Explaining the Canadian Election, Part 2: The Failure of the New Democrats

Ugh. The NDP path to victory was absurdly simple: focus the core message of the election as a referendum on current Prime Minister Harper, assist the Conservative rhetoric branding Liberal Leader Trudeau as ‘too young’, a ‘yuppie’, or ‘just not ready’, and maintain the Layton-era stance on social and fiscal issues. In fact, the core of the platform should have been essentially a repeat of Layton’s 2011 campaign.

Instead, Mulcair went for brokerage. He pulled NDP policy as far as possible to the centre in an attempt to attract Conservative and Liberal voters that were, for whatever reason, disillusioned with the party. This tried to make the NDP look more, in their eyes, as a viable governing alternative. This strategy rested on several assumptions: 

1. The collapse of the Liberal Party in the 2011 election reflected a collapse in voter loyalty to the party.

2. The collapse of the Bloc Quebecois in the 2011 election reflected a collapse in voter loyalty to the party.

3. Quebec could be counted on to stay orange.

4. The Conservative branding machine would be slow to react to these new post-2011 voting trends and focus on Justin Trudeau as the primary threat.

All these proved completely incorrect. The Bloc and the Liberals have resurged and the NDP are struggling to hold onto ridings in Quebec. The Conservatives were quick to latch onto leader Mulcair as a ‘career politician’ and used his main asset (parliamentary record) as a liability. In fact, Mulcair himself has quickly turned into a liability throughout the election cycle: he insisted on making balanced budgets a part of the platform—this allowed Trudeau to pivot left (‘I will allow budget deficits in order to make Canadian lives better’) and Harper to stay right (‘Tom Mulcair is lying to you about the budget’) and further erode the faith voters have in this leader.

In fact, Mulcair’s insistence on the balanced budget has tarnished large amounts of the NDP platform—they’ve promised lavish amounts of social spending without a notable tax increase. Voters, hearing the Trudeau and Harper rhetoric, have been conditioned to expect either large social spending or budget surpluses, but not both. In short, when Tom says “I will balance the budget and get your children daycare”, voters do not believe him.

And this is dire for the NDP campaign because a large part of their appeal has always been their honesty and integrity. By losing this through Mulcair, they are alienating their core supporters. These are the people, while not huge in number, ultimately get you elected: they canvas the neighbourhood, vocally support you on social media, put up your lawn signs, donate as much as possible, etc. And these are the people that are beginning to feel abandoned by the party: to them, the NDP has a leader that is visibly dishonest, fiscal policy that doesn’t appear to be realistically plausible, and social policy that superficially appears to be farther right than the Liberals. This is why Trudeau has encouraged debate on Liberal legalization of marijuana versus NDP decriminalization; it’s an attempt to appear left of the NDP (to their core supporters) in a way that doesn’t actually require a substantiative change of party policy.

It’s in these core supporters that I believe we will see the long-term effects of the 2015 NDP platform. The more people I talk to, formerly passionate NDP partisans (some even working or having worked within the party machinery) are entirely disillusioned by Tom Mulcair, so much so that the Liberals and the Greens are appearing, to them, as legitimate alternatives. This sort of dynamic has severe ramifications to party loyalty: if people vote or nearly vote Liberal in this election, they will continue to have this debate throughout the next several election cycles.

The last time a party alienated core supporters to this degree was in the early nineties when the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives became corrupt, raised taxes, and nominated a woman to lead the party (a big mistake for Conservative voters). This sent the party into a literal tailspin where they lost official party status and ultimately ceased to exist. Now, it’s unlikely the NDP will end (though a re-branding in ten-to-twenty years isn’t entirely out of the question) but they’ve made the crucial mistake of ignoring core supporters in a cynical and fruitless attempt at brokerage—in the simplest possible terms, the people who originally didn’t like the NDP still don’t like the NDP (they don’t believe in Mulcair) and the people who originally liked the NDP no longer like them (as they feel betrayed by Mulcair). There are, of course, exceptions, but that is by-and-large the current trend.

In the next week, we should expect the NDP to finish a distant third in the federal election. They will attempt to attack the Conservatives (through the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the Liberals (through Bill C-51) in the final days of the campaign in order to drum up electoral support. They will likely hold on to most of their seats in Quebec, but will lose several key ridings that erode the perceived legitimacy of the party as a governing alternative. Finally, Mulcair will either resign in his concession speech or before the next election cycle.

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