It’s a curse, but leaders of the New Democratic Party have been moderately likeable. Ed Broadbent was your uncle. He’d wink and tousle your hair. Jack Layton was dynamic, if a bit too downtown. Here was a guy you’d have a beer with — but just the one. Audrey McLaughlin was . . . well, she seemed nice. Jagmeet Singh, the party’s federal leader since 2017, polled at 46 percent approval in 2021, leading up to that year’s election, compared with 37 percent for the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau and 28 percent for the Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole. People liked this young man from Scarborough: soft-spoken, skilled at social media, measured in the face of dreadful racist attacks, a steady hand. Prime ministerial? Sure — but only in the safety of a poll. That’s the curse.
The NDP gets a whiff of it — the power — but then on election day the pragmatic voter goes with the candidate they don’t like, to block the one they dislike even more. It is a national ritual: thanking the New Democrats for being good people and then rewarding them with less than a fifth of the popular vote, with that one remarkable exception in 2011, Jack’s year, the year they cracked 30 percent and the curse looked breakable. Otherwise, consider the numbers: 17.8 percent in 2021, 16 percent in 2019, 19.7 percent in 2015, 18.2 percent in 2008, 17.5 percent in 2006.
When Singh’s NDP went from a 46 percent personal rating in 2021 to 17.8 percent in real vote numbers, the party, without much fanfare, called for a study to figure out what had happened. It was led by the strategist and Manitoba union leader Bob Dewar. The conclusion: the New Democrats suffered a credibility problem, made worse by their reluctance to disclose how much their platform would cost until the last minute, leaving the impression they were embarrassed to look as if they were throwing money around like a bunch of socialists. But the other problem, spelled out by an unidentified campaign staffer, was more existential. “It’s like someone is drowning,” Dewar’s campaign debrief quoted them as saying. “Jagmeet is very caring and genuinely understands what the person is going through. He then tells them other leaders cannot help. But then he didn’t throw a buoy, a rope.” Voters had nothing “concrete to hold on to.”
In one line, the anonymous staffer touched on a perennial problem for the federal NDP: Who are they? Socialists? No, they took that word out of the preamble to their constitution in 2013, under Tom Mulcair. Social Democrats? Does that mean socialist-ish or American-style, Third Way Democrat-esque, or both? Are they Orange Liberals, as they’ve been called, another muddy-middle political option for the fat part of the bell curve? Or left, socially progressive, still with the dust of prairie populism on their boots? Are they for pipelines (provincially, in Alberta) or against them (federally, maybe)? It’s been hard to track.
The reasons for the particular fogginess of New Democrats and their mission are catalogued in a short book by Matt Fodor, a doctoral candidate at York University. From Layton to Singh: The 20-Year Conflict behind the NDP’s Deal with the Trudeau Liberals is drawn, as the author is quick to point out, from media reports rather than interviews or original research, but it’s a readable summary of the struggles within the NDP since Layton was elected leader, in 2003. It contends with the central questions only New Democrats, among the traditional top three parties, have had to ask themselves: Do we want power, or do we want to influence power? And is this hand-wringing, more than leadership, the reason for our credibility gap with voters?
For Fodor, the who-are-we angst hit a peak during the 2011 election, with a shift away from grassroots campaigning to what he calls “professionalization”: more dependence on metrics, and a deliberate strategy to present the NDP as a contender for government rather than as the traditional conscience of Parliament. The platform involved five major pledges, including “Strengthen Your Pension” and “Help Out Your Family Budget.” Such language moved the NDP away from social activism and an emphasis on labour and brought it more in line with the kitchen-table politics that had propelled Barack Obama to power (and the Third Way approaches of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, which served as Obama’s models). The platform even recalled the money-in-your-pocket mantra of the Conservatives: it called for tax cuts for small business.
“Altogether,” Fodor writes, “the NDP increasingly accepted the parameters of neoliberal capitalism.” In the end, Layton’s team was rewarded with 103 seats and official opposition status. Partisans celebrated. But it was a case less of NDP swordsmanship and more of Liberal collapse leading to parliamentary topsy-turvy. And, of course, there was nothing to applaud on the left about a cynical Conservative majority that seemed set to make the country unrecognizable, as Stephen Harper had promised years earlier. On Democracy Now!, the progressive American news program, the writer and activist Judy Rebick praised Layton for an “amazing campaign,” but she added that “the extra-parliamentary left, . . . the social movements, can expect a very tough time from this government.” Her prediction bore out in the years that followed.
Mulcair was elected leader in March 2012, seven months after Layton died of cancer, and the “modernization” of the party continued. “If you look at the NDP administrations across Canada,” he told the Economic Club of Canada, referring to governments in Manitoba and Nova Scotia, “you’ll see nothing but good, competent public administration and balanced budgets.” Winning seats was the goal, not so much weaving the evergreen grassroots concerns into ideological objectives. This more than anything was Layton’s legacy: here we are, a real party, with rhetoric to match the others on the issues that, the numbers suggest, matter to mainstream Canadians. It all came at a peculiar time: Canada was on its way to becoming more diverse culturally and politically than ever before. The left singled out climate change and inequality as epidemic crises, while the right was reverting to internal discord, breathing new life into Reform positions on freedom and Western sovereignty. Within a decade, the political right, and with it the Conservative Party, would go radical, embracing a moronic, dangerous occupation of Ottawa. The NDP would stick to the centre as it understood it. And the Liberals, sensing room to move to the left, did so.
In the novel White Noise, Don DeLillo writes of family and how “magic and superstition become entrenched as the powerful orthodoxy of the clan.” In politics, this is called drinking the Kool-Aid. Lightning struck in 2011, and the superstition holds that it will strike again if the party remains professional and modern; if it sheds the twin ghosts of populism and Tommy Douglas, except in platitudes; and if it resists ideas like the Green New Deal and wealth redistribution. Now, as Fodor hints, it’s up to Singh to decide if the vague language that caused one campaign worker to wish for “something concrete” from the leader — a rope thrown to a drowning populace — is part of the Layton legacy, or whether it’s time to cast off magic and superstition, break the curse of niceness, and move on.