Progressives in Canada have been concerned for some time about the extreme right-wing populists who have captured the various iterations of the Conservative Party at both federal and provincial levels. (Think Pierre Poilievre, Jason Kenney, Scott Moe and Doug Ford.) But another troubling development has gone largely unnoticed. That would be the rapid decline and growing irrelevance of the NDP.
While the worst case of this left-wing meltdown is on full display at the federal level, under the leadership of Jagmeet Singh, the party also has serious problems in Ontario and across the prairie provinces. This is all the more concerning when you recall that this party originally came out of the west (as the CCF) on a wave of support from western farmers.
True, it went through a major existential crisis in the 1960’s when it transitioned to the NDP and decided to focus more on blue collar workers and urban issues, forging a close alliance with labour unions. But it continued to be a strong third party. As a voice for the ordinary worker, the marginalized and the vulnerable, it consistently garnered between 20- 25% support federally, and often formed government in various provinces. It held the balance of power in several minority federal parliaments in the past, as it does now, and has often been described as an effective “conscience of parliament.”
Yet in the 2021 federal election the party took a beating. It was reduced to only 17% of the popular vote, while the fringe right-wing Peoples’ Party of Canada captured more than twice the popular vote of the Green Party and almost a third as much as the NDP. A similar NDP setback took place in the recent Ontario provincial election. There, despite launching numerous attacks on unions and minimum-wage workers during his first term of office, premier Doug Ford somehow managed to re-invent himself as a friend of the working class. The Conservatives were actually endorsed by the leaders of several unions, and while they did not represent anywhere near the majority of unionized workers in the province, the symbolism of such an unexpected endorsement was “worth its weight in gold” according to several labour studies experts.[i] The accuracy of that claim was proven when Ford’s party actually took a number of long-time NDP strongholds across the province. Incredibly this included all five seats in working class Brampton, where Singh’s brother incidentally was an unsuccessful NDP candidate.
What on earth is going on?
To begin with, it is a truism that in times of major social and economic upheaval many voters will turn to new and sometimes more extreme options unless there is a convincingly competent and reassuring government in power. Clearly a global pandemic adds to this societal stress and uncertainty. But voter movement from the centre could theoretically head right or left. In Canada, however, the federal Liberals were widely perceived to have handled most of the pandemic issues well. [ii] Certainly they were seen to “have the backs” of ordinary Canadians, providing financial support through programs such as CERB with reasonable speed and efficiency. This left the NDP with little to do except request minor changes and improvements at the margin, making them practically invisible while the Conservatives loudly occupied the space on the right with predictable (and often tone deaf) concerns about overpayments, cheating, and government deficits.
However from a political (if not a medical) perspective we have now entered the post-pandemic era, one in which many, if not most, citizens originally agreed with the premise that we should “build back better.” But as the reality of the pandemic aftermath sinks in, some are also expressing concerns about the immediate problems they are facing, concerns which are dimming their support for idealistic and expensive proposals for change. Many workers have been permanently laid off despite labour shortages in some sectors. Others have seen their non-unionized, minimum wage work become more precarious. Still other marginalized Canadians feel they have been ignored. And they feel they are without a political voice. Amazingly, the federal NDP and many of its provincial counterparts have failed to reassert traditional left-wing concerns that would play to these disaffected voters. Hence the rising level of anger and frustration among those who feel they have been left behind, to which the Conservatives are appealing.
At the federal level it is true that the Trudeau Liberals arguably represent one of the most left-of-centre governments since the days of the prime minister’s father, leaving less room for the NDP to manoeuvre. But Jagmeet Singh has exacerbated the situation by constantly playing to the Liberals’ agenda, simply echoing support for their diversity and inclusion initiatives and indigenous reconciliation which, although admirable, is clearly insufficient since it fails to distinguish his party in any meaningful way from the Trudeau government.[iii] Singh’s only “initiative” – a national dental care plan – is not only one that the Liberals would have introduced anyway, but is years from implementation. Worse still, these are not the issues that capture the attention of those voters to whom the NDP has traditionally appealed. In many cases, these concerns actually seem unrelated to their reality.
Even more significant is the fact that the bread and butter issues that are of concern to the working class, such as inflation, the cost of living and affordable housing, have not been paid the type of attention one would have expected from a left-wing party like the NDP. With the Liberals focussed on “the hard-working middle class and those trying to join it” the NDP’s obvious failure to appeal to the concerns of blue collar workers has left the door wide open for the right to barrel through.
This is essentially what happened in the United Kingdom when Jeremy Corbyn took the Labour Party into uncharted “woke” territory, albeit at the same time that his own disastrous predilection for anti-Semitic rants and elitist behaviour destroyed his own credibility. The result there was the unexpected and game-changing defeat of Labour in their traditional strongholds such as Scotland and northern England, allowing Boris Johnson’s right-wing Conservatives – who did speak to bread and butter issues, albeit with forked tongue — to achieve a huge majority.
It is also very similar to what happened in the United States in 2016, when Donald Trump’s anti-establishment right-wing rhetoric appealed to a broad swath of angry or discouraged workers who traditionally voted Democrat, but who left that party when they failed to hear anything from those Democrats that would address their concerns. As the new left wing of the Democrats moves even further into the politics of diversity and inclusion at the expense of bread and butter, the signs are ominous for the upcoming November elections, even without the ongoing problem of Trump’s stolen election myth. [iv]
As opinion polls have repeatedly demonstrated, the majority of Canadians consider themselves to be middle class and place themselves squarely in the moderate middle of the political spectrum, a scenario which helps to explain the remarkable electoral success of the Liberal Party over time. Nevertheless, it is clear that a significant minority of voters does not see themselves in this category. If no credible left-wing alternative to the governing Liberals appears to exist, and the more the concerns of this marginalized cohort appear to be unrecognized except by extremists on the far right, the more the level of political discourse in Canada, and events such as the Ottawa occupation, are likely to roil the political process. Simply put, the NDP has served an important function in Canadian politics and its current irrelevance must be remedied if we are to avoid the fate of democracies elsewhere that have been captured by far right populists.
[i] K. Philipupillal. “NDP Must Counter Poilievre’s Skill Harnessing Anger of People Who Feel Left Behind”. Hill Times. July 11, 2022.
[ii] M. Walsh. “More than half of Canadians say Liberals did very good job handling pandemic: poll” Globe and Mail. July 14, 2021.
[iii] See the latest NDP platform/fundraiser at https://www.ndp.ca/courage
[iv] “Wake Up Democrats!” Op Ed. The Economist. July 18-25, 2022.