Principle v power and the NDP: discuss

So here’s the one-term wonder question. Why did Darrell Dexter’s New Democrats, who won so convincingly in Nova Scotia in 2009, lose even more convincingly in 2013?

For NDP partisans, that question is more than academic. As they gear up to choose a new leader next February, they must divine what went so right we elected Nova Scotia’s first-ever NDP government but then so wrong it became the province’s first majority government in 141 years to go down to humiliating, even-the-leader-loses-his-seat defeat after just one term.

Enter, stage left, Howard Epstein, the former Halifax Chebucto NDP MLA. In his new book, Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks (Empty Mirrors Press), Epstein — the (not just) self-acknowledged smartest member of caucus never invited to Dexter’s cabinet table — offers his own damning assessment.

Epstein dismisses the conventional leader-centred view that the NDP won in 2009 not only because Rodney MacDonald’s tired, tattered Tory government defeated itself but also, critically, because Darrell Dexter presented a “moderate and therefore not threatening alternative” voters trusted.

Epstein — never one to doubt the wisdom of his own thinking — calls the latter proposition “profoundly mistaken.”

Epstein says voters were looking for the NDP to be “profoundly different,” by which he means much more progressive on economic and social issues. When Dexter’s government showed itself to be a pale imitation of the same-old same old, voters turfed it for the real thing.

Epstein believes Dexter and his acolytes created a false divide between what they considered incrementalist pragmatists — themselves — who understood how to win and exercise power, and traditional left-leaning party members, “who would rather be right than in power.”

For his part, Epstein argues optimistically the party can be both ideologically pure and electorally successful.

I’m not so sure.

But that doesn’t mean I think the best option is incremental pragmatism in pursuit of power either.

Politically, the NDP has done its most important work — from promoting social welfare to standing for civil liberties— when speaking up for principle without attempting to engineer electoral advantage.

We could use a party more concerned with principle than power… but one that doesn’t delude itself into believing purity of principle will lead to electoral power. There lies disappointment.

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  1. I don’t believe that principle and policy are necessarily at odds in politics, although I think (and as Howard Epstein’s political memoir, Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks, makes clear) that it is critical to put principle first. If a party wins power on that basis, then they have a genuine mandate for acting on their principles (i.e., principle + power). If you lose, well so be it. You have to be prepared to let the electoral chips fall as they may. A party can still accomplish valuable work in Opposition.

    On the other hand, if a party seeks power at the expense of principle, then even if elected it has no genuine mandate to act on the principles it has thus sacrificed. And it often sells its political soul in so doing.

    The undoing of the Dexter government was sacrificing principle to the desire for power, and in the end losing both – a great pity.

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  2. There’s definitely a balance between principle/pragmatism but I think you’re right that the electorate wants something more. At the risk of sounding partisan, one should take a look at Mulcair’s $15/day childcare and $15/hour minimum wage platform planks for the upcoming federal election. Those aren’t rabidly left, but they capture the imagination and break the mold a bit. Will it be difficult? Will it get watered down and run into huge snags? Definitely, but I’m talking about it aren’t I?

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  3. Voters wanted an honest government,one without a gang of back room boys calling the shots for their buddies and Party contributors. Dexter, for the most part, delivered. There was no big wave of patronage appointments or purge of the Civil Service
    He failed to capitalize on the positive things he did do, like acquiring the Bowater land holdings. The apparent surrender to the Irvings was poorly explained and looked a lot worse than it would have been.
    the NDP’s next campaign slogan should be,”we didn’t rape you as badly as the other two parties have.”
    N.S.is in deep trouble. We lose industries, sector by sector. Ben’s Bread,Farmer’s Dairy, all gone to other provinces. It’s a wonder Sobey’s stays put.
    the NDP should adopt the Ivany Report as their Policies guideline.We need to develope sustainability and also a plan for the tsunami of elderly which has started and will only increase.
    Other jurisdictions do better with less resources. They must be smarter. We should follow a “best practices” model.

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  4. My sense of what happened is the difference between the ideals of making promises versus the reality of enacting public policies that won’t create the kinds of crises that topple governments.

    For example, for the Nova Scotia region, you cannot say “we’ll create jobs” and “we will not give handouts to corporations” in the same breath. Corporations produce the lion’s share of jobs in Nova Scotia, like it or not. The left-friendly policies of focusing on small business would support the majority of businesses, but leave the majority of workers out in the dust. When Dexter started to face Nova Scotia’s economic reality, it disenfranchised the NDP’s supporters.

    Epstein’s idealistic view of putting principles ahead of pragmatism, frankly is a losing proposition. It may curry a few additional votes from young women perhaps (a growing part of the electorate). It is no better than Stephen MacNeil’s seemingly Tony Robbins’ inspired positivity before policy approach that is quickly becoming his downfall. What Nova Scotia actually needs is a boring old administrator with lots of integrity and heaps of empathy to go along with it. A Kathleen Wynne type may work. Rachel Notley seems like a good idea for the NDP as well.

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