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Heading into the 2015 federal election, the NDP had a legitimate chance to win. This time around they seem to be fighting just to be heard.
The New Democrats, squeezed between the Liberals to their immediate right and the Greens on the near left, are giving up ideas to the former and ground to the latter.
Ideas germinated in the democratic socialist hothouse have been finding their way onto Liberal election platforms for decades, although there’s generally a little water added to mask the socialist terroir of the wine.
The old threat
This week the NDP must feel like its policy lives in a virtual vacuum until the Liberals take it out, shine it up and claim it for their own.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, twice in three days, found himself telling anybody who’d listen that the shiny new bauble in the Liberals’ window was already available in its pure form from the NDP.
Monday, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that single-use plastics would be banned “as early as 2021,” his incoherent description of non-plastic water containers got more attention than the fact the policy is a straight lift from the NDP. The theft was cleverly disguised in a cloak of invisible details and by besting the NDP’s target date by a year, sort of. The NDP proposes a full ban by 2022; the Liberals, a partial ban that could happen a year sooner, or not.
Later in the week, the advisory council the government appointed to look at options for a national prescription drug plan recommended a universal, single-payer (that would be Canadian taxpayers) system, beginning in 2022 with coverage of common and essential drugs.
The council recommended that a comprehensive national drug plan, at an estimated annual cost of $15 billion, be in place by 2027. The NDP had already said it would implement a comprehensive national drug plan right away if elected, but because there’s almost no chance of that happening, the policy was given short shrift by most news outlets.
Liberals purloining NDP policy is old news. In 1968, it was a Liberal federal government that made medicare a national program, but only after New Democrat Tommy Douglas showed it the way.
The new threat
The new threat to the NDP comes from the crowded field on the left. On most issues, the NDP and the Greens occupy pretty much the same space on the political spectrum. But as climate change consumes all other issues, “progressive” voters are increasingly attracted to the Greens.
So far, the NDP is trying to counter the Green surge by reasserting its own environmental bona fides, but you can’t out-green the Greens, so that’s not going to work.
And even as it fights the Green invasion of its traditional turf, the NDP remains worried that this fall’s election will produce a repeat of 2015.
That election took them from official opposition to third place, reduced their seat count in Parliament from 95 to 44 and cost Thomas Mulcair the party leadership. All that happened because the left-of-centre vote coalesced behind Trudeau and the Liberals to ensure the defeat of the Conservatives.
This week in Nova Scotia, the threat of that dynamic repeating itself this fall was amplified when the longest-serving New Democrat in the provincial legislature announced she is seeking the federal Liberal nomination in Cumberland-Colchester.
Lenore Zann won the Truro-area provincial seat for the NDP in 2009 and held the traditional Tory stronghold against the odds and an outgoing orange tide in 2013 and again in 2017.
She gave voice to the NDP’s deepest fears when she said she’d run for the Liberals — not the NDP — because only the Liberals have a chance of keeping the Cumberland-Colchester seat out of the Conservative column.
The federal NDP has been mired south of 20 per cent in national polls since the last election. A new leader didn’t improve the party’s standing, partly because many New Democrats, including members of the parliamentary caucus, were openly unenthusiastic about Singh from the start.
Jack Layton, with a strong assist from Mulcair, led the NDP to its historic breakthrough and official opposition in 2011. The surprising orange wave that swept across Quebec in that election will fully recede this fall, and the NDP is likely to be left with little more than a corporal’s guard in Parliament.