Is the venerable New Democratic Party going out of style like bell-bottoms and orange shag rugs? Plainly, left-wing politics is not entirely on the way out in Canada. But does the NDP risk replacement as the locus of left-wing thought and political action? It can be argued that the NDP faces a perfect storm of a shrinking voter base, inept politicking, and ludicrous policies --the most obvious and recent being leader Jack Layton’s suggestion that, rather than fighting the tyrannical Taliban in Afghanistan, we invite them to peace talks. The foreign policy attitudes articulated at the party’s Sept. 8-10 Quebec City convention (for instance, tabling a resolution comparing Canadian soldiers to terrorists) provoked scorn across the spectrum. It might not matter if they enraged people who wouldn’t vote for the NDP even if Layton himself enlisted in the army. But editorial cartoonists not generally sympathetic to George Bush still painted Layton floating beyond Pluto in an elf suit (The Globe and Mail) or cheerleading for Lenin (the Ottawa Citizen). And veteran CBC commentator Larry Zolf declared it no longer the party of “fervent anti-Communist” David Lewis or even Bob Rae.

As for Layton, three years ago he looked fresh, energetic and engaging after two dreary scolds. Many now find him so slick he’s grating. And despite periodic surges in its popular vote and in Parliament, the party always seems to collapse just when things look brightest, and can’t get anywhere in Quebec. Its old core of prairie populists and industrial unions is shrinking. The Federal Accountability Act threatens to cut off critical funding from labour unions. And if the United Church is, proverbially, the NDP at prayer, its own demographic decline is equally ominous.

Brian Topp, co-chair of the federal NDP’s election planning committee, doesn’t see things so bleakly. He notes that in Quebec City, Layton said, “Canadians are prepared to fight wars that are right for our country. We’ve done so proudly. That’s why we’re so proud of our veterans.” Only then did Layton criticize the Afghan mission for currying “favour in Washington” and lacking “clear goals.” Topp believes such views resonate with many Canadians (while Robin Sears, the former NDP national director, admits that such “regrettable” positions appeal to many voters). What’s more, Topp claims the party was “significantly sobered” by having to “think a lot more seriously about federal fiscal and policy issues during the [Paul] Martin minority” government. It has “grappled with governance issues in a way that it hadn’t since the 1972-74 minority,” and is talking about domestic issues “much more credibly.”

As for Layton’s political effectiveness, Topp points out that the NDP vote soared from just over a million in 2000, to 2.5 million in 2006. In 2000, the party took over 15 per cent of the vote in 57 ridings; in 2006, it took 15 per cent in 155 ridings. Liberal strategist John Duffy also sees impressive NDP urban strength: “Arguably, Ottawa Centre is now a safe NDP seat,” while the party “came in first or second in every riding from the Beaches over to the Humber River in Toronto,” is strong in downtown Vancouver, and even mounted good spoiler campaigns, “taking progressive federalist votes in Montreal” from Liberals.

In sifting through this mix of factors, it helps to look at the historical record. The fact is that the CCF/NDP has seen growth in every generation, followed by sudden disaster (see chart, following page). The party gains as people disenchanted with incumbent governments (especially left-wing Liberal voters) cast protest ballots. But for precisely the same reason, its political strength tends to collapse when voters get so fed up, they switch from protesting to voting in the other major party. And given what’s happened in Ottawa lately, that suggests trouble ahead for the NDP.

Consciously or not, the NDP has emulated the British Labour party. Labour came from nowhere in the early 20th century to supplant that country’s Liberal party as the Conservatives’ main rival. With each cycle, this goal seemed to get closer. Until recently; the latest wave, in the 1990s and early 2000s, was weaker, not stronger, than previous surges. Duffy concedes that “the NDP cost us the last election.” But he adds that the Liberals “didn’t do a big face plant” and the NDP didn’t do very well, and “the two facts are related.” Expressly citing the British Labour model, Duffy concludes: “They’re falling miserably short and I don’t see any way for them to get there.”

Ottawa pollster Dimitri Pantazopoulos, founder and president of Praxicus Public Strategies, has observed something that may back up the concern: NDP support is strong among those of low socioeconomic status, the non-religious, and younger childless women and single mothers. But it simply is not on the way to becoming the party of educated professional urban progressives--their obvious growth market. If so, 2006 is likely the high-water mark for this cycle because, as Duffy notes, Liberals “have a tremendously powerful argument” that voting NDP “put Stephen Harper in office.”

Similar reasoning crashed the NDP vote in three previous electoral cycles, and if it happens again, the party has real problems. Sears and Duffy both reject the “perfect storm” thesis. But when asked if the Green party poses an electoral threat to the NDP, Sears replies, “absolutely,” and Duffy with a vigorous “yes.” If green becomes fashionable with the latte set, burnt orange could become passé fast.

[First published in Western Standard]

ColumnsJohn Robson