Whither The NDP?

It is tough to be an NDP supporter these days.

Nine months ago, party members were still celebrating the unprecedented March win in Alberta and were leading in the federal polls. But it all went horribly wrong in October, with the party reduced to 44 seats from the 103 they had won in 2011. Current federal polling shows their support at a measly 13.4%—a level which would result in fewer than a dozen seats.

Provincially they were thrashed, again, by Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party last month. In Manitoba, which votes on April 19, NDP premier Greg Selinger is running 20% behind the Progressive Conservatives.

The NDP holds a slim lead in BC, which could easily disappear in a campaign (as it did last time). Support for the provincial party in Alberta has dropped below 30%.

East of Manitoba, the party is running third everywhere—except Quebec, where it is fourth.

It was against this backdrop that the party gathered in Edmonton last weekend to pass judgment on federal leader Tom Mulcair. Needing 70% support to continue as leader, he received only 48%.

It is not surprising that the members were unhappy, nor that Mulcair bore the brunt of their dissatisfaction. The pressing question for the NDP is where to go from here.

The challenge is that many of the ideas that they championed back in Tommy Douglas’s day—especially universal health care—are now widely accepted. That battle has been won, but they didn’t get the crown. Rather, it has been passed back and forth between the Liberals and Conservatives.

In the 2015 federal election, Mulcair strove to wear the mantle of fiscal responsibility, not a typical focus of NDP platforms. The Liberals tacked to his left and won the day.

The ardently left-leaning Canadians—who always felt the NDP was their home—felt they had been abandoned. They are now rearranging the furniture to suit their tastes.

The other big development at the NDP convention was the advocacy for the Leap Manifesto.

It wants, among other things:

  • A national child care program.
  • Guaranteed annual incomes.
  • Energy-efficient retrofits for all home owners.
  • Retraining for workers in fossil fuel industries whose current employment is to be eliminated.
  • An end to all trade deals which interfere with our attempts to rebuild local economies, regulate corporations, and stop damaging extractive projects.
  • High-speed rail powered by just renewables and affordable public transit.
  • Moving to a far more localized and ecologically-based agricultural system. Back to the nineteenth century, but with faster trains.

In short, it calls for a long list of large new expenditures, while simultaneously disabling parts of the economy which are necessary to pay for many of our existing programs. You can’t share wealth that you haven’t created. The Leap Manifesto is one of the most economically illiterate documents of recent memory.

That did not concern the majority of delegates, who agreed that as a next step that the manifesto should be discussed at riding associations, and voted on two years hence. It is astonishing and disappointing that Mulcair, who had always positioned himself as fiscally responsible, said during a CBC interview that he would advocate for the Leap Manifesto if the party voted in favour of it.

After the Manitoba election on April 19th, it is likely that Alberta will be the only remaining province with an NDP government. Its members have to deal with the real world.

“I’m spitting angry,” says Alberta labour leader Gil McGowan, adding that some Alberta NDP delegates were so upset over the document that they began to talk about separating from their federal counterparts.

The problem for the NDP is that, even if they decide that they are not ready to adopt the Manifesto in 2018, it will always be pointed at by opponents as a barely hidden agenda.

The NDP formed the government of Ontario under Bob Rae from 1990-1995. Voters were so disenchanted with the result that the party has been unable to offer a competitive alternative for the subsequent two decades.

Likewise, in Nova Scotia, the NDP’s single period of government ended with an electoral rout in 2013. New NDP leader Gary Burrill will try to pick up the pieces. Unlike Dexter, he will not pretend to be a “conservative progressive”—which means he will be authentic, but not in a way that attracts a lot of support from Nova Scotian voters.

As the federal NDP party turns hard left it can anticipate a long period in the wilderness, without having had the temporary joy of a spell in office.


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