Canada’s NDP Should Stop Making Excuses and Find Ways To Win

There’s wide support for the kind of social-democratic policies Canada's New Democratic Party should be offering, but the party is afraid to put forward a bold left-wing program that can inspire supporters. The NDP’s history shows how it’s possible for a left party to succeed against the tide.

Jagmeet Singh at the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention in November 2017. (OFL Communications Department)

In 2021, the New Democratic Party (NDP) celebrates its sixtieth anniversary. For six decades, Canada’s social-democratic party — formed through a merger of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress — has challenged the Liberal and Conservative parties for power in federal and provincial elections alike.

During those six decades of activism, the NDP has never quite lived up to the hopes of its founders. The party may have chalked up some victories at the provincial level, in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. However, it rarely gets more than 15 percent of the popular vote across the whole country.

In its history, the NDP has never formed a government, and only led the opposition once, after an electoral surge in 2011 that proved to be ephemeral —the so-called Orange Wave. As things stand, the Liberals have to cooperate with the NDP in Parliament, having fallen short of an overall majority in 2019. But polling models predict that the Liberals will scale that hurdle next time around, depriving the NDP of its current influence.

Structural Handicaps

While some people may see these electoral failures as proof that Canadians simply aren’t interested in social-democratic values or principles, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. Recent polls show substantial popular support for policies like a wealth tax, a Green New Deal, and an expanded social safety net.

So why doesn’t the NDP attract greater support across the country? And why does the party itself remain so cautious, talking more about wage subsidies and support for small businesses than progressive taxation, economic planning, or inequality?

One factor is Canada’s “first past the post,” winner-take-all electoral system, which tilts the playing field in favor of the big parties and discourages people from voting for the NDP. Candidates are often elected to Parliament with less than 40 percent of the vote, so progressive voters are more inclined to vote “strategically” for Liberals in order to prevent a Conservative victory.

Unfortunately, that issue won’t be resolved without electoral reform — and Canada’s traditional ruling parties aren’t likely to dismantle a system that has long served to reinforce their power and influence. If the Left is going to win, it needs a different approach.

Like left parties everywhere, the NDP also suffers from the ideological slant of Canada’s corporate-owned media outlets, which refuse to give fair coverage of social-democratic values. Additionally, the party’s rivals can fill their coffers with donations from the wealthy elite, while it relies primarily on union support and small contributions. Recent electoral finance reforms may stop the Liberals and Conservatives from hoovering up quite so much corporate cash, but those reforms will also deprive the NDP of union funding.

Parties that challenge the status quo can hope to make up for these structural disadvantages by drawing on a large pool of committed volunteers. However, the NDP can’t expect people to give their time and energy to help a party that only has an uninspiring platform to offer them, at a time when cynicism about electoral politics is widespread.

Instead of trying to overcome these barriers, the NDP has aimed to get around them with a reliance on technical modernization and political moderation. The party now seeks to communicate primarily through email and social media, asking people for money and distributing centrally organized micro-messages that have been developed around polls and data mining.

Along with these new campaigning techniques, the NDP has tried to cultivate a media-friendly image, drawing on a rhetoric of love and hope and putting the stress on moderate reforms rather than drastic change. It spends a lot of money on consultants, advertising, and branding. But none of this has done the trick.

No More Excuses

After the NDP’s breakthrough in 2011, the last two elections came as a bitter disappointment, with the party dropping from an historic high of 103 seats to just 24 in the current parliament. The Liberals have consistently managed to outflank the NDP through their willingness to advocate left-wing policies on the campaign trail — even if they put those policies back on the shelf once the votes are in.

Instead of bemoaning the objective factors that make life harder for the NDP, the party should consult its own history for evidence of how to succeed against the odds. The 1964 Riverdale by-election in Toronto was a classic example of an electoral strategy that bypassed the mainstream media to address voters directly. It resulted in a decisive victory for the NDP, with nearly 40 percent of the vote, giving the party control of this now-defunct riding for decades.

The NDP in Riverdale sent out well-trained campaign staff to canvass every household at least four separate times, first making contact with voters, then distributing campaign materials that connected local concerns to the party’s platform, with a final canvass to make sure party supporters made it to the polls on election day.

The renowned journalist Michele Landsberg, a Riverdale volunteer, explains how it worked. According to Landsberg, by the time the campaign was over, the Riverdale residents

were all my best friends. . . . people began to really trust me. . . . we’re all susceptible to the personal face-to-face contact and, if we feel we can trust that person, we’re very well disposed to their cause.

Some NDP staffers argue that face-to-face canvassing is redundant in the twenty-first century, with social media and email offering a different way to reach voters. There are not enough volunteers, they insist, and in any case, people don’t like answering their doors to strangers these days.

But the importance of direct personal contact can’t be underestimated, as community organizers know very well. Digital communication is no substitute for reaching out to people, listening to their concerns, and building up relationships of trust over time, with campaigning boots on the ground.

Targeting Corporate Welfare

There’s another example from the NDP’s history to draw upon: the 1972 “corporate welfare bums” campaign. The campaign made use of political theater, with a strong base of facts and figures, to achieve widespread news coverage. It proved immensely popular and set the NDP up for unprecedented electoral success, winning thirty-one seats and holding the balance of power in a minority parliament.

Before the writ had even dropped on the September 1972 federal contest, then-NDP leader David Lewis began holding press conferences outside the headquarters of major multinational corporations. He branded the companies “corporate welfare bums” for dodging taxes while raking in millions of dollars in government subsidies. Lewis demystified Canadian tax policy, presenting it as a form of “income distribution in reverse: from the working people to the corporations.”

The media felt itself compelled to report on these high-profile, confrontational events. This brought NDP pledges to establish a fair tax system and put an end to government subsidies for big business to a wider audience.

Lewis refused to dilute his message — or in modern terminology, “meet the voters where they are.” Instead, he looked for innovative ways to promote the NDP’s social-democratic ideology. In the long run, creative messaging will always prove far more effective than any number of professional media managers.

Recent Successes

Campaigns like that can still work, and we have the proof. Recent electoral successes that resulted from door-to-door canvassing and bold messaging include those of Matthew Green in Hamilton Centre and Leah Gazan in Winnipeg Centre in the 2019 federal election, Suze Morrison in Toronto Centre in the 2018 Ontario provincial election, and Uzoma Asagwara in Union Station in the 2019 Manitoba provincial election.

A strong emphasis on canvassing and messaging can also protect incumbent NDP candidates from the Liberal sweeps that frequently put New Democrats on the back foot. Peter Tabuns is the long-serving Ontario MPP for Toronto-Danforth, a provincial riding that now includes Riverdale. He regularly canvasses the entire riding — even when there is no election coming up — in order to maintain friendly and personal relationships with his constituents. As a result, in the 2014 Ontario provincial election campaign, when a number of well-known Toronto incumbents lost their seats, Tabuns held on to his, which has become one of the NDP’s safest in the Ontario provincial legislature.

Successfully connecting with voters provides left parties with a solid presence in the communities they represent. It allows for the building of personal relationships, engaging in dialogue and connecting party policy to individual concerns. By promoting and explaining left policies, inspiring and encouraging people, parties can actively build the momentum for change.

We know that left policy positions are popular and that the mass political base exists for them to be put into effect. It’s time to stop making excuses. The people are ready. The NDP must be ready, too.