The growing sense of unease in the world right now, and here in Canada, is palpable. Inflation remains stubbornly high, the economy seems poised to tip into recession and the Middle East could easily explode at any moment — and take global oil prices with it. For the federal NDP, this is apparently the perfect moment to threaten a snap election over a national pharmacare program.
At last week’s NDP convention, where one in five members voted against Jagmeet Singh’s leadership, members unanimously backed a motion endorsing his threat to pull the plug on their supply-and-confidence agreement with the federal Liberals if they don’t deliver “legislation that commits to a universal, comprehensive and entirely public pharmacare program."
This might make some sense if Singh’s NDP was benefiting from the current political climate, which has the Liberals drowning in the polls and Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives polling at levels not seen by his party since Brian Mulroney was the leader. Instead, the NDP is barely treading water itself, polling at a paltry 18 per cent support and still trying to pay off its debts from the last election.
Trying to bluff the Liberals with a transparently weak hand at an unfavourable moment is on-brand for the contemporary federal NDP, which often seems determined to play its political chips in the worst way possible. They are trapped in a supply-and-confidence agreement that binds them to a drowning government. Even worse, they’re facing a Conservative Party of Canada deliberately pitching for the votes of working-class Canadians, the sort of people who have traditionally made up the federal NDP’s base.
The NDP’s unpleasant political predicament is also a reminder that the current iteration of the party seems to wear its indifference to the economy (and the way most Canadians feel about it) as a badge of honour. For a party that proudly celebrates diversity within its ranks, there’s one demographic that’s conspicuously absent: the economically literate.
This was the key lesson (for me, at least) of the 2023 Alberta election, where Rachel Notley’s NDP seemed determined not to talk about the economy — and then, when they did, only to discuss their plan to raise taxes — thereby losing an election they very easily could have won. As I wrote at the time, “Whether you like it or not, and many people don’t, in Alberta politics, it’s always the economy, stupid. The sooner the NDP smartens up about that, the better.”
This doesn’t mean offering up an orange-tinted version of the conservative movement’s reflexive loyalty to big business, large corporations and the market economy. This also doesn’t mean promising balanced budgets, as Thomas Mulcair did in the 2015 election. The NDP can, and should, still put the needs and interests of working- and middle-class Canadians first, and do that from their own perspective. But they can’t do that if they’re unwilling or incapable of talking fluently about basic economic issues and how their understanding of them would impact said Canadians.
They have a long, long way to go here. Witness Victoria NDP MP Laurel Collins’ recent tweet about the pending takeover of HSBC’s Canadian banking business by RBC. “RBC is the largest financier of fossil fuels globally — funding Big Oil projects like the TMX,” she said. “We need to break up financial monopolies, not make them stronger.” But as anyone who attended even a few Econ 100 classes understands, Canada’s banking industry is an oligopoly, not a monopoly.
Poilievre registered his own complaint about the deal, of course, but in language that’s far more likely to resonate with most people. “The six biggest banks control almost 90 per cent of all mortgages in Canada,” he said on 640 Toronto. “This would take out one potential upstart competitor who, if it stays in the market and doesn’t get bought, could fight for more market share by offering better products and services.”
The Liberals are collapsing in the polls, but the NDP's numbers haven't budged. Why their refusal to speak the language of jobs and the economy is holding them back, and what they can do to close the gap?
See? That wasn’t so hard. And yet, whenever NDP MPs try to talk about things related to or involving the economy, they seem to have all the confidence and fluency of a summer exchange student trying to order a croque monsieur at a Paris cafe. That might not be such a big problem during less turbulent economic times, but when the average voter is suddenly struggling with things like groceries and mortgage payments, they have a keen ear for this sort of thing.
Singh probably won’t be the leader who fixes this. As someone who has cultivated a public image that includes Rolex watches and aggressively tailored custom suits, he fits the role of a Broadbent-esque economic populist about as well as Justin Trudeau would that of a truck convoy supporter. Somehow, his rejoinders against the perils of corporate greed carry less weight when he looks like someone who could work in the head offices of a corporation. It’s no wonder Poilievre has been eating his political lunch with the blue-collar workers.
It’s not too late for Singh to pull off his own Poilievre-esque political makeover and refashion himself as an economic populist. But it’s more likely that he’ll go down as a lesson for federal New Democrats about the dangers of looking too much like an “Orange Liberal” — and the importance of having your own economic story to tell.