Election 2019, the NDP: Eschewing Imitation for Economic and Social Justice


The major questions for the New Democratic Party heading into the upcoming election are whether it can weave its pragmatic and romantic threads together, and whether Jagmeet Singh (above) can be an effective messenger for that coherence. Jenna Marie Wakani photo


The golden moment for the New Democratic Party in recent history was tinged with tragedy. First, Jack Layton established himself as a candidate with national appeal based on a Quebec sweep, then he passed away before he could build on it. Can the NDP of Jagmeet Singh replicate that appeal in 2019?

Brian Topp 

The famous quote from the late screenwriter William Goldman about Hollywood, that “Nobody knows anything,” has, for obvious reasons, migrated to politics recently. It sums up perfectly my forecast for 2019. 

However, a few additional points are worth noting with regard to the New Democratic Party of Canada and its prospects. In 2019, the federal NDP is going to have to manage two realities of Canadian politics: First, that provincial politics shape the federal political chessboard to some extent; and second, that real victory often comes from finding a way to sideline those provincial factors in favour of something better…or worse.

Political parties divide into two categories: parties of interests, and parties of conviction. The Liberal Party of Canada is a classic party of interests—a historical legacy party like the Liberal Democrats in Japan; the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico; the British Conservative Party when moderately led; the Christian Democrats in Italy and Germany; the Democratic Party in the United States. These parties broker accommodations and understandings between elites; allocate offices, payments and favours; incrementally reform their countries, tilting to the left or to the right as fashion dictates, to stay ahead of real reformers. They, historically, enjoy extraordinarily long and successful runs in office. 

To New Democrats, the Conservative Party of Canada looks like a fellow conviction party—of a sort. In its latest guise the Conservatives seem focused on implementing the Trump playbook, which is about appealing to the darker angels of their core older white male demographic, and to voters with education levels similar to those of current Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a high school drop-out.

They seek to do this by building campaigns weaving together racist dog whistles (“tides of illegal migrants”), trivial bribes (“buck a beer”), character assassination (witness the conservative obsession with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political staff) and carefree fiscal irresponsibility (tax cuts increase public revenue—nobody knew!). If a mandate can be stitched together with this uplifting toolkit, the Conservatives then turn with determination to their agenda of change—changing back, to be specific, to the old-time economic and social balance they favour, by transferring wealth from low income people to high income people, and (at least in the dreams of their more idealistic supporters) using state power to impose Conservative Christian social values on those who do not share them. Flora McDonald, like many others, would not approve. But we can put this more charitably: Conservatives want to return to a more market- and merit-based economy, and to a more morally-based government and society by their lights.

New Democrats think of themselves as a conviction party, too. 

Most New Democrats with experience in NDP provincial governments picture themselves in the company of the great reforming Democratic Socialist governments of Britain and continental Europe. Other New Democrats look to hipper and more fashionable company—Podemos in Spain; Bernie Sanders and the American Socialists; and Syriza in Greece…at least, before that last one governed for awhile. In this we can say the NDP is a coalition of progressive-minded pragmatists and romantics. 

Modern-day NDP pragmatists are confronted by the collapse of “third way” centrist/social democratic role models across the democratic world, and the dangerous appeal of modern populist neo-fascism to working class voters, who are looking for something more than good public administration. 

Modern-day NDP romantics are confronted by their own track record, which is to unhelpfully agitate to make the NDP politically irrelevant and unelectable, and then to implicitly or explicitly argue for the election of the Liberals, since the Conservatives must be stopped. 

As you can imagine, this is an internal party debate that can paralyze the party, leaving NDP election teams with little option but to try to save the furniture by running archipelagos of by-elections, hoping for party status. That was the fate of the federal NDP in the 1990s, and that could happen to the federal NDP again in 2019.

But when the New Democratic Party finds a way to weave its pragmatic and romantic threads together into something like a coherent offer it can be surprisingly compelling, just when you least expect it. Because the basic ideas New Democrats seek to advance resonate well with the better angels of the people of Canada. Ideas like: More economically and socially equal societies are happier, healthier, more prosperous and productive, and leave everyone better off, even if you’re rich and suddenly have to pay your taxes; outcome matters as much as opportunity; and, citizens, not money, should be making the decisions in our democracy.

At their best, New Democrats in government are the kind of people who plant oaks in public parks, even though they know they’ll never get to see the trees. Because our children will. When the NDP contrives to make all of this clear, Canadians tend to like these ideas—especially when the Liberals have earned a stint in the repair shop, and the Conservatives have made the mistake of letting their real faces show.

Agood example of how the two strands of the NDP can be synthesized successfully is in the leadership of Tommy Douglas, former Premier of Saskatchewan and the first leader of the NDP in its modern guise. Douglas spoke beautifully, appealing to romantic themes, pointing us to the New Jerusalem. But he was also a tough, fiscally-disciplined, flinty-eyed, detail-oriented and iron-fisted provincial Premier who built social democracy on the prairies one brick at a time.

Jack Layton’s “project” was to once again find a winning synthesis between the NDP’s pragmatists and romantics, and to ask for a federal parliamentary mandate that would finally, after a century of trying, put the central power of the state in Canada into the hands of people who have these values and ideas—and would really, decisively act on them. To his eternal credit, Canadians could just about imagine letting him try. In particular, Quebecers were willing to let him try. That is worth pausing on, because what Quebec does next will decisively influence what happens in 2019. 

In 2011, Quebecers liked what they found in Jack Layton. He spoke in an authentic-sounding working class accent. He was every French-Canadian family’s idea of a friendly, beloved uncle of a certain age. And he had a pretty good political pitch: Let’s stop boycotting federal politics by electing empty seats (the practical contribution of the Bloc Québécois), and instead let’s kick out Stephen Harper and replace him with a progressive government that wants to work on issues that Quebecers and other Canadians can agree on: The environment; greater economic equality; better public services; and restoring Canada’s good name in the world. Quebecers rewarded this offer with a landslide. And that in turn gave the party a golden opportunity to make its first really credible case for a national mandate to the rest of the country. A federal NDP with a strong Quebec caucus is superbly positioned to bring Canada together on common endeavours. A federal NDP without that caucus struggles with relevance.

Provincial politics can shape the federal Canadian political chessboard going into campaigns. There are many ways to prove this, but since we’re talking about the federal NDP, let’s take a look at one of the helpful charts published by the CBC’s Eric Grenier, and let’s consider the evolution of the NDP’s support among Canadians since Jack Layton’s tragic death at his moment of greatest success. I have added a line to underline my point about this chart.

The federal NDP peaked at 35 per cent in early 2012, and then steadily dropped through to 2017—with one very significant blip. 

This unbroken fall in support occurred even though the party focused with laser-like determination on question period in the House of Commons—according to some, the magic formula for success in federal politics. The NDP caucus decided to invest in a determined and frequently brilliant prosecution of then-Prime Minister Harper over Senator Mike Duffy and his expenses. As it turned out, what was said in the House of Commons on these issues was not riveting to the people of Canada outside of Ottawa, and the fate of Senator Duffy (who remains in the Senate) didn’t power the federal NDP into office. Instead, to the rage and despair of many of its members and convention delegates, the federal NDP surrendered its position as official opposition in contention for federal power, and returned to its familiar world in third party politics. 

But what about that big blip of support for the NDP in the spring of 2015—that big blip that disappeared like a soap bubble when voters focused on the federal parties during the fall 2015 federal election? Did Canadians suddenly, briefly share the federal NDP’s passion to litigate Senator Duffy’s expenses? There might be a better explanation. 

That blip coincides with the election of Premier Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP in May 2015. Grenier’s regional tables show what happened after the party won its remarkable Alberta breakthrough: Quebecers returned to the federal party. If Albertans were persuaded the NDP is worthy of office, Quebecers seemed to be saying, why not stick with our 58 Layton-era MPs at the federal level? If something of this is true, you have my case for how provincial factors can influence federal voting intensions going into campaigns, which might create some opportunity for the federal NDP in 2019.

The NDP had a few things going for it provincially, going into 2019: B.C. Premier John Horgan’s talented, cheerful and effective leadership and government; Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s gutsy and determined premiership and equally talented, cheerful and effective team; and Ontario leader Andrea Horwath’s Layton-like breakthrough in Ontario (she became Ontario official opposition leader in the spring of 2018). These strong performances by effective and well-respected provincial leaders might have been putting a bit of a floor under the federal NDP at the start of 2019—whatever ends up happening this year in B.C. and Alberta politics, and notwithstanding the deeply regrettable divisions in western Canada over resource development and market access.

But as I said above, real victory generally comes from finding a way to sideline those provincial factors in favour of something better…or worse. When he was in office, Saskatchewan NDP Premier Roy Romanow often argued that in the 19th century, the string that united the pearls of Canada’s provinces was a railroad—the physical infrastructure that tied together the national economy. But in the 21st century, the string that unites the pearls will be common values (like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), and common collective social and economic efforts (like building a more equal and healthy society, vis his beloved national Medicare). As Romanow would call them, these are the thousand strings of accommodation and mutual aid that take the small worlds of Canadian provinces and weave them together into a national community.

Federal politics in Canada is extremely hard to do well. Even people who make federal politics their lifework, their calling and their careers usually fail at it. There is some cheap and temporary applause to be found in campaigning on issues that divide people, that split regions from each other. It is much harder to contrive those threads that unite the pearls in a federation of small, squabbling provincial worlds usually focused on themselves. But that is what Canadians are looking for from real federal leaders. They are looking for federal leadership that gives hope, common purpose and a sense of possibility to the whole country. In his time, Tommy Douglas did that well. Ed Broadbent led the party to unprecedented heights on similar themes. Jack Layton came painfully close. But if none of that is on offer with any credibility, then the door is open to those playing in the snarling populist neo-fascist playbook. 

So how will today’s NDP do in 2019 in the face of all of this? Jagmeet Singh is new to federal politics. We don’t have his measure; that will come in the campaign. Trudeau, lest we forget, looked like the third-party loser a few months before the 2015 federal election. But it turned out that he and his team understood the fundamental realities of federal politics much better than his opponents, and staged a spectacular and remarkable victory for his party. 

Since it is true that nobody knows anything about politics and that anything can happen, then it is possible that somebody else could do what Mr. Trudeau did in 2015 in the next federal campaign. Certainly, the people who advocated for Jagmeet Singh during his leadership campaign said he could do so. Now we’re going to see if that’s true.

Campaigns are equalizers. During the 2019 election campaign, Canadians will listen to all the federal leaders, including the leader of the federal New Democratic Party…for a moment. Mr. Singh and his team are going to need to make it an extremely good moment; a big moment; a moment that bridges over the Rockies and in both official languages; a moment that picks up where Layton left off. In a campaign likely to be centred on an ugly and possibly uninspiring slanging match between Trudeau and a coalition of unattractive Trumpian provincial Tory Premiers fronted by their federal errand boy, Mr. Scheer, perhaps there will be another golden opportunity for the New Democrats.

And the following will also be true: First, as the 2015 campaign demonstrated and as New Democrats are most unlikely ever to forget, victory for the NDP will not be found in pretending to be the Conservatives. Harper-era austerity is not what the people of Canada are looking for from New Democrats.

Second, victory for the NDP will not be found in pretending to be the Liberals. The Liberals are better at being the Liberals. If Canadians want Liberal government they will re-elect Prime Minister Trudeau and his team. Social democratic parties who try to go down this road are being crushed all around the democratic world—losing their core working class voters to populist conservatives.

Third, victory for the NDP will go through Quebec. Just as Quebecers (briefly) returned to their 2011 vote after seeing Alberta go orange in 2015, so it is true that voters in Ontario and across Canada are much more likely to support a federal NDP that can plausibly present itself as a national project, that brings French- and English-speaking voters together on a common agenda. The inverse is also true—it is hard to imagine voters, particularly Ontario voters, betting on an NDP federal government if they believe the NDP is about to hand back its Quebec breakthrough. 

And finally, victory for the NDP will not be found in focusing on the agendas of a kaleidoscope of NGOs and lefter-than-thou showboaters, however well-meaning. The democratic left has “othered” itself in part by being about this, in many democracies around the world, with the political consequences we see. 

Victory will be found here: Working class voters, in both official languages and on both sides of the rockies, want a raise. They want forty years of the Revenge of the Rentiers to end. They want the benefits of this economy tilted a little more to their benefit, for the first time in a long while. And they would like to know somebody in Ottawa cares about their jobs, their economic security and the future of their children. 

In short, in Canada as across the democratic world, working families are looking for economic and social justice—for themselves and for their families. If that’s on offer, they will probably support it. If not, the mini-Trumpians will give them a way to send the comfortable among us a message.

In 2019, they’ll be listening.  

Brian Topp is a former President of the New Democratic Party of Canada. He served as Jack Layton’s national campaign director in 2006 and 2008. He was director of research and deputy chief of staff to Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, and was chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.