Image: Flickr/Matt Jiggins

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!


If any Canadians are talking about an opposition party leadership race these days, they are discussing the Conservative contest.

The fact that the NDP is also in quest of a new leader is far off the public’s radar.

That may be because there are more Conservative leadership aspirants than the party has MPs from Quebec, while, officially, there are, as yet, none for the NDP.

Public attention will no doubt increase when some folks finally decide to formally join the NDP contest.

There are, however, other, and deeper, reasons for the NDP and its core supporters to worry.

Even though it is no longer the official opposition, Canada’s traditional party of the moderate left has continued to do well in Parliament.

Both major opposition parties are pushing the Liberals hard on what is becoming their cash-for-access scandal.

But only the NDP probes the government on issues related to workers’ rights (steelworkers in Hamilton for instance), on its as-yet-unfulfilled promises on environmental regulation, on electoral reform, on consumer protection and regulation of the financial industry, and on much more on the progressive side of the political ledger.

The party is playing its traditional conscience of parliament role well. It is a tradition that goes back to the days when Stanley Knowles was a lonely voice in favour of pensions for the elderly, and Frank Howard was almost alone in speaking up for prisoners and Indigenous people.

NDPers, and before them CCFers, have tended to be champion parliamentarians. 

The harsh truth, though, is that very few pay close attention to what happens in Canada’s parliament.

Politics has become a war of images and bumper stickers, and their digital incarnation, tweets.

Worse for the NDP — the unfolding, worldwide political narrative poses a particular challenge for the moderate left.

A new, binary political narrative is dangerous for the NDP

Since the Brexit vote in the U.K. last spring, much of the world has lurched rightward, in a way Canadians, for the most part, did not anticipate.

When the vast majority of Canadians voted to oust the Harper Conservatives 14 months ago, they could legitimately feel they were joining forces with Obama’s U.S. and with a critical mass of governments in Europe. They all espoused an open approach on such key matters as immigration and human rights.

Mind you, the governing, liberal establishment in the West was also, perhaps, rather too committed to a wide-open playing field for mega corporations.  No matter. That did not faze Canadians when they put the Liberals back in office, in October 2015.

Much has changed since then.

Today, many now say of Canada’s Trudeau that he is perhaps the world’s last hope for progressive liberalism.

In that context, the coming political battle in Canada could come to look like a fight between traditional Canadian values of realism, openness, and moderation versus a northern version of Trump-ism — right-wing populism, Canadian-style. 

In such a scenario, the NDP could easily get squeezed out of the picture.

If electoral reform does happen (far from a sure thing) that might change the picture. A new voting system would almost certainly transform politics into much less of a binary choice. Citizens would no longer feel compelled, as many now do, to vote tactically in order to block the party they loathe. They would be free to happily choose their first choice party, without worrying they were wasting their votes.

The NDP should not, however, put all its eggs in the electoral reform basket.

Whether reform happens or not, the party has to figure out a way to portray itself as a serious alternative to the governing Liberals.

The challenge is both one of policy and of image — of the message and the way that message is communicated.

The economy will be troubled and Liberals will wear out their welcome 

The coming years are likely to hold some economic challenges for Canada.

Growth here is slow, and Trump’s nationalist and protectionist policies could hurt.

People who work for a living, and have more debts than assets, are going to feel increasingly stressed. Some choose to call those folks the middle class; some, the working class. That is mostly a matter of semantics. For politicians, it will be most important to devise policies that would meaningfully and tangibly make the lives of those hardworking and struggling Canadians better.

Some NDPers are already focusing on this challenge; witness Manitoba MP Niki Ashton’s efforts on precarious work. The fact that a huge proportion of young Canadians face the long-term prospect of part-time, contract work, with no job security and no benefits, is an urgent issue to which nobody else is paying attention.

Another still relevant issue is child care.

Given that most working people cannot do much more than survive without two incomes, the lack of spaces and huge daycare costs in such places as Toronto could be considered a near-crisis. Child care was a signature issue for the NDP during the last election, and the Liberals have only promised to study it.

The party may want to go back to the drawing board and come up with a renewed, revised and realistic child-care plan.

Fighting for pension rights for laid-off workers is another useful NDP initiative. The party still holds the majority of seats in cities such as Windsor and Hamilton where many of those workers live.

But the NDP will also have to craft a message for the millions of Canadian suburb dwellers, who may feel some economic anxiety but are far from desperate. They are the shifting middle of the Canadian political landscape, and the political challenge is to capture them, without absurdly watering down one’s core message (by, for instance, promising a balanced budget).

The Trudeau Liberals, and especially their leader, are still popular.

Canadians are not so fickle that they are ready to reject what they chose only so recently.

But governments tend to wear out their welcome. Justin Trudeau’s father went from a convincing majority in 1968 to a hair’s breadth minority in 1972.

The Conservatives think of themselves, automatically, as the natural alternative, if and when the government falters. But while the NDP may be in third place now, it should not entirely yield that field to the Conservatives.

The day Canadians decide they want a change it may not be so much a change of ideology they seek as a change in management at the top. 

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!


Image: Flickr/Matt Jiggins

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...