Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tunnel Vision: Howard Hampton and Strategic Voting

Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton told delegates to this week's Ontario NDP Convention in Toronto that the party is in good shape going into the October 2007 provincial election because the province is no longer gripped by the "politics of fear". Here's what he told delegates:

"The cloud that we've had over Ontario for the last 20 years, `Oh that Mike Harris is a scary guy – Ernie Eves is a scary, scary guy.' I think that's gone....John Tory may be a very Tory guy, but he's not a scary Tory guy," so the "politics of fear" won't work this time and campaigns must run on real ideas.

Besides ignoring the fact that most members of the Tory caucus were elected during the Mike Harris years,and remain quite loyal to the ideas behind the Common Sense Revolution, I think Hampton has misdiagnosed the New Democratic dilemma in Ontario if he thinks that strategic voting is the primary obstacle for the NDP. I think there are bigger obstacles.

Hampton's leadership -- His personal popularity as leader has lagged behind popular support for the party since he took over from Bob Rae in 1996 (Rae was always more popular than the party). Despite being at the helm for over a decade, he has been unable to generate the kind of buzz or media attention that the party needs.

Weakened party-union relations -- The Ontario NDP's hypocritical decision to boot Buzz Hargrove from the party was just the tip of the iceberg. For the past several years, the Ontario Liberal Party has raised more money from labour unions than the NDP. By allowing party-union relations to erode further, the party risks losing an important financial and volunteer base of support.

The Legacy of the Rae Government -- Hampton is naive if he thinks Bob Rae's defection to the Liberals gives the NDP a clean slate in Ontario. After all, former Bob Rae cabinet ministers still constitute a majority of NDP MPPs - and four of them voted for the Social Contract. Policy reversals on public auto insurance, casino gambling, and common-pause day continue to plague the party with certain segments of the electorate and the party's fiscal record will not soon be forgotten.

Blaming strategic voting for the party's electoral misfortunes has been a favourite pass time of Hampton's since 1999. What he fails to appreciate is that strategic is both a cause and a product of bigger problems for the NDP. Until these larger issues are addressed in a constructive way, strategic voting will remain an obstacle for the party, reagardless of whether or not the opposition is scary.