Sagging poll numbers and depleted party coffers appear to put the federal New Democratic Party in a mini crisis mode only months from a federal election campaign.
Backroom grumblings about the state of affairs in the NDP have grown louder among party insiders amid criticism of leader Jagmeet Singh, who seeks a seat in the House of Commons in a byelection in the B.C. riding of Burnaby South on Feb. 25 .
"It would be unwarranted to lay all the blame on #NDP leader Jagmeet Singh." #CanPoli
Singh, elected party leader in 2017, is the first racialized leader of a major political party in Canada. The former Ontario NDP legislator won the leadership campaign in a landslide on the first ballot. There is little doubt that his candidacy attracted renewed interest in the NDP, especially with young racialized Canadians. But the promise of Singh reinvigorating the party with new members was overblown. Despite the thousands of new members signed up, membership numbers remain below 2012 levels.
While Singh said his campaign signed up to 45,000 new members, NDP membership decreased to 123,000 in 2017 from 128,000 in 2012. Members were lost in all but two provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario. Singh won the nomination with 35,000 out of 65,000 votes. That was not that much higher than the 33,000 votes Tom Mulcair won in the 2012 leadership contest; about 65,000 people voted then.
Slide in NDP membership predates Singh
The party began to shed members after 2012, and especially after the 2015 election. The decrease in party membership long preceded Singh, and the new members he did bring in barely stemmed the bleeding.
The 2015 election saw the NDP blow an early lead, in part by committing to balanced budgets and refusing to take aim at the rich, giving the Liberals the opportunity to paint themselves as the party that would tax the wealthy and engage in deficit spending. After Mulcair was turfed by the displeased membership, the head of the United Steelworkers pushed a motion from the convention floor to postpone the party’s leadership contest until 2017. The motion passed with disastrous consequences. The party floundered, losing members and money.
This was the situation Singh came into. He was not some firebrand radical. His politics mostly reflected mainstream NDP policies. He was notable for being an outspoken opponent of carding and for standing up on racial justice issues. He also was an early supporter of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign for a minimum wage increase, going beyond the Ontario NDP’s halfway support for certain $15 and Fairness demands.
On most issues Singh was firmly in the center, drawing on existing NDP networks to draft policy and strategize. Much of his policy team was drawn from the Broadbent Institute, a pro-NDP social democracy lite think tank. Singh was deputy leader of the Ontario NDP when they ran on a pro-austerity election platform in 2014.
He has fudged on the question of pipelines. During his leadership bid Singh eventually came out against the pipeline, but then proceeded to waffle on this commitment by giving conditional support for it later. Only after the Liberals announced in May that they would buy the Trans Mountain pipeline did he forcefully oppose it. Singh has voiced support for the LNG pipeline in B.C., despite opposition to the pipeline from Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. His stance on the LNG pipeline mirrors the NDP’s long history of an approach to respecting Indigenous sovereignty that is selective at best.
Orange wave was an anomaly
The inability of the NDP to strike a bold course in policies or messaging is nothing new. It is the reason the Liberals consistently eat the NDP’s lunch come election time. The federal Liberals introduced sweeping changes to federal labour law this fall — a $15 minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and three paid sick days — for federally-regulated sectors. Where was the NDP? Why didn’t they get out in front of this and champion these ideas long before the Liberals? Yes, the NDP did back a $15 minimum wage for the federal sector in 2015, but they quickly stopped talking during the election after the Liberals criticized it.
NDP strategists seem to have a hard time understanding the difference between having a stated policy and being a megaphone for an issue. What is the point of having a technical fix if there is no political will or support to enact a change? Why aren’t they leading the charge for migrant workers rights, for free tuition, for dental care, for taxing the rich, for a green new deal? In short, where are their big ideas? This problem is much bigger than Singh.
The NDP has not been helped by a major rift between the British Columbia and Alberta NDP governments over the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Without a seat and facing anemic poll numbers, there were even rumours of a potential caucus coup against Singh if he were to lose the Burnaby South by-election.
Since Liberal contender Karen Wang stepped down after making racist comments, the likelihood of that happening is next to nil.
The probability that the NDP suffers major defeats in the 2019 election appears high. Donations are way down, and the political agenda advanced thus far by the party is vague at best. And who will end up shouldering the blame? For many this will come down to Singh. There is no doubt he and his team bear a certain amount of responsibility for the NDP’s current problems.
But it would be unwarranted to lay all the blame on Singh. There is a real danger that heaping blame solely onto Singh could open the door for racist conclusions about the first racialized leader of a mainstream party in Canada. From the get-go, during the leadership contest there were grumblings in the NDP about new faces and fake memberships in the party.
The 2011 orange wave, when the NDP won enough seats to form the official opposition for the first time in history, was an anomaly, partly due to a collapse in Bloc Quebecois and Liberal support in Quebec. Canadian and world politics is even more polarized now than in 2011. The NDP has no hope of repeating those results by pursuing a politics of centrism and moderation.
If the NDP wants to win, it must organize itself around a bold vision on the left that aims to shape the terms of the political debate in this country. Failure to do so shouldn’t be put on Singh alone, but instead on the entire party apparatus which has for years been stubbornly committed to a politics that fails.