It’s been just over 3 weeks for the election, and what this means for the NDP is becoming clear. For the first time in its history, it was able to match the other parties dollar-for-dollar in election spending. The result was a mere 1% rise in support from 2006, only 7 seats from dissolution, and the loss of seats in Toronto and BC, and was shut out in Saskatchewan for the third consecutive time. Many in the NDP had much higher expectations, which was reflected in Layton’s line that he was running for Prime Minister. Having come nowhere close and still in 4th place, some people have suggested that the party’s performance is disappointing.
A look at history sheds some light on this area. In 1988, the NDP elected its largest ever caucus at 43 seats under Broadbent. Impressive as that result is, especially in light of the tough years the 90s proved to be afterwards, the 1988 results were also viewed as a disappointment for the NDP. It had peaked well on top of public opinion the year prior, and had hoped to form the official opposition, but fell short.
In light of these sobering realities, there are reasons to celebrate. For the first time in history, the NDP came out of a general election with seats in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, and also won a seat in Alberta for the second time ever. Having elected members from 8 of 10 provinces and 1 of the 3 territories, it can now be considered a national party. In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia, it is also the strongest Opposition party. And looking at the raw numbers, even though its upward movement in popularity was small, that along with its increasing seat count allows it to claim a party “on the move.” The Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois cannot.
Yet there are a few things the NDP needs to do in order to improve.
The media has never been friendly towards the NDP, and the party in recent years has responded by preparing a script, and sticking stubbornly to it. Sometimes this comes at the expense of ignoring what has been said, and comes across as if you’re selling used cars rather than giving a persuasive case to voters. While it’s good to be prepared, voters need to know that the politicians heard what they said. The most ironic thing about Layton’s over-management is that he of all the other party leaders could easily fit in and mingle about with Canadians spontaneously. Why is the party burying its major strength?
Back To Basics
Changes in public financing and donations to political parties played a major role in the NDP being able to spend as much as it did. While it is helpful, the NDP didn’t have this advantage when it reached its 1988 high. The NDP historically are not as good at the big money game as their opponents. Their strength instead comes from the grassroots, from being in tune with the on-the-ground struggles of Canadians and reflecting these concerns in public policy. This voter-to-voter connection is important, especially in between elections. The public learns to trust the NDP in those circumstances and the NDP benefits from not having to rely on the media filters to explain its policies. Best of all, this approach will help the NDP in smaller communities, and a rise in the NDP vote in these constituencies will come at the expense of Conservatives.
As talented as the NDP caucus is, the vast majority of its elected members are white, which is not reflective of Canada as a whole. This is particularly ironic as the NDP claims that it speaks for everyday Canadians. It needs to make a better effort at recruiting candidates in winnable ridings that are more reflective of the ethnic makeup of Canada. The NDP was successful in leading other Canadian parties in electing women, and can take a similar approach to elect ethnic candidates.
Support Marginal Constituencies
Despite its claim to be a national party, the NDP is only realistically competitive in about 50 ridings. This is because only those competitive ridings receive support from the national organisation. It is a source of frustration among many local activists trying to build up their own constituencies with no support while continually being asked to support the national campaign. Investing in many of these ridings will still not put them into play after one election cycle, but will make them competitive over the long run.
The NDP was wise to take Harper’s theme and attack him as strongly as it did. Question is, what would the NDP do differently? That’s not always clear. Almost every ad this past campaign had an attack on someone else, and while each one individually may have tested well among focus groups, cumulatively it could easily give the impression that the NDP has nothing to offer but attacks. Put another way, the question the NDP needs to answer is: “without referring to the other parties at all, what would you do?”