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.
To 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 Quebecois 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...