Lessons on losing: What the NDP can learn from the 2011 Liberals: Mackenzie

Lessons on losing: What the NDP can learn from the 2011 Liberals: Mackenzie

Shane Mackenzie

The recent NDP leadership ended decisively, with a first-ballot win for Brampton MPP Jagmeet Singh. Without a seat in the House of Commons of his own, Singh expects (unless an opportune by-election crops up) to be on the campaign hustings on his own for the next two years straight.

He’s an interesting — and possibly risky — choice for the NDP: a federal outsider without provincial NDP government experience, someone who is not a current federal caucus member. But those aren’t really the things New Democrats need to worry about right now.

The larger challenge for the NDP is one of identity — of figuring out who they are and what they stand for. The party gambled in the 2015 campaign on outflanking the Liberals through a balanced budget pledge. That shift in direction left many Canadians uncertain about what a ideologically flexible NDP might do next.

For some lessons on how this self-evaluation process might look, it’s worth taking a look back to 2011, when the Liberals — who also had just experienced a fall from Official Opposition to third party status — initiated a very deliberate process of ‘rebuilding’ their party.

This rebuilding project was a pragmatic process of evaluation — not an exercise in nostalgia. Liberals attended roundtables where they told one another why they were Liberals — what the Liberals should stand for, what policies they should champion, what would convince everyday Canadians that Liberals were a vibrant political movement worth considering again.

In Justin Trudeau’s book Common Ground, he describes his key advisers sitting around a campfire and talking about the possibility that the Liberal party was a spent political force. They talked about how Preston Manning and Stockwell Day created new parties with new names and the same old MPs. (Who knows what that would have looked like? The Progressive Party? The Liberal Democrats?)

Reminder: Before the 2015 election, the NDP had the largest caucus in its history. The election pulled the rug out from under them. In Opposition, New Democrats talked seriously about being ready to govern and pointed to the experience of provincial NDP governments by way of example. Defeat robbed the party of its raison d’être.

Many New Democrats haven’t understood that loss yet for what it was. Many Canadians don’t know now what distinguishes the NDP from the Liberal party, what makes New Democrats more qualified than the Liberals to move forward progressive ideas.

Parliament won’t help. Tom Mulcair made a reputation for himself as Stephen Harper’s most savage opponent in the Commons. The NDP’s new leader may not even make it to question period for another two years. In the meantime, Singh has tapped former leadership rival Guy Caron to lead his caucus day-to-day.

Singh has made some moves to distinguish himself from his rivals and, by extension, from the Liberals — such as his pitch to decriminalize personal recreational drug use. But he still has a lot to lose in 2019 and much ground to make up. Prime Minister Trudeau continues to be seen as a symbol of progressivism around the world.

The NDP supporters who voted strategically in 2015 to defeat the Harper Conservatives may be alarmed by recent polling showing a rise in support for the Conservatives — and decide to park their votes with the Liberals for safekeeping. New Democrats likely will be playing defence in certain regions they currently hold, which may draw their attention and resources away from taking Liberal-held seats in urban, multicultural areas.

The only virtue in defeat is the opportunity to become better. Every party eventually needs to restore itself — but the process typically involves some serious self-interrogation. New Democrats need to ask themselves what they can offer that no other party can.

Singh has two years on the outside now, time he can put to good use in rebuilding the party. And being an outsider can have benefits. Singh likes to compare himself to Jack Layton. It took Layton three elections to be considered. Like Layton, Singh can afford to be patient.

But a party leader who leads from the outside runs a risk. The next election will be an evaluation of what Trudeau has done with power. Without an actual third-party leader there to hold Trudeau to account in the House of Commons, Singh’s placeholder Parliamentary caucus representative is going to see his lunch eaten daily by Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer.

Good luck, Jagmeet Singh. The path from third place to first is seldom easy to follow.

(As published in iPolitics on October 8, 2017)