COLUMN: Political Parties -- to Seek Power, or Promote Ideas?
In a letter to a friend, written from her prison cell in Berlin in 1917, Rosa Luxemburg suggested that “[d]isappointment in the masses is always a compromising sign for political leaders.” The fate of Canada’s political leaders in the past decade validates Luxemburg’s proposition. Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Stephen Harper and now Tom Mulcair: lose an election and you are out!
The preeminent decision facing New Democrats, however, is not one of leadership, it is one of their party’s raison d’être, its paramount objective: is it to be the pursuit of power or is it to be the advancement of ideas? The strategies entailed in the pursuit of power and ideas in politics are not compatible, nor are the disciplines and persistence essential to succeed.
The time, finances, and personnel required to develop and implement a strategy with the objective to gain power in the next election are, under our system, enormous. Four years is a very short period. If power is a political party’s objective, be that retaining or gaining power, the party needs to be highly sensitive to current issues: political and social, but primarily economic. It is easier to defeat a government in power when the populace is angry, dissatisfied, and disillusioned than when it is when all appears to be well and under control. It is often enough for an opposition party to gain power if it can convince 10% of the population that the party in power is failing them.
To gain power on the strength of a new idea requires far more than convincing 10% of the population of the merits of that new idea. Many of the public services and rights we take for granted today – health insurance, old age pension, women’s right to vote, prohibition of child labour, the Charter of Rights – were advocated at the margins of politics and often required decades of persistent public debate before a political party dared to risk adoption and implementation of the idea. One of the first pieces of social legislation, the Canadian Government Annuities Act was adopted in 1908. It took nearly two decades of strenuous and persistent advocacy before that modest pension scheme was replaced by the Old Age Pensions Act in 1927, and many more decades and elections before the Canada Pension Plan became a reality.
It is highly unlikely that a political party could have won enough seats in Parliament to form government on a promise to implement a universally applicable old age pension scheme in the first 50 years following confederation. It is highly unlikely that a political party could have gained power on a promise to implement the rights and public programs we take for granted today, had the idea of such rights and programs not been developed and fleshed by advocacy groups and marginal political movements over much time and through much dedicated effort. It is equally unlikely that a political party could form government today on a promise to eliminate the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Pension, Medicare, or the Charter of Rights.
In terms of current politics, the identity of the politicians and political movements instrumental in bringing about what we take for granted today is of no relevance. Their accomplishments carry no residual political benefit. The choice they made at the time was to focus on ideas, and to invest their resources and energies to the maturing of their ideas. Their rewards are of an ideological nature as political power remained elusive. Society is the beneficiary of their decisions.
Should a political party focus on the possible long-term benefits to society by scrutinizing an idea (e.g. the Leap Manifesto)? Should it focus on party leadership in the hope of bringing the party to power in the next election? Doing both simultaneously is not an option.