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Home Opinion Uncharted Waters for Canada’s New Democratic Party
Canada • Election • Transformation

Uncharted Waters for Canada’s New Democratic Party

Peter Graefe & Simon Kiss - 16 February 2013

Having displaced the Liberals as Canada’s leading opposition party at the last election, the NDP is seeking to broaden its appeal beyond social, environmental and welfare state issues

As the long-time third party (and from 1993 to 2011, the fourth party) in a single member plurality electoral system, every election has had the feel of being a near death experience.  While party activists have long long dreamed of repeating the experience of the early twentieth century British Labour party and squeezing out the centrist Liberal party, electoral strategy often demanded making specific appeals in areas where they had a chance of electing a handful of candidates.
That is where the NDP would be in 2013, but for an unprecedented swing in Quebec during the campaign, which elected 59 MPs (out of a total NDP delegation of 103), where the party’s best total in the past was 1 seat.  This, coupled with a Liberal collapse (34 seats, the worst Liberal result since Canada’s founding in 1867), leapfrogged the NDP into the role of Official Opposition.  The magnitude and nature of this swing are truly breathtaking.  

What was behind this surprising result, and how has the NDP positioned itself to try and cement its dominance over the Liberals and potentially win government in the next federal election, scheduled for 2015?

Some of this story has been lost under the story of late NDP leader Jack Layton, diagnosed and visibly weakened by cancer treatment at the start of the campaign in 2010, but then energized and heroic by election day in May 2011, and dead of cancer by the following August.  Here, we try to put this result in the context of the past and try to look into the near future.

Looking Back

Layton’s improbable last campaign explains part of why the NDP finds itself in uncharted waters, but that campaign was built on nearly a decade of party transformation.  Following the electoral collapse of the party in 1993 (9 seats and 7 percent of the vote, versus 43 seats and 20% in the 1988 election), the party remained in that perilous state through the 1990s. The federal NDP was reduced to adopting the role of the party that could best protect the welfare state, and particularly the health care system. This, however, provided little space to grow, as the Liberal government of those years also cultivated, and indeed were more successful than the NDP in being identified with these themes.

In the 2003 leadership contest, Layton, a city councillor from Toronto, cruised to a first ballot victory over some respected and long-time parliamentarians.  His capacity to do so spoke to two key features that would mark his leadership.

First, he was reasonably bilingual offering party members the tantalizing potential of having a party leader, who, for the first time in party history, could speak to Quebeckers in their own language.

Second, Layton moved to rebuild the party’s long-standing universe of voters (about 20% of the electorate), which had bled away to the left and right in the 1990s.This included appearing on Pot TV to appeal to Marijuana party voters, but more substantial was a constant concern to limit the desertion of youth, environmental and anti-politics voters to the Green party.  Layton was also active in trying to reclaim voters who had swung to the Liberals, both through policy initiatives like the Green Car strategy (as the Autoworkers’ union had swung to the Liberals), and perhaps more successfully by exploiting schisms in the Liberal party to make the case that the NDP was the place for “social” Liberals.

Third, with Layton’s deep roots in Toronto city politics, his leadership campaign was able to lay the groundwork for a new emphasis in policy for a political party that had seemed stuck in the museum of 1970s/1980s social democracy (and not even that museum’s most interesting rooms!).  Part of this involved injecting an urban/environmental focus, which had several strategic advantages. It appealed to younger, urban and more educated voters.  Rather than continuing in its role of simply defending past gains in the field of the welfare state, this also put the NDP at the heart of a subsequent high-profile debate over the status of municipalities, traditionally the weakest element in Canada’s federal system.  The NDP also stood out for its opposition to Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, for which it took a great deal of flak from the press and the populist right, but which ultimately kept it close to majority popular opinion.

Layton’s experience as part of Toronto’s executive in the late 1990s gave him some credibility as a politician with experience governing and managing the books.  To combat the view that the NDP could not be trusted to manage the public purse, the NDP repeatedly took a “balanced budget or better” stance, heavily emphasizing the reasonable fiscal record of the various NDP provincial governments.  Similarly, if the other parties were about tax cuts and getting tough on crime, the NDP would develop its own specific tax cuts (for instance, for small business, purportedly to create jobs) or crime policies (for instance, promises to hire more police officers).

In sum, this was less the recasting of a social democratic party around a new vision of social risks or of a Third Way, than an attempt to squeeze a weakened Liberal party by becoming the competent and trustworthy party of measured social reform.

In Quebec, where the division line was on Quebec’s national status, the positioning was a bit different, but again played on making the NDP the trusted and reasonable fall-back option for when the population wanted a break from the national question.

These examples point to another aspect of the policy vision: it was very pragmatic, even in its populism.  While party platforms continued to set out a broader vision of social investment, campaign pitches became much more targeted: hiring more doctors and nurses, keeping bank fees and credit card rates down, reducing household energy bills and the like.  This pragmatism became another calling card, particularly in the minority Parliaments from 2004-2011, where the NDP used its leverage to extract specific commitments to files such as affordable housing, childcare, and extended unemployment insurance benefits.

This strategy was tested through four elections (2004, 2006, 2008, 2011).  Over time, the NDP grew back to its historic voter base (19% in 2008), putting together seats from the resource hinterland with those from the inner cities of Canada’s major metropolitan areas.  Then, the disenchantment and desire for change among the Quebec electorate broke the national question and swept the NDP past the flailing Liberals.

It remains to be seen whether this second place position can be consolidated and expanded, particularly as the NDP has historically been absent in suburban Canada.  Can it supplant the Liberals as the progressive alternative in a two-party system? Much will depend on the strength of Liberal identity in suburban Canada, and the degree of Layton’s success in making the NDP less toxic to suburban voters.

Looking forward

In March 2012, the NDP membership elected its current leader, Thomas Mulcair.  While quite different in temperament, he has largely pursued the same lines of strategy.

Aware that there is still a great deal of difference between the party’s social democratic base and where he feels he needs to place the party to defeat the sitting government, Mulcair has spent a great deal of time making himself available to party organization.  The fact that he sat as a cabinet minister in a Liberal provincial government no doubt further motivates this desire to gain the trust of his base.  At the same time, the fact that the NDP for the first time finds itself as Official Opposition also buys him a great deal of trust – both his caucus and the extra-parliamentary party are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he is able to deliver the first NDP federal government.

In terms of policy, Mulcair has worked to narrow the policy distance between the Conservative government and the NDP on some core issues, such as the government’s trade and investment agreements, hammering on the nationalist theme only where elite opinion is divided (for instance on allowing take-overs of major resource firms by Chinese state enterprises).  The major lines of difference that he is privileging are the environment (often framed as an intergenerational equity issue of not leaving the costs to today’s youth) and competent public administration (to highlight the ideological follies and excesses of the Conservatives).

These may seem rather slight issues, but they serve both strategic and ideological ends.  Public opinion data often show that the NDP is trusted by Canadians to manage a wide range of social, environmental and welfare state issues. The very disciplined Parliamentary strategy based on competence is clearly aimed at rendering the NDP “safe” on economic and fiscal issues for more centrist voters, and for undermining the Conservative’s ownership of issues of competence, integrity and thrift.  The environmental question, in the context of Canada becoming the world’s gas tank through developing the oil sands, has allowed the NDP to open a debate about economic policy for the first time in nearly half a century.

Whether recent reforms will steer the NDP to power in 2015, or even consolidate it’s displacement of the Liberals is yet unclear.  As Canada’s “Natural Governing Party”, the Liberals can call on old loyalties should they find the right leader and some policy space to set them apart.  On the other hand, polls have been promising in terms of the NDP sustaining a base of support of about a third of the electorate, well above its historic universe of 20%.  The next two years will tell us a great deal about the success of the NDP’s transformation in building a party with a broad base of support that includes remnants of the urban working classes, suburban and urban middle class voters, resource extraction workers in the hinterlands.  All of this must happen, of course, in not one, but two, linguistic and national communities.  The internal politics of the NDP just got much more interesting.

Peter Graefe teaches political science at McMaster University, Hamilton.

Simon Kiss teaches journalism/leadership at Wilfred Laurier University, Brantford.

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

Tags: Peter Graefe , Simon Kiss , Opinion , SOTL , State of the Left , Canada , New Democratic Party , Nouveau Parti démocratique , NDP , NPD , Thomas Mulcair , British Labour Party , Liberal Party of Canada , Parti libéral du Canada , Grits , The Grits , Bob Rae , Election , Jack Layton , Modernisation , Welfare State , Healthcare , Quebec , Green Party of Canada , Parti vert du Canada , Elizabeth May , Environmentalism , Anti-politics , Afghanistan , Populism , Right , Left , Populist Right , Right-wing , Left-wing , Right wing , Left wing , Security , Tax , Third Way , Triangulation , Nationalism , Social Investment , Campaigning , Childcare , Housing , Unemployment , Nycole Turmel , Social Democracy , Social Democratic , China , Intergenerational , Conservatives , Conservative Party of Canada , Parti conservateur du Canada , Stephen Harper , Economy ,


09 April 2013 10:35

You know what really gets me is that this Big City Liberal man about town can prprout to really care that women's voices are not being heard in the media and that women's organizations are not marching in the streets over this.How convenient to forget that it was the Liberals who began the slaughter of women's organizations in Canada when his Liberal government was in power. How easy to ignore that the Liberal government refused to acknowledge the need for pay equity in the federal civil service, eliminated the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and cut the Status of Women Canada's Women's Program by 40 percent. So now, after Dion's buddy, Harper, has finished the job and removed equality from the mandate of the federal government, taken on that neo-liberal agenda set in place by Mulroney and followed obediently by Chretien and Martin, this Big City mucky-muck needs someone to blame. It might as well be women, eh? There's some kind of logic in there, I suppose. After all, we all know that white men with power won't assume responsibility when things go wrong. Now, really, women, it should not surprise any of us that Dion and his ilk are supporters of C-484. They, too, would rather have women pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen. They've proven that much over the years. Besides, with women out of the way, they can focus on training the young men to become old boys. And that's good for Canada, eh?ROFL!

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