NDP may not find their Bernie Sanders, but Justin Trudeau should still watch out

From left to right, NDP leadership candidates Jagmeet Singh, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron. Photo from The Canadian Press.

The past couple years have seen the improbable rise of old school social democrats finding popularity among voters some 50 years their junior. Be it Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. or Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, social democrats are in vogue. Despite the country’s political centre sitting slightly to the left, the wave hasn’t reached Canadian shores and doesn’t seem likely to anytime soon.

The sole iconic progressive, left wing political leader in Canadians’ collective memory is Tommy Douglas, the father of Canada’s socialized health care program. But ever since his 1944 victory in Saskatchewan, Canada has struggled to produce more politicians like him, and there are many reasons why.

“In both the U.S. and the U.K., where there have been successful left-wing, quasi-populist leaders, it’s a right-left choice,” says Robert Bothwell, a professor of history at the University of Toronto. “And in Canada, that’s not true. There was always the Liberals.”

The NDP has always been handicapped by the mere existence of the Liberal Party, which has a pedigree far deeper and more intertwined into Canada’s identity than the NDP. That in itself makes it difficult for the NDP to gain the following that it could achieve in a two-party political system.

“Consider what’s happened in the last couple of years. Wynne won in 2014 by going left and it was the right tactic. It ended up that the NDP stood for essentially nothing, and the Liberals had a left wing platform that appealed to union members and other left leaning people in Ontario, says Bothwell. “Same thing in 2015, the NDP couldn’t have possibly been worse led or misled, and so the Liberals went left and cleaned up.”

Furthermore, the rising income inequality that has fueled the popularity of politicians like Sanders and Corbyn since the 2008 financial meltdown has been milder in Canada. “Looking at the social structure of the three countries, the United States has become by far the most extreme of the three, more than the U.K., in the way it blocks people from the lower classes from rising,” says Bothwell, noting that transfer and welfare payments kept the bottom of society afloat and therefore, politically involved. “Canada, out of the three, has the most open class system. That’s not to say it’s wonderfully open, but you have a better chance.”

Having a centre-left party has also dampened the ability of a social democratic party like the NDP to rally a base of like-minded supporters to bring it electoral victory. The party came tantalizingly close to victory in the 2015 election, but failed to consolidate the gains it had made in Quebec and other ridings that had voted during the 2011 Orange Crush. “The Liberals were always strong enough to be able to beat back the NDP, no matter how good their leader was,” says Bothwell.

The Liberals ended up sweeping the elections, winning one of the biggest victories for the party since Trudeau, Sr. The Liberals won 45 per cent of the millennial vote, nearly double that of the runner-up, the NDP.

Septuagenarians like Sanders may also not fit in with Canadian political sensibilities. While the old school, white-haired social democrats have found new leases on life in the U.S., U.K and even France and Germany, Canadians seem to look towards a new, younger cadre of political leaders.

“I don’t think that a Sanders-like figure could appear and galvanize Canadians. I can’t think of anyone who would possibly be,” says Jack Granatstein, a Canadian political and military historian. “Maybe they could resurrect John Diefenbaker.”

Canadian political leaders are quite young by most accounts. At 54-years-old, Charlie Angus would be the country’s oldest party leader if he were to win the leadership vote in October. And he would still be 21 years younger than Sanders and 17 years younger than the current American president. Justin Trudeau is even younger, at 45, and Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer is just 38-years-old.

“The feeling seems to be that you need young leaders in Canada,” says Granatstein. “That seems to be the Canadian attitude.”

Equally as important is the absence of political polarization that has taken root in many Western democracies, allowing parties to avoid engaging in ideological purity tests and cooperate on crafting legislation. “Sanders is pushing for policies that Liberal governments and Tory governments have implemented,” says Granatstein. “There’s nothing very radical in Sanders’ program that Canadian governments haven’t done, or are doing or are trying to do.”

But the Liberals shouldn’t take their popularity among millennials for granted. Eventually, they will want to see their leaders producing results on issues that matter to them, like the environment, social justice, inequality, job security and the myriad issues the demographic faces today.

“If there aren’t actual, measurable indications that people can feel and experience and are really different in their lives,” says Ian McKay, a professor of history at McMaster University, “you’re not going to sell many people by telling them over and over again about how socially egalitarian we are and so on.”

While the Conservatives and New Democrats have failed to put a dent in Trudeau’s “Sunny Ways” style of governance, he and his party’s good luck can’t last forever. The political calculus could change on October 15, when a new NDP party leader is elected.