Election Anniversary: What’s Next For the Federal NDP?

Editor’s Note: This week, Ensight is publishing a series of original content articles looking back on the Liberal government’s first year in power and ahead to the rest of its mandate.

Today, Ensight’s Sally Housser, a noted NDP strategist and media commentator, looks at the future of the party following the disappointment of last October.

By: Sally Housser

While the results of the 2015 federal election were crushing for a party that had held so much hope for forming government, chatter about the NDP’s demise is premature. It’s important to remember that the 44 seats the NDP now holds is a long way from the nadir of 9 seats it suffered in the 1993 general election. It is also worth mentioning that, while the road to government for the NDP is very,very long, it currently holds 8 more seats than the Liberals held going into the 2015 election.

The question that will have to be answered for the NDP is will the party continue on the project of forming government, a project that began in earnest with Jack Layton, or are members satisfied with being the “moral conscience” of the House of Commons and sliding back into its perpetual third (or fourth) party status?  While many members and staff who tasted victory in the 2011 election are determined that the 2015 results are merely a setback on the path to NDP governance, there are those within the party membership that believe a perceived move to the centre has caused the party to lose its ideology and moral compass.

The NDP’s federal convention, which took place in Edmonton in April of this year, showed a party with an identity crisis. The stunning defeat of Tom Mulcair in the leadership review, coupled with the deeply divisive introduction of the radically environmentalist “Leap Manifesto” has split the NDP along several lines. East vs. West, urban vs rural, labour vs. environment. One party member described the party as being divided as “Punk rockers vs. Hippies”. 

With Mr. Mulcair’s defeat comes a leadership race, a race yet to begin in earnest. While the contest has been slow to get going (so far there is no declared candidate) there are signs that potential successors are gearing up. Just this morning long time British Columbia Member of Parliament, Peter Julien resigned from his position as NDP House Leader, presumably with the intention of throwing his hat in the ring. The Saskatchewan NDP convention this weekend will be visited by the popular Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Quebec MP Guy Caron as well as Julian. Jagmeet Singh, the Deputy Leader of the Ontario NDP has been popping up at various provincial NDP events in recent months and Niki Ashton, the Manitoba MP who ran unsuccessfully in the 2012 leadership race, has been criss-crossing the country talking to millennials about precarious employment.

Like all party leadership races, the coming months will be an opportunity for candidates to present their vision for a united party and chart their courses for the future. There will be those who will argue the way forward is actually a move back to the NDP’s more socialist roots, those that view a stronger environmental focus as the key to winning back voters, and those with a vision of continuing Jack Layton’s legacy of professionalization and modernization of the party. Ultimately the candidate who is able to convince the membership that pragmatic and progressive are not mutually exclusive terms will be the one who will be most likely to succeed.