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Next stop for the NDP: the end of the road

The federal New Democratic Party may soon be out of runway. Not only is it now a non-regional player searching for a place in a political landscape that the regions dominate, it is ideological in a country where ideology has never really taken hold.

Its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), emerged from the Great Depression's fights over class and ideology in Europe. But that world never really existed in Canada, which has almost always had one strong centrist party in power, with another waiting in the wings. Stephen Harper's political gospel was to erase the centrist Liberals, and create a great divide between left and right. He failed – can anyone do it?

The NDP has a fundamental problem: Because ideology is divisive and excludes too much reality, the party's core instincts rule out mutual accommodation, which is something vital to Canadians. At the same time, the "movement" wing of the party has never felt entirely comfortable edging toward the centre to achieve power. The NDP's federal success between 2011 and 2015 derived mostly from other parties' weakness.

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The abrupt dismissal of Tom Mulcair as leader at the NDP convention last month, along with pushing through a discussion on the hard-left Leap Manifesto (anti-fossil fuel, anti-pipeline and anti-trade deal), has provided some excitement.

But neither is likely to change fundamentals. The NDP breakthrough in Quebec in 2011, the provincial success in Alberta and the initial prospect of a federal victory last fall did not reflect the underlying forces at work in Canada's federal politics.

The NDP has never stood on one side of the main issue in a federal election campaign or got beyond a protest role alone or pie-in-the-sky aspirations. Only two other third parties – the Bloc Québécois and Reform, in addition to the NDP, have once become the official opposition. For the NDP, it grew out of the existential crisis fallout in Quebec, the near-death experience of the Liberal Party after 2006, and the collapse of the Bloc Québécois as separatism waned.

Battle for the NDP soul

Commentator Chantal Hébert sees the decisive repudiation of Mr. Mulcair as round one in a proxy war over the manifesto being advanced by Stephen and Avi Lewis – son and grandson of former federal NDP leader David Lewis – and their supporters. She feels Mr. Mulcair is "only the first casualty of this potentially self-destructive battle for the soul of the federal NDP."

But is there even a serious place in Canada for either a moderate left-of-centre party or a harder-line, narrower, "conscience" party? What if party members are facing not a defeat caused by a disappointing campaign and leader, but existential issues to which there may be no lasting answer?

Conscience is for movements

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Perhaps the conscience movements of the future will come less from parties and more from social media – more immediate to form and re-form quickly. Justin Trudeau may be on to something in trying to make the Liberal Party into a movement – presumably both movement and party.

What that change would really mean, what difference it will make (if any), and whether it will work lie in the future. Meanwhile, if the Lewis dynasty succeeds in its takeover attempt of NDP policy, the question will be the same as the one asked after all takeovers: What did they get for what they paid? Might the price be too high? If the Leap Manifesto unexpectedly makes the NDP relevant, it would turn Canadian politics upside down.

The NDP is the only serious third party in Canada's history that has not just come and gone. But it may now be facing its exit moment.

Justin Trudeau is the most immediate cause of where it finds itself, but the fundamentals go deeper. Canada's federal politics since 1945 have been dominated by two strong mutual-accommodation parties – the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals. Now that the Liberals have been resurrected and the Conservatives are moderating their tone and policy, there is no obvious room for a moderate third party.

It is also far from clear that there is enough demand for an uncompromising party. Mutual accommodation runs against the strong "we know best" attitude of many federal NDP activists – certainly of the Lewises.

The NDP is almost surely at a crossroads unlike any before. Its leadership is unresolved, its identity is in crisis, and its path forward is difficult – perhaps impossible over time.

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It began to see itself in a new way with the surprise federal breakthrough in Quebec in 2011, the unexpected win by Rachel Notley in Alberta in the spring of 2015, and the brief period in last fall's election when it went from a three-way tie with the Conservatives and Liberals into the lead. Unfortunately, all were political flukes. Canadians were not suddenly seeing the world through NDP eyes.

Canada's third parties

Over the last century, Canada's politics has often required three or more parties to manage its fundamental regional character. The first three third parties came from Western Canada. Later third parties originated in Quebec. Sometimes there have been up to five federal parties (in 1993, in addition to the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, there were Reform, Bloc Québécois, and NDP).

The Reform and Alliance parties became so vigorous that the Alliance moved from a third party to a main party by taking over a Progressive Conservative Party that had been sapped in the post-1976 existential struggle.

In fact, the NDP is now unlikely to ever again become a contender for official opposition, let alone government. Third parties find it difficult to survive in Canada: They emerge from particular moments (such as economic depression, Quebec separatism, and Western Canadian alienation) that run counter to Canada's non-ideological, mutual-accommodation ways.

More relevant is the fact that, over more than 80 years, the CCF/NDP has never stood for a single positive way forward on any of the three great challenges every Canadian prime minister faces: the economy, national unity and the United States.

Something for the West to hate

This is the real reason its runway is so short. What does it offer that enough Canadians want and can get only from it? The convention revealed two continuing NDP challenges. First, the party is not good at national unity: First, it put an excessive emphasis on centralized social policy (too much so for Quebec); more recently, there has been its separatism-friendly policy that 50 per cent plus one vote (on a clear referendum question) is enough for Quebec to irreversibly destroy a country that has taken shape over the past 150 years.

Now comes the pipeline and fossil-fuel threat in the Leap Manifesto – a new national energy program for the West to hate. The NDP desperately needs public trust in its economic management. Even discussing the manifesto will make that problem worse.

Now that Tony Blair centrism has failed, the NDP's "We know best" DNA (usually extreme and uncompromising) is trying to come back. But the election of a non-extremist, centrist-tending Liberal Party has left no easy space to fill. Most of what the majority of people want from government is being attended to. They see further extension of government's role as unwanted or too much risk.

Is there an acceptable NDP diagnosis and consensus about how to respond? If not, could a lack of consensus lead the party to break up? Or could the wrong diagnosis, in a world where there may be no viable NDP-friendly consensus among voters, lead to its near-disappearance or lack of relevance? With the recent defeat in Manitoba, only one NDP provincial government remains – in Alberta – a strong common-sense opponent of the Leap Manifesto. Its poor recent provincial performances are not a good federal sign.

But the group behind the Leap Manifesto is up to something bigger than dismissing Mr. Mulcair. They were ready to muddy his election chances by bringing their "back-to-the-future" manifesto out in the middle of the 2015 election campaign. Climate change is serious, and the oil and pipeline industry has been stupid. But Premier Notley was right to describe the manifesto as naive and, no matter how well meant, it will be seen as a threat to Western Canada , if not the economy as a whole.

What lies ahead

The bleak future of the NDP, with nowhere obvious to go, may be the opportunity the Liberals need. Right now, Canadians are looking for ways that work for them and their country.

If the NDP left becomes more extreme at a time when the right is moderating, the political threat and opportunity for the Liberals will shift to the right. The Trudeau government has launched some big, full-hearted, multiyear journeys on the social-advance side of the ledger. How well they do involves an ongoing set of political challenges. What's needed is a stronger economic advance to go with them: pipelines (for both economic and national-unity reasons) and a new approach to private-sector investment and entrepreneurial drive.

Where could the NDP go?

It appears that the government knows the importance of pipelines. It is not clear yet where or how it sees the private sector fitting in. Could it see a unique Canadian opportunity for big tech-creative-scientific research clusters all across the country with strong links to its universities?

The belief inside the NDP in a social democratic party is strong, but where does it go now? If, as seems likely, the next election will be about the economy, nothing at last month's convention suggests that a newly led NDP will be united behind anything politically competitive on the economy.

The party's moment has likely come and gone – a moment never as big as it seemed. That means the Liberals, as they think about the economy, must and can safely look somewhat more to their right flank.

The NDP had one enormous federal impact – the introduction by the first Saskatchewan NDP government of provincial medicare, which later became national. Otherwise, the NDP's federal impact has come mostly from what the party prompted the Liberals to do on social policy, reflecting the Mackenzie King dictum that the CCF were just "Liberals in a hurry."

Canada's federal future

The Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals brought Canada through its post-1976 existential crisis. Today, there is no Progressive Conservative party and not much of a Bloc Québécois. The Liberals went into near-death intensive care, but have come back. The Reform/Alliance/Progressive Conservatives merged Conservative party was in office. This is where things stood when the 2015 federal election was called and the NDP had its high hopes.

Third parties may, for the moment, no longer have a major federal role. If that proves true, there will be big change in Canadian politics. If the NDP is indeed coming to the end of its federal run, minority governments will likely become largely a thing of the past. Since the first third party arrived after the First World War, almost half of Canada's federal elections – 12 of 28 – have resulted in minority rule.

Two parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives – will now shape post-existential-threat federal politics. The regional nature of Canada's federal politics seems unlikely to be expressed through third parties until something changes. And ideology does not seem to be the way forward in today's kind of world.

No party has yet expressed a viable view on Canada's overall debt and economic-growth future. The Conservatives' pre-election economic and fiscal view did not pass muster politically or economically. The Liberals' view will likely not become clear until its 2017 budget next spring. Inevitably, there will be a battle over growth and debt. Historically, the NDP has never had the right offer when the economy was the fight – and, with discussions within the party focused for the next two years on the Leap Manifesto, this is not likely to change.

If the federal NDP cannot get there with Jack Layton/Tom Mulcair centrist moderation when the Liberals are down, when can they? The big question for Canada is different. The NDP and Mr. Harper were spenders – not builders – one through social spending, the other through tax cuts. What happens if the Liberals are much the same, just sunnier and more expansive? Who and what will the country be able to look to then?

Toronto-based William A. Macdonald has an extensive record of public service. To spark discussion of the nation's future, he and associate William R.K. Innes have created The Canadian Narrative Project, with the help of Trent University, at http://www.canadiandifference.ca.

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