Is this the beginning of the end for the federal NDP?

By Steve Paikin - Published on October 17, 2016
Thomas Muclair, leader of the NDP
Thomas Mulcair speaks at the 2016 NDP federal convention in Edmonton in April. (Jason Franson/CP)

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On the face of it, the federal New Democratic Party is in rather familiar territory: a solid third place standing in the House of Commons, with an experienced politician leading the charge.

But, this time, it really does feel different, and the NDP may be at an existential moment in its history.

It wasn’t that long ago that things looked so encouraging. In 2011, the late Jack Layton had led the party to official opposition status for the first time ever. With the Liberals looking as if they were on life support, the NDP seemed poised to have a genuine shot at defeating the Conservatives and forming a government.

But Layton’s death left the party without its most successful and charismatic leader in recent memory.  And then those pesky Liberals refused to cooperate. They outflanked the NDP on the left, channeled the right zeitgeist for the times (“sunny ways” in contrast to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s brooding ways) and before you knew it, everything old was new again: the Liberals formed the government, the Conservatives were going back to the drawing board, and the NDP was back in third place.

In the year since the last federal election, things feel genuinely gloomy for the NDP. Leader Tom Mulcair found the party’s annual general meeting in Alberta six months ago stacked with members who wanted him out, resulting in a shockingly weak show of support. Mulcair immediately announced his intention to step down, but wanted to stay on as the leader of the NDP forces in Parliament. That’s been an awkward dynamic for the party — it's hard to raise money and attract new support when the vanquished old leader is still in place.

But that has proved to be only the beginning of the NDP’s dalliance with awkward realities. In the time since Mulcair’s dethronement, no candidates — that’s right, zero candidates — have emerged to vie for his old job. There was, briefly, a single contender: Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo, who dropped out shortly after she launched her leadership bid, for health reasons. Another Ontario MPP, Jagmeet Singh, continues to play will-he-or-won’t-he with media and supporters. One long-time New Democrat told me the other day he wouldn’t be surprised if no one stepped forward and Mulcair simply successfully reapplied for his old job. After all, Mulcair is an effective interrogator in Parliament, particularly during question period, and was only given a shot in one election , while the NDP usually gives its leaders multiple campaigns to build up their name recognition and skills.

But the NDP's bigger problem is that it’s not sure what it wants to be. Some members want it to be an urban-based, anti-gun, pro-green energy, anti-oilsands, union-dominated progressive party. This contingent's aspirations are encapsulated in the Leap Manifesto, championed by (among others) Avi Lewis, grandson of a former national NDP leader and son of a former Ontario NDP leader.

But traditionally, many NDP supporters are in northern regions of Canada, which are more pro-gun, less interested in being social justice warriors, less multicultural, miserable at the prospect of paying more for green energy, and generally supportive of the Alberta NDP government’s desire to exploit the oilsands in a sustainable fashion. While this group of people often voted NDP in the past, they are increasingly persuaded by the smaller government arguments of the Conservatives.

This feels like an irreconcilable set of differences, and raises a subsequent question for the broader public: what do voters need the NDP for now, anyway? The Liberals have clearly scooped up much of the NDP’s environmental, progressive, less-fussed-about-balancing-the-budget wing, traditionally a huge base of their support.

Furthermore, the union movement has done such a solid job negotiating good wages and benefits that their members often no longer vote NDP. They earn well above the national average and many now seem to care more about some Conservative Party issues (such as lowering tax rates) than traditional NDP fare.

In which case, where is the agenda around which traditional New Democrats and potentially new supporters can unite? There are plenty of people in our country who feel underrepresented: students carrying deep debt, new immigrants and refugees and the precariously employed. These are perfect demographic groups for the NDP to champion if they’re content being the conscience of the House. The trouble is, many of those people don’t vote, at least not in numbers commensurate with their percentage of the population. So if the NDP is looking to these groups to be part of a future governing coalition, it's not clear this will boost the party's influence in the House.

For 55 years, the NDP has been one of the more significant players in Canadian politics. They have almost always played an important part in our national conversation even if they’ve never won a federal election. But here’s a list of another group of formerly important political parties: the Progressive Conservatives, Reform, the Canadian Alliance, the Parti Québécois, the Bloc Québécois, Social Credit and United Farmers of Ontario. Most of these parties formed governments at one time or another. Today, they’re either all gone or on life support, because their raison d'être  disappeared.

Is that the case for the federal NDP now as well? 

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