Toronto-St. Paul’s By-Election : The NDP in Freefall

, , Comments Off on Toronto-St. Paul’s By-Election : The NDP in Freefall

One of the major differences between the party politics of Canada and the United States has been the presence in this country of all three philosophical strands – conservatism, liberalism and socialism – represented in the party system.[i]  In the U.S. only the first two are present, and even then the difference in the policy positions of the parties that supposedly represent those two philosophies has often been based more on brokerage politics or history than on any clearcut ideology. (Take, for example, the phenomenon of “southern Democrats”.)

In Canada the presence of parties representing all three political philosophies has, in turn, played a huge role in situating our political centre to the left of that in the United States. From universal medicare, access to abortion and same-sex marriage legislation to gun control, childcare and labour legislation, the practical results of this fundamental difference in the political culture of the two countries is not only obvious but often has proved a source of pride for many Canadians.[ii] And, as many prominent Canadian historians and political scientists have noted, this progressive approach owes much to the presence of a socialist party, the CCF/NDP, even though that party has never formed a government at the federal level. Its role as a third party and “conscience of parliament” has been an important factor in forging this separate political culture on a continent dominated by the massive political elephant next door.  

All the more reason, then, to sound the alarm over the disastrous results for the NDP in the recent Toronto-St. Paul’s byelection, a reality completely overshadowed in political commentaries this week by the unexpected defeat of the incumbent Liberals. To be sure, the Liberals’ defeat is significant and should be seen by that party as a wakeup call. On the other hand, it is important to remember that by-elections are always seen by voters as a chance to express unhappiness with the government in power at no cost, unlike in a general election. In addition, historically this so-called Liberal stronghold has routinely alternated between Conservatives and Liberals since its creation. For example, although it is true that the Liberals have held this riding since 1993, the Conservatives held it throughout the previous decade and it changed hands 3 times in the prior ten years. Another complicating factor is the ridiculously long ballot of some 83 candidates which siphoned off more than 800 votes from all parties, a particularly significant factor given the narrow 600 vote margin of the Conservative victory. Coupled with ongoing and unprecedented public discontent over a wide range of post-pandemic issues, to say nothing of the concern expressed by the significant number of Jewish voters in the riding over the government’s position on the Gaza war, (as well as the Liberals’ selection of an unknown veteran political staffer as their standard bearer), this result, while surprising, is not necessarily as fatal for the Liberals as many commentators would have us believe.

The same cannot be said for the NDP. If this by-election is to be considered a bad omen for the Liberals, it must be seen as disastrous for the traditional third party. Even a cursory glance at the voting results makes this abundantly clear. In this riding the NDP has consistently drained support from the Liberals in elections where the Liberals were in trouble. From roughly 10% of the popular vote in most contests, the NDP candidates’ share of the popular vote almost doubled on those occasions. The classic example was the Liberals’ disastrous 2011 election, which saw the NDP become the Official Opposition for the first time in history. In Toronto-St. Paul’s, the NDP candidate garnered 22.63% of the vote, drawing enough support from the Liberal incumbent (Carolyn Bennett) to substantially narrow her margin of victory. Similarly in 2021, when the Liberals were returned with only a slim minority nationally, the NDP candidate in this riding took 17% of the popular vote, and although Liberal Carolyn Bennett was still returned, it was again with a much reduced margin of victory. Simply put, the NDP siphoned off Liberal votes every time that party was in serious difficulty. By contrast, in this recent byelection, with the Liberals again in deep trouble nationally, the NDP vote actually declined by 6%, to its worst showing (11%) in decades. Most importantly, not only did the NDP not pick up support from the endangered Liberals, as would have been expected, but it actually bled support to the Conservatives, an unprecedented development.

There are clearly a number of reasons for this troubling development, which ominously is only the latest in a string of disappointing by-election results for the NDP.  The first and most obvious reason for their decline is the invisible leadership of Jagmeet Singh, who has proven so ineffective and unconvincing that his personal rating stands at -12[iii], and he is actually less popular than his party. There is also no doubt that the confidence agreement with the Liberals, although a virtual necessity given the NDP’s empty coffers and lack of preparedness to fight another election after their 2021 defeat, has sapped that party of much political firepower. Even more significant, however, is the party’s recent policy focus on urban elite issues, a stance that has cost them their traditional support among blue collar workers. Prominent pollster Eric Grenier has found this trend is increasing, with many of those who voted for the party in 2021 now indicating they plan to support the Conservatives.[iv]    All of this is bad news for the NDP.  And there is not much time for them to attempt to shore up their faltering support, especially with the labour movement. No one should underestimate the progress that Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has already made with this segment of the population. Moreover it appears that the NDP leadership has only recently recognized how very precarious their situation is.[v] Barring substantial progress in reframing their party and its leader in the coming months, there is virtually no possibility that a Liberal collapse in the 2025 federal election will lead to another rise in the NDP’s fortunes as it did in 2011. On the contrary, as it stands now, the very best outcome the party could expect is to repeat their embarrassing 2021 result, finishing in fourth place behind the Bloc Quebecois. However if the current trend of NDP support draining off to the Conservatives continues, the only question may be whether the traditional third party will be all but wiped off the electoral map in the next federal election, leaving Canada with only two main political parties.


[ii] See for example Gregg and Posner. The Big Picture: What Canadians Think About Almost Everything. Toronto: McFarlane 1990.  


[iv]  See also