NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at a Labour Day parade in Toronto. Image: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

It’s not a good day for a political party when 14 former candidates in one province bolt the party to support another. That’s what happened to the New Democrats the day after Labour Day. There was a coordinated, public exodus, en masse, of former provincial candidates in New Brunswick, from the NDP to the Greens.

This was particularly hurtful, because, on that very day, New Democrats were launching their campaign slogan and first television ads. The ads seem, at least to experts in the field, to be quite well done. As for the slogan — “In it for you” — it consists of two prepositions and two pronouns. It has neither verbs nor nouns. Perhaps it was not so bad that other news overwhelmed the slogan’s unveiling.

We should not read too much into the New Brunswick defection story and it is still far too early to be writing the New Democrats’ obituary. 

By the time the election rolls around, in late October, the New Brunswickers’ exodus could well be a barely-remembered incident, a blip. Indeed, the story started to change character within hours of the day-after-Labour-Day announcement, and not in a good way for the Green party or its new adherents. 

One of the defectors told the Canadian Press that the main motive for the group defection was not any kind of high principle. It was rather NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s race. Green Leader Elizabeth May will not be happy answering questions about that as the campaign gets started. 

The lessons of history

More broadly, history teaches that parties can survive all kinds of internal strife and turbulence to do quite well when the voting actually starts. 

The Ontario Conservatives of 2018 are one case in point. 

They precipitously dumped one leader because of a personal scandal and then chose another in haste, and in circumstances that were, at best, dubious — the victorious candidate did not even win the most votes in the leadership race — and yet, a few months later, went on to win a majority.

Then there are the Jean Chrétien Liberals of the 1990s.

When Chrétien won his party’s leadership in 1990, two Quebec Liberal MPs immediately bolted and joined the separatist Bloc Québecois. Their move reflected the fact that many Quebec Liberals were deeply unhappy with the new leader’s studied ambiguity on the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which sought to confer on Quebec the status of distinct society. During the leadership campaign some Quebec Liberal militants went so far as to accuse Chrétien of being a vendu, a sellout.

At the moment of his leadership victory, many observers said Jean Chrétien looked like a hobbled leader, a yesterday’s man, not even able to command the full support of his home province. Nonetheless, under his leadership Liberals went on to win the next federal election, and two more after that.

For its part, the NDP has had its share of schisms, divisions and floor crossers. 

In 1960, Hazen Argue became leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, just before it reinvented itself as the NDP in 1961. When the new party decided to choose Tommy Douglas as its leader rather than him, Argue, in a fit of pique, jumped ship to the Liberals. 

In the election of 1997, Angela Vautour became the first federal NDP member for the New Brunswick riding of Beauséjour-Petitcodiac. She was part of a mini Orange wave in Atlantic Canada under leader Alexa McDonough, a Nova Scotian. Then, before the next election, Vautour switched allegiances to Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative party.

In the 2000s, two former NDP provincial premiers, one from British Columbia and the other from Ontario, decided to run federally — but for the Liberals rather than the New Democrats. One came very close to winning the federal Liberal leadership. 

The list could go on. 

Political parties are amorphous, constantly changing and evolving entities. They inevitably shed some old supporters as they take on new ones.

Greens have taken a bite; Singh should put policies up front 

Having said that, Elizabeth May’s Greens do, in truth, pose a particular challenge for the NDP. 

The Greens took a British Columbia seat from the New Democrats in a byelection last May, and, in recent provincial elections in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.), they did far better than the New Democrats. In P.E.I., the Greens catapulted from nowhere to second place, leaving the NDP far behind.

This writer has picked up signals that there are some long-time New Democratic activists who are now moving to the Greens.  

When I reported on Paul Manly’s byelection victory for the Greens, last May, I quoted an erstwhile NDP activist in Ottawa who had moved to the Green party, largely because of her high opinion of Elizabeth May’s leadership qualities.

“Elizabeth May is clearly the strongest, most articulate and sage leader,” the one-time NDPer said at the time. Nothing has happened since to change her view. 

Earlier this summer, former Ottawa city councillor and two-time progressive mayoral candidate Clive Doucet announced he would be running for the Greens this year, in one of the federal ridings in Cape Breton, where he now lives. 

Way back in 2005, when the New Democrats were seeking a new candidate for the Ottawa Centre riding to replace the retiring Ed Broadbent, Doucet turned up at the nominating meeting to support Paul Dewar over Jamie Heath. Heath had been a part of leader Jack Layton’s inner circle. 

Doucet argued, then, that the Ottawa Centre New Democrats needed a candidate with strong local credentials to head off the Greens, who were nibbling away at the NDP vote. Now he has switched sides, which is probably more of a blow to the NDP than the 14 New Brunswick party switchers.

There is no simple advice one could give Jagmeet Singh at this point, except, perhaps, to double down on the fact that the NDP is the only party that proposes a full-blown progressive program. 

The New Democratic leader has to hammer on the message that his party stands for vastly expanded health care coverage, a $15/hour federal minimum wage, and, most important, a vigorous climate change strategy accompanied by tangible, just-transition measures for those most affected.

Singh could also underscore the fact that the Greens disingenuously try to appeal to small-c conservative, pro-capitalism supports by claiming to be “neither left nor right.” That claim, the NDP leader could rightly say, is an opportunistic ploy, and, in real-world terms, a chimera. 

The NDP leader could point out that no Canadian government will ever achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gases, in a way that does not harm millions of working people, by being wishy-washy on social and economic policies, by endeavouring to be neither left nor right. 

Environmental success, which also achieves social justice aims, will require a clear leftward shift. It will necessarily entail interventionist measures to radically redistribute income and provide training and re-employment for displaced workers. 

One word for such a program might be “socialism.” 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...