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How can the NDP overcome the orange blues?

What will it take to move the dial? That’s the question Jagmeet Singh and the New Democratic Party must be asking themselves as the Canadian general election enters its final weeks.

By all accounts, the NDP leader has run an almost flawless campaign thus far. His campaign launch was considered the best among the parties’. He stood out and made a favourable impression in all of the leaders’ debates. His focus on standing with ordinary Canadians against the super-rich has energized the party base. And his widely-lauded response on issues of race and inequality has boosted his profile, and progressive voters’ approval of his leadership.

Still—public opinion polls show the NDP stuck in the mid-teens in terms of voter support, with the clock ticking down until election day on October 21.

The reality for the NDP is that this campaign has a lot more in common with 2004—Jack Layton’s first campaign as party leader—than Tom Mulcair’s failed 2015 campaign to become prime minister. Realistically, this campaign has never been about forming government for the NDP. It’s about the party establishing itself and its new leader as a viable political force in the country. And if the numbers work out, maybe holding a measure of power and influence in a minority government scenario.

Achieving this goal remains a tall order for the NDP. The party faces the prospect of regressing to its fringe-contending days, and could lose most of its current caucus. The current election represents much more of a fight for relevance and—in some scenarios—the party’s very existence.

The NDP’s issues headed into the election were well-known. Its standing in Quebec was always going to be shaky. The boldness of having a turban-wearing Sikh lead the party would inevitably provoke a stir in a province where state secularism has been erected as a core societal characteristic. This clash was always looming, regardless of Jagmeet Singh’s charisma and honest concern toward Quebecers. It has also proven to be a factor across the country, throughout the campaign, with many Canadians in all provinces suggesting that they will not vote for someone who wears a turban. Justin Trudeau’s popularity among progressive voters also remains real. While many Liberal voters express disappointment with Trudeau’s four years as prime minister, far fewer express anger, and most of them seem more likely to give him four more years to finish what he’s started.

Singh’s youth, charisma, appeal with visible minorities and experience stemming from a solid run in Queen’s Park were supposed to constitute a real challenge for Trudeau. While the NDP leader has run a strong campaign, and has fared very well in the political debates, the challenge to the Liberals hasn’t panned out yet. There’s no orange wave in sight in this election, the party’s coffers are desperately empty, and time is running out to turn things around.

The biggest factor behind this free-fall has been the splintering of the winning coalition behind the 2011 orange wave. Its core groups seem to have turned their attention to new vehicles:

  • In Quebec, soft sovereigntist voters have returned home to the Bloc Québécois. No matter how hard the NDP’s caucus members worked to keep them under the fold, the party’s refusal to endorse the Quebec National Assembly’s consensus on lightning rod issues like immigration and state secularism drove a very fragile provincial base back to the Bloc Québécois. The NDP’s only chance to hold on to seats in Quebec rests with MPs who have developed real roots throughout the province, such as Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, Alexandre Boulerice and perhaps former party leadership contender Guy Caron.

  • For the first time ever in Canadian political history, the Green Party is seen as a viable option. Environmentally-conscious voters are more likely to support the party that has constantly put this issue in the forefront, rather than one that focuses equally on issues of class and environment.

  • The NDP by no means has a monopoly on workers’ support. On one hand, some elements of the labour movement have latched on to the Liberal Party, or at least have seemed friendly to their cause, from Unifor leader Jerry Dias’ public campaign against Andrew Scheer, to various unions complimenting the Liberals on their record and policy priorities (including nurses endorsing the Liberals’ national pharmacare plan). On the other hand, Quebec union members have been returning to the Bloc and some private sector union members have found common cause with the Conservatives’ tax cut proposals.

  • It also hasn’t helped the NDP that so many of its long-serving MPs are retiring. Party stalwarts like Nathan Cullen, David Christopherson, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet, Linda Duncan and Murray Rankin have all decided against seeking re-election. These experienced parliamentarians brought instant credibility to the orange team and could have helped the party retain precious seats across the country. Their departure undoubtedly sends a mixed signal when it comes to the party’s prospects.

In campaigns, 12 days can feel like a lifetime. A lot of things could change between now and October 21. But to reverse its current fortunes, Jagmeet Singh and the NDP will have to convince progressive voters that they are still the party to relay their hopes, concerns and wants. This will not be easy. To do this, they will need to get Canadians to ignore attention-grabbing news stories about Justin Trudeau’s campaign airplanes and Andrew Scheer’s dual citizenship. They also will need to convince Canadians to start paying attention to NDP’s vision for the future of Canada, focused on standing up for ordinary people and making life better and more affordable for Canadians.

The best chance for the NDP and Jagmeet Singh to break through is the final leaders’ debate. Singh performed well in the English-language debate this week and has high hopes for the upcoming French-language one. The debates put him on an equal footing with his opponents, and give him his best chance to convince Canadians about the merits of supporting the NDP. To be certain, it’s a Hail Mary strategy and the odds are long. Moving votes via six-person debates that most Canadians don’t watch is no easy feat. But at this point, it’s the best hope Singh and the NDP have got to move the dial, build support for the party, and have a positive result on election day.

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