The future of the NDP: An increasingly crowded left does not bode well

In politics, money can often buy attention, support and organization. In 2011, the Conservatives received $22.7 million in contributions from about 100,000 donors — far beyond the amounts received by all other political parties. A similar disparity in donations could win the 2015 election for the Tories, too.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempted unsuccessfully to end the annual federal subsidy for political parties, claiming it would save taxpayers’ money and end continuous campaigning by then cash-rich parties. By 2015, the subsidy will be completely eliminated and the other parties will be feeling the pinch of dried-up tax dollars. The Conservatives, however, might well be flush with cash in that election year.

Harper’s Conservatives will no doubt use donations raised before the election is called to continue what they have done successfully in recent years: spending money to sell their message and build their brand. In the past, this began with media attack ads against the competition. Remember Michael Ignatieff in the 2011 election? The Tory ads branded him negatively in the minds of many voters through constant media repetition. Unfortunately, we can expect more of the same for the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, the new leader of the Liberals, and Elizabeth May, whose Green party did well in both British Columbia and Alberta in recent by-elections.

Jack Layton won the leadership of the NDP in 2003 and spent four elections building a party organization capable of captivating youth, squeezing the Liberal party and being ready to profit from the coming collapse of the Bloc Québécois. He rode a wave of growing goodwill. His friendly manner and reputation as “le bon Jack” finally won over many voters who were tired of the traditional makeup of the House of Commons.

Early in 2012, St-Maurice-Champlain MP Lise St-Denis crossed the floor from the NDP to the Liberals, saying, “They voted for Jack Layton. Jack Layton is dead.” It was Layton’s brand of the NDP that had won them their position as Official Opposition. It might well prove difficult for Mulcair as his successor to do as well.

The 2012 budget revealed a plan to eliminate Canada’s deficit by 2015. The choice of date is intended to provide three political advantages for Harper: critics seem somewhat relieved at last year’s budget after bracing for severe austerity; the government can avoid new spending for a longer period of time; and it can probably ensure that a balanced budget is fresh in voter minds just before the election, in contrast to the NDP reputation of “taxing and spending.”

The NDP probably cannot win a national election unless it has many Ontarians on board. The NDP now holds only 22 of 106 seats in the province, due in part to Bob Rae’s perceived poor performance earlier as NDP premier. Some observers concluded that Harper’s majority in 2011 was the result of Ontario Liberal voters being afraid of a last-minute NDP win, with many of them switching at the last moment to the Conservatives.

It now appears likely that B.C. voters will once again return to the NDP in the scheduled May, 2013 provincial election, having turned their backs on the provincial Liberals in office since 2001. If enough British Columbians later conclude that social democrats in power overtax and destroy livelihoods, or that Adrian Dix as NDP premier is too much like Glen Clark earlier, it could swing marginal seats across B.C and elsewhere to Harper when he seeks another federal mandate two years from now.

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By 2015, Harper hopes that the hard work of getting back to basics and ending the lingering 2008-09 recession will be paying off and that Canada, if not much of the world, will finally be able to achieve much-needed economic growth and job creation. His pursuit of a pro-business economic policy is intended to take advantage of an expected boom, again in sharp contrast to the untested national NDP and leader.

Another possibility facing the NDP is that Quebec might go Tory to a degree in 2015. If it looks as though Harper is going to win another election, there’s a possibility that the silent majority in Quebec might decide to influence federal politics by having a seat at the table, rather than its current one in opposition.

The Liberal leadership convention, set for April 14, offers a symbolic rebirth of the party in the 21st century. It could capture headlines and energy from the NDP. The next election could also see voters willing to give the Liberal Party, presumably under Marc Garneau or Justin Trudeau, another chance at government at the expense of both the NDP and Conservatives.

A mildly left-of-centre political party has historically been more palatable to mainstream Canadians than a farther left-of-centre one. If the Liberals and NDP continue to divide this constituency, however, it is doubtful that Jack Layton’s orange crush will prevail in 2015.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.