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. Nevertheless, in 2011, more than half a century after Stinson spoke, “the time” finally arrived. Or did it? In his book Building the Orange Wave,2 party insider Brad Lavigne would have readers believe that Jack Layton’s inner circle developed and executed a plan that turned the NDP into a contender for government. Many in this same inner circle, we might note, developed and executed a plan for the British Columbia election in 2013, in which the NDP was considered a sure winner. As it turned out, the governing Liberals were reelected, and the NDP and the strategic geniuses behind its campaign plan were humiliated.

9_Jack_LaytonTo be sure, Jack Layton as “le bon Jack” was the pivotal figure in turning Quebec on its head in the 2011 election, but if one scratches below the surface one cannot avoid seeing how limited the party’s accomplishments actually were. In the 233 seats outside Quebec, the NDP posted an underwhelming net gain of seven seats. In Manitoba, where the NDP had held four seats entering the election, it lost two. In Saskatchewan – the birthplace of the CCF and the home of North America’s first social democratic government – it won no seats at all, just as it had won none in 2008. In Alberta, the party mustered less than 17 per cent of the vote. Even in Quebec, the impressive 43 per cent of the vote garnered by the NDP was less than the Bloc Québécois had won in some elections when the Bloc had captured fewer seats. With four competitive parties, the NDP benefited from the breaks in the distribution of Quebecers’ vote; with more than half as many votes as the NDP, the Bloc only won four seats.

Since its heady performance three years ago, the NDP has seen one of its MPs defect to the Bloc, another to the Liberals and a third to the Greens, while yet another has declared herself an Independent. With three of those defections in Quebec and with a resurgent Liberal Party, it is difficult to see how the NDP can hold onto all its Quebec seats next year. An NDP caucus of 103 has shrunk to 97 while the Liberal caucus has grown from 34 to 37. The results in the 13 byelections since 2011 are humbling and ominous: in 11 of them, the NDP’s share of the vote declined while the Liberal vote increased, in some cases dramatically. In neither Provencher nor Brandon-Souris, Manitoba ridings where the NDP had placed second in 2011, did it attract more than 8 per cent of the vote. Even before Justin Trudeau’s coronation as the Liberal leader, the NDP candidate in the Calgary Centre byelection attracted less than 4 per cent of the vote and trailed the Greens. In Alberta’s Macleod riding, the NDP trailed the Christian Heritage Party as well as the Greens. There was irony therefore in NDP spokesperson George Soule telling the federal party caucus’s September 2014 conclave in Edmonton that the party has a bright future in Alberta because it ran second in most of its constituencies in 2011. That was then. This is now.

The NDP has experienced reverse momentum. Particularly foreboding was the loss of the seat formerly held by Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow. If the NDP cannot hold or be competitive in an inner-city riding like Toronto’s Trinity-Spadina – the fall-off in the NDP vote was 20 per cent as the Liberal vote skyrocketed by more than 30 per cent – it stands to lose seats in urban English Canada including many in Montreal. That the Liberals enticed Adam Vaughan – Mayor Rob Ford’s leading nemesis on Toronto City Council and assumed by many to be an NDPer – to run for them indicates that opponents of conservatism elsewhere also have their fingers in the wind and they feel that it is not blowing in the NDP’s direction.

The bad news does not end there. The party has been ordered to pay back over $1 million for ineligible mass mailings by its MPs. It may also be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars more for the salary costs at satellite offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto which, according to the nonpartisan civil servants who work as administrators of parliamentary affairs, have been fraudulently staffed by some of the party’s designated parliamentary employees. The party claims it is a victim of a kangaroo court, Parliament’s secretive Board of Internal Economy, where the Conservatives and Liberals constitute a majority. The NDP is going to court to fight what it terms a partisan vendetta, but the courts are almost certain to rebuff the party because they loathe challenging the way Parliament, technically a court unto itself, conducts its internal affairs.

The news on the fundraising front is glum as well. In 2013, the Conservatives, masters of coaxing money from their solid if shrinking support base, raised over $18 million from more than 87,000 contributors. Fewer than half as many donors contributed to the NDP, and the contributions totalled less than half the Conservative total. It was the Liberals, with more than 71,000 contributors and leaderless for a good part of the year, who registered the most dramatic gains in donors and money raised. Money does not necessarily buy elections – if it did Paul Martin’s Liberals would still be in power – but the number of donors is a fair gauge of popularity. We now live in a world of the permanent campaign and although the amount parties can spend in the official 36-day campaign is limited, they are free to spend as much as they like before the campaign starts. On that score, the NDP cannot compete with the Conservatives and Liberals.

The rickety provincial base

A fundamental structural difference between the NDP and the other major parties is its federated character. The NDP professes that its social democratic message is universal, pertinent at the international, federal, provincial and municipal levels. As the party’s federal leader, Thomas Mulcair is a vice-president of the Socialist International, the world’s largest coalition of political forces with over 100 million members in more than 140 states. Canadians can buy a membership in the federal Conservative or Liberal party but not in the federal NDP. The only way to become a member of the federal NDP is to purchase a provincial NDP membership. Quebec, which has no provincial NDP, is the exception – a comment on the party’s shaky moorings there historically. Heading into the last election, in the 23 federal elections since the CCF was founded in 1933, the CCF-NDP had only ever won a solitary seat in the province, Mulcair’s Outremont in 2008.3

Outside Quebec, the NDP runs its federal and provincial campaigns out of the same office, unlike the Liberals and Conservatives who have different offices for their federal and provincial parties, which are constitutionally separate entities. In Alberta, Tom Flanagan could be a federal Conservative member while simultaneously running a Wildrose election campaign against the provincial Conservatives, and some British Columbians are Liberal members provincially and Conservative members federally. But becoming a federal New Democrat is conditional on attesting explicitly to having no other party affiliation, federal or provincial.

The unmistakably wobbly condition of the federal NDP is matched by the rickety state of its provincial wings. In Newfoundland, the party outpolled the Liberals in the last provincial election and its leader, Lorraine Michael, was the most popular opposition leader in the country. Now the party badly trails both the Liberals and the unpopular Conservative government and Michael’s caucus has unanimously called for a leadership convention, “out of genuine concern for our party’s ability to attract quality candidates and build on our level of public support.” In August, that support stood at 16 per cent compared to the Liberals’ 48 per cent. The story is no less dismal in the Maritimes. The NDP didn’t just lose power last year in Nova Scotia: it went from first to third, tumbling from a comfortable majority to just seven seats in an assembly of 51. In Prince Edward Island, where the challenge to the NDP has often been finding candidates who will carry the party banner, the party’s vote has yet to exceed 3 per cent in this century. In New Brunswick, the party’s share of the vote rose to 13 per cent in the September 2014 election, but it once again failed to win a seat.

Mulcair vowed to create a provincial party in Quebec after the smashing success of the federal party in the province in 2011, but nothing has come of his vow. As a committed federalist, he cast his vote for the provincial Liberals rather than the self-styled social democratic Parti Québécois or the socialist Québéc Solidaire in the 2014 election. In the working-class east-end constituency of Bourassa, the party’s vote dropped in the 2013 byelection occasioned by Denis Coderre’s resignation to contest Montreal’s mayoralty. Another troubling omen for the federal party’s prospects in the province can be seen in nonfrancophone ridings: polls indicate that the Liberals are once again the heavy favourites in anglophone and allophone ridings currently held by the NDP.

9_Andrea_HorwathNot long ago, the NDP was a force in Toronto. Now it’s a whimper. The party was reduced to two of the city’s 23 seats in the last provincial election in which a veteran NDP MPP, Rosario Marchese, lost the provincial equivalent of Chow’s Trinity-Spadina riding by more than 8,000 votes. Not long ago, the NDP’s Andrea Horwath was the most popular leader in Ontario but now she is increasingly unpopular in her own party. Many NDPers find Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne more appealing. Although the NDP held its own in the recent provincial election, retaining the same number of seats and actually increasing its vote by 1 per cent, a move is afoot (similar to the situation in Newfoundland) to undo Horwath as party leader. It was presaged by a mid-campaign backlash from her own ranks when 34 prominent party supporters, including former party candidates, academics, social activists and early childhood educators – groups generally sympathetic to the party’s agenda – expressed “deep distress” at the party’s direction. The signatories of a letter, which included the wife of former party leader Stephen Lewis, charged Horwath with “running to the right of the Liberals in an attempt to win Conservative votes.” Olivia Chow’s lacklustre performance and poor showing as a mayoralty candidate is but another sign of the party’s weakness in Toronto, a region it must win convincingly if it is to have any hope of forming a government at either the federal or the provincial level.

On the prairies, the party is either stagnant or in decline. In Manitoba, home of the sole NDP government in the country, the Conservatives with a double-digit lead in all the polls in the past year will likely prevail in the upcoming election. In its worst standing in over three decades, the Saskatchewan party holds only nine of the legislature’s 58 seats. It is competing with Brad Wall, who has been the most popular premier in the country for the past few years.

Farther west in Alberta, the NDP won less than 10 per cent of the vote in the last provincial election. The party is so weak in Alberta and so many of its supporters so disheartened that after it won only two of province’s 83 seats in 2008, the party’s environment caucus and the Alberta Federation of Labour, to which the party is constitutionally linked, proposed an electoral pact with the Liberals and Greens. The floundering Alberta Conservatives, who have governed uninterrupted since 1971 and hold the record for dynastic rule in Canada, may be vulnerable, but no one takes the NDP seriously as a contender for office. The party has not won a seat in Calgary in over 25 years. “In Calgary, basically they are the walking wounded,” says Mount Royal University political analyst David Taras. “They aren’t even in the debate because their positions are seen by many Calgarians as repugnant.”

Although the NDP is competitive in British Columbia, it lost votes in the last election, which it was expected to win handily. As a sign of a party in the doldrums, eight months after Adrian Dix stumbled in the NDP’s run for office, only one candidate appeared on the ballot to replace him. Former NDP premier Mike Harcourt ripped up his membership card, condemning the party’s position on axing B.C.’s carbon tax and citing the “disgraceful” 2010 coup against former party leader Carole James. In a criticism paralleling those advanced by the protesting Ontario members, former NDP MP Dawn Black publicly pilloried the provincial party for failing to “confidently articulate an agenda built on economic growth and redistribution.” The NDP, she wrote, “has become a conservative force, fighting to protect the gains of the postwar boom but also resistant to new ideas for a changing world.”

A broader success

The NDP may look like a spent force, but if the last election taught us anything, it is how dynamic campaigns can be. Voters, especially the Québécois who have voted overwhelmingly for four different federal parties since the 1980s, are more changeable than ever. At the beginning of the last federal campaign, the Liberals were competitive with the Conservatives and the NDP was a peripheral player, more peripheral than the Bloc Québécois. The campaign began, as Michael Ignatieff put it, as a choice between only two doors, one blue and the other red. Orange was a marginal option.

The day the election writ was issued, the NDP stood at a lower point in the polls than it had in 2008. In Quebec, it stood at 12 per cent; five weeks later, it was at 43 per cent. Nationally, it had overtaken the Liberals, with Ignatieff out the door and soon afterward out of the country. Similarly, a week into the 2006 campaign Paul Martin’s Liberals, notwithstanding the damage to their brand done by sponsorship scandal and the Gomery Report, appeared to be cruising safely and possibly able to convert their beleaguered minority into a majority. Six different polls in that first week of the campaign showed their support as being between 35 and 40 per cent, with a lead of between 6 and 12 per cent over Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. A short few weeks later the Conservatives prevailed, and nine years later they still hold office.

Although the wind is in the Liberals’ sails these days, Mulcair and Harper have shrewd political instincts while Trudeau comes across as out of their league. It is difficult to foresee Trudeau outfoxing Mulcair in a leaders’ debate. Unlike Trudeau, Mulcair was bred politically in Quebec, and he can speak to Québécois issues in a way that Trudeau cannot. To be sure, Trudeau could grow into his job. Or he could keep tripping over himself (see Stéphane Dion).

Charisma only goes so far. Trudeau Senior had it and he triumphed very soon after becoming Liberal leader in 1968. But four years later his allure had worn off, and he and the Liberals hung onto power by a razor-thin two-seat plurality. Trudeau Junior may suffer a similar fate by the time of the next election. Mulcair, who is biding his time, has established himself as the best parliamentary opposition leader since John Diefenbaker. His and his party’s challenge is to prove their mettle on the hustings. The NDP continues to play the long game, waiting for the federal Liberals to implode. If Liberals desert their party, the lesson from the last federal election – as well as from Manitoba, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, where the party has triumphed provincially in the past – is that more of the defectors will opt for the NDP than the Conservatives.

Even in defeat, which is likely in 2015, the NDP will already have succeeded in the broader scheme of politics and public policy. Since its formation, the CCF-NDP has won 25 elections and governed provincially a total of 95 years. Reflecting social democracy’s relative strength, Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Manitoba and Yukon – whose populations constitute over three quarters of Canadians – all had social democratic governments in the 1990s. How un-American! The NDP is the Official Opposition in Ottawa but history teaches us that its influence has been significantly greater as a weaker third party when it holds the balance of power. It was from that position that it secured the cornerstones of the modern Canadian welfare state in the 1960s.

Once dismissed as ideologically foreign and hopelessly utopian – Sterling Lyon, Manitoba Conservative Premier in the late 1970s and early 1980s, vividly derided it as “socialists who follow alien doctrines laid down in Europe in the 19th century” – the NDP has succeeded in deeply imprinting its message of social welfare and social justice in the Canadian psyche. However the future unfolds, social democratic values are too embedded in the Canadian political culture to vanish. To wit: Before the Conservatives resounding triumph in 1984, their leader Brian Mulroney lamented and decried Canada’s social welfare programs as contributing to “the tragic process of the Swedenizing of Canada.” Once on the hustings and seeking office, however, he spoke of those programs as a “sacred trust not to be tampered with.” He had to, because most Canadians had embraced the social democratic ideal of a more equitable redistribution of income and wealth as societal virtues.

The NDP may not be going anywhere fast, but its impact and its message are here to stay. While the 2011 election offered the fleeting hope of electoral success, for the foreseeable future the NDP will more likely have to take satisfaction in the ongoing influence of its ideas.



1Quoted in Fred Alexander, Canadians and Foreign Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960).

2 Brad Lavigne, Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP (Madeira Park, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013).

3 He initially won the seat in a 2007 byelection.


Nelson Wiseman directs the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Toronto.