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The NDP Must Stay the Course

Canada’s New Democratic Party performed worse than expected in yesterday’s elections. But the party can’t take those results as a sign to water down their message — the NDP must continue to offer a left-wing program of taxing the rich and combating climate change.

Canada's New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh at the Toronto Pride Parade in 2017. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The polls in the closing days of the Canadian federal election were not completely wrong: they predicted a minority government. But how we got to such a government was unexpected. The Liberals managed to win a plurality of seats and will receive the first shot of forming a government. However, the Conservatives won a plurality of the votes. From the early vote totals, it also looks like the voter turnout is down from the 68.3 percent that it was in 2015.

This kind of result is rare but not unprecedented in Canadian politics, where 1979 was the last time the party that won the most seats did not have a plurality of votes. Such is the reality of a first-past-the-post electoral system.

The polls also correctly captured the fact that the recent Green Party surge had ended. Although some polls had the Greens at over 10 percent, they ended up with just over 6 percent. While their three seats are the most they have ever won, the result demonstrates that they faded over the course of the campaign season.

The far-right People’s Party did not manage to win a seat, with its former Conservative foreign minister leader Maxime Bernier losing his. This is a blow to the far right at the electoral level, though the party could come roaring back if little is done to offer a left-wing alternative to the status quo.

The New Democratic Party’s (NDP) result, however, did not live up to what the polls predicted. Some polls had the NDP at 18 to 20 percent of the popular vote, winning thirty to thirty-five seats. In fact, the party ended up with 15.8 percent of the vote and twenty-four seats. The NDP’s loss of seats was to be expected — the beachhead the party held in Québec was always precarious, and it only managed to hold on to one of their previous sixteen seats there.

That poor result in Québec is tied to the situation around Bill 21 there. This bill would have prohibited public servants from wearing conspicuous religious symbols like a hijab or a kippah. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is a Sikh who wears a turban, and he experienced racism while campaigning in the province — and elsewhere, for that matter. The Bloc Québécois surged during the campaign, going from ten seats to thirty-two, focusing on provincial pride and barely veiled racist appeals.

The NDP managed to pick up some seats in the rest of Canada, but it also lost some there, too. The thirty or more projected seats did not materialize. Why? It is certainly possible that Singh suffered from the Bradley Effect, in which voters tell pollsters they will vote for a candidate of color but don’t once they reach the polls. But it is also possible that the Liberals’ classic fearmongering over strategic voting to stop the Conservatives prevented the NDP from picking up seats in the Toronto and Vancouver areas, where it looked like the party had a chance of some gains.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s many scandals seemed to have hurt him at one point, and likely cost him a majority government. But the NDP was unable to translate that into a massive wave in their favor.

The NDP’s decline should not be laid at the feet of Singh, though. When the election started, the polls were bleak. There was talk that the NDP would end up with less than twelve seats, which would have seen it lose official party status in the House of Commons. Singh ran a good campaign, and his performance in the debates helped to save the NDP from a wipeout. He will almost certainly stay on as leader, and deservedly so, given the circumstances and his strong campaign presence. And, frankly, there is no one who could realistically replace him.

The NDP ran on its most left-wing platform in years. Its climate plan and its calls to tax the rich were well received. There were limitations, of course, like the plan to make dental coverage means tested and limited to households making less than $70,000 a year, despite the fact that targeted social programs are easier to undo than universal ones.

But Singh inherited a party that was in disarray. Its previous leader, Thomas Mulcair, was an ex–Québec Liberal who was recruited to the party to win seats in Québec. He was a very effective parliamentarian, but he was no social democrat.

Mulcair botched the 2015 election by promising no deficit — despite the Liberals announcing they were willing to run one to protect jobs and the economy. Mulcair was turfed at a party convention in 2016, and the party languished in the polls and saw its fundraising drop. Singh won the NDP leadership race with a strong showing, but he had jumped from provincial politics, where he was a member of the third-largest party in the Ontario legislature, to leading a federal political party. He proved to be an incredibly effective campaigner, however, once he gained experience and hit his stride during the election.

On the campaign trail, some chatter suggested a government coalition between the Liberals and the NDP. Canada has not had a coalition government since World War I. But the position that the NDP finds itself in is not new. It has enough seats to prop up a Liberal minority government.

This has happened several times before. When there were Liberal minority governments in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the NDP played key roles in the passage of Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and the creation of Petro-Canada (now since privatized). The irony in these situations was that the Liberals ended up winning majority governments after these periods of confidence and supply from the NDP. Now, these accomplishments in building the Canadian welfare state are often attributed to the Liberals alone.

As a result, the NDP must tread carefully or find itself losing even more ground. The party must clearly state its priorities. Given the campaign it ran, it could try to force electoral reforms (which Trudeau infamously reneged on in February 2017) on the Liberals, as well as providing clean water to Indigenous communities, canceling the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and instituting a national Pharmacare program.

Given the fact that the Liberals spent significant political capital on buying the Trans Mountain Pipeline to reassure the forces of international capital that the Canadian energy sector was still open for business, canceling it may be difficult even in the situation of a minority government. But for the NDP to retain its credibility, it cannot compromise on the issues it focused on during the campaign, especially given the amount of climate activism that has taken place recently. Such activism, and the NDP’s embrace of an aggressive climate plan, likely helped them to prevent worse losses.

Most federal minority governments in Canada last around two years or less. The country will likely be going back to the polls sooner rather than later. Such circumstances have not always been kind to the NDP, with the exception of the 2011 election, in which the party won the greatest number seats in its history. In that case, though, the Liberals had experienced a complete meltdown, winning fewer seats than ever before. That’s unlikely to happen in the next election.

But for the NDP to buck broader historical trends, it must continue to offer a left-wing program of taxing the rich and combating climate change. A strong left-wing program is not an automatic guarantee of success. But making too many compromises to keep the Liberals in power will almost certainly undermine any chances for the NDP’s renewal.