article went on to cite figures from a Probe Research poll, which found that Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister was only trusted by 33 per cent of Manitobans. A further 32 per cent of Manitobans said they trust “no one” to be premier. Selinger and Manitoba Liberal leader Ran Bohkari were further behind at 22 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively. For those aged between 18 and 34 years old, reluctance to trust any candidate rose to 39 per cent. For households earning less than $30,000 annually, this rose to an incredible 52 per cent. This led Probe Research president Scott MacKay to conclude that “the public is completely uninspired by these three choices.”
This same mood was reflected by some voters at the ballot box. On election day, a record 4,016 Manitobans opted for “none of the above” on their ballots, which would amount to a more than 800 per cent increase from the last election in 2011. In other words, the Progressive Conservatives did not sweep to power on a wave of enthusiasm so much as they “lost the unpopularity contest” – to borrow a phrase from Maclean’s. Therefore, to blame the provincial election results on the “conservatism” of Manitoban workers is as useless as it is insulting. This makes about as much sense as the claim that the federal NDP lost the federal election due to its “principled stance on the niqab.” In other words, the blame rests on the shoulders of Canadian workers for being too racist, too conservative and ad infinitum. Such views can only drive the party into irrelevance. In reality, the blame for a Progressive Conservative majority government rests solely on the shoulders of the Manitoba NDP leadership.
Read the warning signs!
The NDP has reached a critical stage in its history. With the fall of the Manitoba NDP, just a single provincial NDP government remains in the entire country. Federally, the NDP is struggling just to remain relevant in Trudeau’s Canada. While these are worrying developments, there is no reason why they can’t be reversed. But to accomplish that, the NDP at all levels must give voice to the growing anger in Canadian society. And to do that, the NDP must adopt bold socialist measures that redress the problems of working people. Let Manitoba be the final warning of where moderation leads! Pallister may proudly proclaim that the “sky is gonna be blue,” but the reality for working people is far greyer. When the next slump hits, they will not have the luxury of escaping to Costa Rica. They will, however, be looking for a genuine alternative. The NDP has the opportunity to provide it. Otherwise, it risks going the way of Greg Selinger.