Why the NDP was such a bust in Ontario in the 2019 election

The Ontario NDP’s showing in last year’s provincial election gave their federal cousins high hopes for this year’s national election. Here’s why they came to nothing
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 12, 2019
The NDP, under leader Jagmeet Singh, won six of 121 seats in Ontario in this year’s federal election. (Daryll Dyck/CP)

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Seventeen months ago, New Democrats in Ontario were pretty thrilled.

No, they hadn’t won the June 2018 election, even though they had led in the public-opinion polls for a short time during the campaign. But they had achieved an impressive result — 40 seats, good for official Opposition status for just the fourth time in the party’s postwar history and its second-best finish ever. Only in 1990, when Bob Rae led the NDP to a majority government, had the party faithful had greater cause to celebrate.

Given that the federal NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, used to be an MPP at Queen’s Park, many New Democrats dared to dream that the combination of Singh’s popularity and the long coattails from the provincial-election results could deliver an unprecedently strong showing for the party during the federal election.

It didn’t take long on election night for those hopes to be dashed. It was, plain and simple, an awful night for the NDP in Canada’s biggest province.

Out of 121 seats in Ontario, New Democrats won only six. Four years earlier, they’d won eight. They were hoping to pick up four seats in Toronto alone. Instead, they won none. After winning three out of five seats in Brampton in the provincial election, they crossed their fingers, looking to replicate the feat in the federal campaign. Instead, the Liberals swept Brampton’s five seats. The NDP actually came third in four of those seats. Of northern Ontario’s 10 seats, the NDP captured just two, and they were shut out in cities — such as Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Sault Ste. Marie — where they’ve frequently had success.

Last month, just a couple of days after the election, New Democrat MPPs at Queen’s Park gathered for a confidential, half-day debrief on what went wrong in Ontario, in case any lessons could be learned for the next provincial election in 2022. Party officials were actually content with their showing in the rest of Canada. The NDP picked up a seat in Atlantic Canada; it retained seats in both Quebec and Alberta (despite predictions of a complete wipeout); and it did reasonably well in British Columbia, with 11 seats.

But Ontario was an unmitigated disaster. So what happened?

Since Singh became NDP leader, two years before the 2019 election, the party has faced a perfect storm of problems. It started when Singh himself did several things that baffled supporters. He gave an infamous interview to the CBC’s Terry Milewski in which he denounced the tragic 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 people. But, despite being asked four times, he declined to judge unacceptable the practice of displaying posters of the so-called architect of the bombing. Singh’s stonewalling in the interview was awkward. It didn’t help that it later emerged that his people had wanted to see the questions before the interview and threatened to pull the leader unless that request were granted. (As a general rule of journalism, politicians are never shown specific questions before an interview.)

Singh also suspended MP Erin Weir from caucus after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced. An investigation suggested that Weir’s problems might have had more to do with his being socially awkward than with his being a harasser. Many supporters thought Singh had overreacted.

A narrative began to take hold: Singh looked unready for prime time, which no doubt contributed to the fact that several MPs announced they wouldn’t seek re-election. Yes, some MPs from every caucus almost always retire before the next election. But, in this case, the decisions were widely interpreted as showing a lack of confidence in the leader. Fundraising almost completely dried up. The desperate need for money became apparent: the party took out a $12 million mortgage on the Ottawa headquarters it had purchased 15 years earlier.

So, Singh started out this campaign dramatically behind the eight ball. It was as if all the other leaders had blasted out of the blocks on the starting line for a 100-metre dash, while Singh began the same race 100 metres behind. It was simply too much ground to make up.

And then the former leader piled on.

Tom Mulcair was turfed by his party in April 2016, after members voted 52 per cent to oust him at a post-election leadership review. It was the first time a national leader had ever failed to win the confidence of his party at such a review, and to say Mulcair was shocked would be an understatement. He’s been a regular television pundit ever since and has frequently been tougher than other commentators on Singh.

New Democrats were also frustrated that Singh was subjected to what they saw as unfair treatment over Quebec’s Bill 21, which prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols.

“All the other leaders got a pass on it,” a senior campaign official told me last week. “They refused to get involved. But the guy with the turban on was especially criticized for taking the same position. What an infuriating double standard.”

Then Singh suffered the same fate many NDP leaders experience: many voters abandoned him the weekend before October 21 because their fear of a Conservative majority government was more intense than their desire to vote NDP. The Liberals were the beneficiaries, and the NDP had to say goodbye to its aspirations for picking up seats in Ontario.

Despite all this, Singh is currently not in a terrible spot. Unlike Scheer, who received the most votes on election night and improved his party’s seat count significantly, he doesn’t appear to be facing obvious attempts to remove him as leader.

Furthermore, when the House of Commons reconvenes, he’ll find himself holding the balance of power in a minority parliament. The Liberals will depend on his 24 seats to push much of their agenda through Parliament. Having said that, Singh got 15 fewer seats than in the last House, his share of the total vote dropped 4 per cent, his party is broke, and he’s in no position to pressure the government if he doesn’t get his way on things.

Meanwhile, with the election out of the way, Ontario New Democrats will refocus their efforts on enhancing provincial-party leader Andrea Horwath’s chances of winning the 2022 election. Horwath has already led her party through three general elections. But, unlike Mulcair, Horwath has always managed to beat back all potential challengers when these reviews happen. She has certainly grown in the job since she won it 10 and a half years ago, appearing more confident and communicating better. Her performances during question period (clips on the nightly news presumably being how most people see her) are calmer, stronger, and less annoyingly sanctimonious than those of other NDP leaders in the past.

Another measure of Horwath’s confidence is the fact that she’s given significant responsibilities to the caucus members most likely to run for her job when she ultimately steps aside. Catherine Fife (Waterloo) gets plenty of ice time as the critic for jobs, employment, research and innovation. Sara Singh (Brampton Centre) is deputy leader and the attorney general’s critic. And Marit Stiles has been a frequent presence during question period as education critic.

Having just turned 57 (making her nearly two decades younger than many candidates running for the American presidency), and barring something totally unforeseen, Horwath seems set to equal Donald C. MacDonald and Bob Rae’s record of leading the party through four elections — a rare feat in Canadian or Ontario politics.  

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tom Mulcair had said that Andrew Scheer had won the English-language leaders' debate. TVO.org regrets the error.

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