The palpable joy in NDP circles on the night of the last federal election appeared justified, the exuberant enthusiasm well grounded. Not only had the party leapfrogged over the rival Liberals to attain Official Opposition status, but it had won three times as many seats as the Liberals. Not only had it swept Quebec by winning more seats in the province than any other party had since 1980, but it had also won more votes than the Liberals, and twice as many seats, in heartland Ontario. Ontario is critical to the fortunes of all parties because it generally determines who will form the government and whether that government will be in a majority or minority position.
“If there is any logic in Canadian affairs,” Manitoba CCF leader Lloyd Stinson told a foreign observer after John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives swept the country in 1958, “now is the time when there should be a good chance for a third party to slip in and take the place formerly occupied by the Liberals against the older Conservatives.”1 This logic underlay the creation of the New Democratic Party in 1961. The new party would replicate what the British Labour Party had done earlier in the century: displace the centrist Liberals, polarize the electorate around competing conservative and social democratic narratives, and eventually take the reins of office. The NDP modelled itself after British Labour by constitutionally bringing CCF socialists together with the trade union movement.
From the beginning, there were flaws in the logic, as Canada is not Britain. British Labour has always had strong support in Scotland; the NDP, until 2011, had virtually no support in Quebec. Although the NDP and the union movement have somewhat distanced themselves from each other in recent years – Ontario’s public sector unions appear more sympathetic to the provincial Liberals and some national private sector unions have shown more sympathy in the recent past for the federal Liberals – much of the public sees the party as a captive of union bosses.