Will the war in Afghanistan be an NDP issue in the next election?

Last Saturday morning I stopped by the Mariott hotel in downtown Ottawa where hundreds of NDP activists and future election candidates from across the country had gathered for an intensive election “bootcamp” called Breakthrough 2007. Many of the sessions were designed to help local, riding-level campaigns on everything from preparing election materials, doing media interviews, and staying “on message” during the election campaign.Jack Layton

Over breakfast with a good friend who will be running in the next election, he said that the war in Afghanistan did not appear to be a high-priority issue for the national NDP election campaign, and instead the focus was on pocketbook issues.

One look at the new NDP election commercials available on the party website bears this out: the three videos focus on the environment, heath care, and something called the prosperity gap. No sign of Afghanistan here. Click a bit further to the “Issues” section and there are nine more – but still not a word about Afghanistan. Hey, here’s Jack Layton’s speech to folks at the Breakthrough conference – but still no mention of Afghanistan.

This likely seems a bit odd to most folks since the NDP has made the war in Afghanistan such a central part of their work this year. Sure, in the last election in January 2006 the NDP barely mentioned Afghanistan. But soon after the party devoted two solid MPs to the issue: Defence critic Dawn Black and Foreign Affairs critic Alexa McDonough. Then in September, party leader Jack Layton decided to make the NDP national convention the “Afghanistan Convention” and issued a strong call for a pull-out of troops. And in the last two months Jack Layton has given two major speeches on the war.So why is the war not seen as a major issue by the NDP’s election strategists?

Is it concern about the media? The generally pro-war press leaves few friends for the NDP in newsrooms, and worse, the war has slipped down the media’s priorities where a soldier’s death doesn’t automatically warrant front page coverage anymore.

Or is it the polls? Public opinion is divided on the war, and tends to be somewhat conflicted, even though a majority is critical of the combat mission.

As my friend noted as he got up from the table to join the NDP election planning meetings inside, a spring election in Canada could coincide with many new Canadian casualties in Afghanistan. If the war becomes an election issue, could the NDP election machine be caught unprepared?

And if they don’t seize the anti-war position early, could it be claimed by a rival party?

To wit, the day after my breakfast at the Mariott, Green Party leader Elizabeth May announced she would run in the Nova Scotia riding currently held by Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay. In her speech, she took a line from the NDP and accused the Conservatives of pursuing a war that has brought us too closely into line with U.S. President George W. Bush.

It sounded to me like the Green Party was setting itself to be the home for the anti-war vote. I wonder if the NDP strategists were listening too.

Tags: Afghanistan, Elections