Jack Layton and retail politics


The NDP platform released yesterday further illustrates the change in tone of NDP electoral strategy, where the focus is away from ideology and towards retail politics. As it reads on page 12, the NDP would:

Reduce overcharging and hidden fees, and ban ATM fees for institutions regulated under the Bank Act, byrequiring more accountability and transparency from the cell phone companies, the banks, airlines and othercompanies. This will include ending unfair charges on incoming text messages.

Limit outrageous interest rates and fees charged by “fringe banks”. We will enforce existing regulations to limit the interest rates and fees that can be charged for services like “payday” loans, tax refund advances and cheque-cashing.

Cap the interest rates on credit cards to a maximum of 5 percentage points over prime by amending theBank Act.

Help alleviate gouging at the gas pumps through monitoring and regulating fuel prices at the pumps.

Regardless of whether such policies are good ideas, the question is whether they make for good marketing. I wrote a column about this question about a year-and-a-half ago, when Layton first introduced his plan to ban ATM fees:

“the announcement is a clear attempt to tweak Canadians’ ears by addressing an issue that they can easily understand. Who doesn’t despise paying $1.50 to withdraw money? Your own money, no less. The proposal has similar retail value as the Conservative decision to cut the GST. “

While much of my article was about how banning ATM fees makes little sense, particularly since white label machines are not covered under the Bank Act, my underlying argument was what has become one of the main themes of this election, captured nicely by Aaron Wherry: The NDP is no longer interested in being Canada’s conscience, they want your vote.

As has been argued ad nauseum, the Tory cut to the GST was awful policy, but it was great marketing. To what extent the NDP can capitalize on this reality of electoral politics, with its own version of policy marketing remains to be seen, but it just might work.

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Jack Layton and retail politics

  1. Some points of disagreement and analysis.

    1. The NDP’s platform can hardly be interpreted as a (major) shift towards ‘retail politics’. Such an interpretation is overly reductionist. A quick look at the platform announcement (http://www.ndp.ca/page/6984) makes clear that the centrepiece of the platform is a new child benefit. The platform also promises: hiring more doctors and nurses, a national children’s nutrition plan, investments in cancer research, and a plan to break Canada’s reliance on carbon with a plan for the environment that will work. These are not ‘retail’ matters; clearly, the ‘retail’ matters are of secondary concern.

    2. That said, ‘retail’ issues are important. Such issues serve well as ‘hooks’ that reflect people’s everyday experiences. Once hooked, deeper inquiries become possible. What do ATM fees, cell phone charges, credit cards, and gas prices all have in common? Many things. Gouging, insufficient regulation, and monopoly-alliances (e.g., collusion, price-fixing, and the like) are all either real or possible commonalities. Thus, the question becomes: Do we have to accept this kind of corporate control and exploitation in our society? This is not ‘retail politics’; it’s political economy. And it takes a courage and a strong social conscience to identify and raise such issues. I’m assuming Aaron is still a staunch Liberal, so it’s not surprising to me that he would miss this point.

    3. All parties are guided by, and all platforms are rooted in, ideologies. The Liberals and the Conservatives, for example, are guided by ideologies of (neo)liberalism and (neo)conservatism, in varying degrees. Ideologies are the foundations of political programs. From this perspective, ‘retail politics’ do not represent a shift ‘away from ideology’. Rather, ‘retail politics’ are simply a new tactic for advancing a political program — which, again, is rooted in ideology. In short, there is no shift ‘from ideology and towards retail politics’. ‘Retail politics’ are a tactical expression of ideology.

    4. Beyond being a ‘less money out of your pocket’ hook/tactic, the the GST is fundamentally different from ATM fees, cell phone charges, gas prices, etc. The GST is a state-imposed tax that generates revenue for the public good. When GST is reduced, yes, consumers pay less; but they also get something in return (somewhere) through government expenditures. When ATM fees are reduced, indeed, consumers pay less; but they’re not losing out on government expenditures, too.

    5. In any case, and quite apart from this differentiation, the GST is a regressive form of taxation. It is a ‘flat tax’ that affects the population unevenly, and it surely contributes to Canada’s growing inequality gap. There is some irony in the GST story. It was, of course, introduced by the Progressive Conservatives under Mulroney. Now, the Conservatives are reducing the GST. Is the reduction of the GST rooted in ideology? Yes, because the Conservatives want to shrink the state: reducing the GST (i.e., revenue for public expenditure) helps to accomplish that goal. But, of course, the Conservatives aren’t interested in cracking open that debate. They just want to buy votes and embarrass the Liberals. So, ‘retail politics’, indeed — but, again, also rooted in ideology.

    6. To summarize: (1) The NDP has not shifted from ideology towards ‘retail politics’. (2) ‘Retail politics’ is not simply a shallow vote-buying strategy; ‘retail politics’ encourages critical thought about broader issues. (3) All political parties are guided by ideology. ‘Retail politics’, as a tactic, is rooted in ideology. (4) The GST is fundamentally different from an ATM fee. (5) By reducing the GST, the Conservatives are playing ‘retail politics’ — but the goal is not just vote-buying. There is an additional covert goal: to shrink the state — and that goal is firmly rooted in ideology.

    7. My final conclusions: (1) The NDP continues to serve as Canada’s social conscience. ‘Retail politics’ are secondary within the NDP platform but clearly reflect that social conscience. (2) I agree that the Conservatives are also using ‘retail politics’. But their goals are rather insidious. The Conservatives aim to shrink the state and, along with it, the social safety net that the NDP has fought for from the beginning. (3) In other words, yes, ‘retail politics’ on both sides: but it’s all very ideological — on both sides.

  2. Yes Rick, the parties have different guiding philosophies and their platforms are not all characterized by retail policies.

    The point is the NDP is emphasizing marketing over principles, the new child benefit, that you cite as a counterexample, falls squarely into this.

    The message is increasingly what the NDP can do for you, not what the NDP can do for the country. In short, they are acting like a major national party.

  3. Mr. Carson, your response to Rick is misguided. From the bank fees to the child credits, these are details and practical aspects of the NDP or NDP-leaning Canadian conscience. Far from abandoning its ideological commitments for pragmatic and expedient politics and policies, the NDP is merely concretising what its beliefs would mean in practical policy and living experiences for Canadians like me.

    If the deatails and the practical, micro aspects of the policies serve my interest as a Canadian, it at the same time also serves the interest of my country Canada. Therefore, I do not understand your efforts to make a distinction between the country and the needs and interests of its citizens. Moreover, the NDP has always been a major national party; neither a fringe regional party like PQ, or Preston Mannning’s and Stephen Harper’s and Stockwell Day’s Reform before the merger. Before this policy announcement and since its founding, the NDP has always-without relapse-been national and a major political party. If you mean it has never formed a government at the federal level, and never came as close, and with better chances as today, you are are partly right.

    Go Jack, Go! Go Canadians Go!

  4. Carson, your posting posits a distinction, as “captured nicely by Aaron Wherry”:

    (A) social conscience (“ideology”)
    (B) “retail politics” (because “they want our vote”)

    Now, you have further elaborated upon the distinction by framing it as:

    (A) “what the NDP can do for the country” (example?)
    (B) “what the NDP can do for you” (e.g., new child benefit)

    The crux of your argument seems to be that the NDP’s electoral strategy has shifted from an emphasis upon (A) to an emphasis upon (B). I disagree and question why you would make such a distinction.

    Logically, you’re suggesting:
    (A) –> (B)

    And what I’m arguing is:
    (A) = (B)

    In other words, the distinction is neither accurate nor useful. Perhaps what you are observing, instead, is more media attention upon (B) — giving you the impression that the NDP has abandoned (or shifted away from) (A). But the NDP’s policies, platforms, and electoral strategies have always focused upon (A) and (B). Perhaps, this time around, more people are simply hearing/reporting (B) — because they don’t trust Harper and because Dion is totally incoherent.

    According to your conception of “retail politics,” as I interpret it, any government program that affects individuals/families directly and immediately amounts to “retail politics.” Have you ever looked at previous NDP platforms?! This is nothing new.

    Perhaps you just need to clarify the distinction. Some examples, rooted in history, would help.

  5. The distinction I am making is between emphasizing big complex issues like the environment, health care and education versus emphasizing simple straight foward policies where the immediate benefits to voters are easily communicable like cutting the GST or banning ATM fees.

    Historically: In 2000 the NDP focused heavily, some would say exclusively, on health care.

    Big issues, with the exception of the 1988 free trade election, don’t usually, I would argue, determine the outcome of a vote. I have no idea why people vote the way they do. I don’t think the public is incapable of grasping complex policies, but simple straightforward policies lend themselves better to marketing.

    (When I said retail politics I should have said policies that usually involve the promise of money in your pocket within a short time frame.)

    I do think this is a shift in NDP electoral strategy. A shift that has been coming for awhile, but is fully crystalizing in this campaign as the party positions itself as a credible alternative for government, which as I noted has been a major theme of the election.

  6. Perhaps.

    But I don’t such a shift suggests that “[t]he NDP is no longer interested in being Canada’s conscience.”

    Clearly, the NDP is using a mix of strategies. Your notion of “retail politics” might be more prominent, this time around, but it doesn’t represent an abandonment of grand policy proposals or principles.

  7. “Big issues, with the exception of the 1988 free trade election, don’t usually, I would argue, determine the outcome of a vote. I have no idea why people vote the way they do. I don’t think the public is incapable of grasping complex policies, but simple straightforward policies lend themselves better to marketing.”

    This seems like something political analysts are repeating over and over again. As in everything in social sciences, one has to wonder whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy though.

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