Thursday, May 5, 2011

OMFG. Now What? (from the diaries of Jack Layton)

Early in the morning on Tuesday, May 3, 2011 Jack Layton went to bed having celebrated becoming the presumptive Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition. A few hours later, I am tempted to think he woke up, looked at what had happened and for a second thought "OMFG. Now what?"

It's not just that the NDP increased their seat count to 102. Or that they relegated the Liberals to third party status. It's not even how they did it, with such strong results in Quebec - a province where they had previously only held one seat.

No, I think that to the extent there was an "OMFG, now what?" moment it occurred when he considered more fully the make-up of his new Official Opposition caucus - his "government in waiting."

As the shampoo commercial goes, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Yes, the stakes are high for the NDP.

So, continuing on the posting of earlier this week I would like to provide some (again, unsolicited) advice to Mr. Layton.

1. Figure out what you want to be when you grow up - quickly

The NDP benefitted from the popularity of Jack Layton, a lack of confidence in the Liberals, the implosion of the Bloc, anti-HST sentiment in BC, and the continued support of its base. It did not obtain 102 seats because of a strong understanding and support for its platform or from the strength of the entire slate of candidates.

However, it now occupies the role of Official Opposition, and as such must decide pretty soon what it wants to be as a party; what it wants to be when it grows up. Is this a traditional New Democratic Party, as its platform and approach over the past few years suggests? If so, make that clear through the positions you take on the policies of the day.

Or do you want to be Canada's version of New Labour? Are you looking to ride a popular leader, and mix social democratic principles with a commitment to fiscal responsibility and a vision that fits within a 21st century economy?

Put another way, decide if you want to stay where you are or whether you want to move towards the centre.

When the dust settles, a large part of your new job is to present Canadians over the next four years with a credible alternative. The Liberals suffered from not defining themselves until the campaign, to some degree hoping that they could be the default option. It didn't work for them and it won't work for you. Be clear about who you are and what you represent.

2. Staff Well

You have 102 MPs, several of whom will form your shadow caucus and become your spokespersons on a broad range of issues. While you have the opportunity to draw on your experienced MPs for these roles, beyond them you have a lot of neophytes.

- Some who have never served in government - I don't count school councils.
- Some who have served and been served - but in campus bars.
- Some who had never voted before Monday - because they were too young.

With the lack of experience across a large swath of the NDP caucus, you would be tempted to call them the real "green party".

What they need is staff. They need to work with people who have been on the Hill, understand Parliament, understand the press gallery and how to communicate (and how not to). They will need guidance, someone to say no, someone to help them translate their idealism or indignity into a coherent policy option.

A strong staff provides discipline, order and can limit the errors that are replayed endlessly and which can prove fatal to an MP and his or her party. Staff well.

3. What to do about the Liberals

A large part of the upcoming Liberal discourse will focus on the party's relationship with the NDP. You will be drawn into this debate whether you like it or not, so you should start to consider what is your long game.

You can try to leverage your new platform and define yourself sufficiently in the eyes of Canadians such that the Liberals are increasingly marginalized. In other words, go for the kill. Don't lament the end of the public vote subsidy, develop a strong fund-raising mechanism of your own and pick up the pieces as the Liberals suffer.

Alternatively, acquire more (albeit damaged) centrist credibility by offering an olive branch to the Liberals to work together and develop a new alternative centrist option in Canada. Call it a merger, a partnership, whatever - just don't say coalition.

But don't wait too long to have your Peter McKay moment, if that is where you intend to go. If you do wait too long, the Conservatives will make it the defining issue of the next election and you will lose momentum and the ability to develop your own narrative.

4. Je me souviens

Quebec. Be careful how you play in this space. Don't make promises you can't keep or open doors which lead nowhere. You beat the Bloc soundly in this election, and that should be commended. However, how you handle Quebec issues over the next four years will be crucial. Do it well, and the possibilities of a real federalist, social democratic option are strengthened.

Do it poorly, make too many missteps, or demonstrate your lack of influence in Parliament and the PQ and the Bloc will both benefit.


Above all else, find the right mix between hyperbole and realism. Be honest, measured and informed. Use year one to establish credibility and make people say "wow, they were better than I thought." It will do you a world of good.

See, the NDP had a great result and reason to celebrate. But after every celebration comes the hangover. Today, the NDP has less power as the Official Opposition to a majority government than it did as the third party in a minority Parliament.

But, what they do have is an opportunity and a platform. How will they do?

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