The New Brunswick NDP may have little chance of winning any seats in the September 14 provincial election, but officials feel the party has rebounded from recent struggles, and laid the groundwork for future success.
“Over the last two or three weeks, I’ve become more confident in our ability to not only come through this election, but to succeed in the next two elections,” leader Mackenzie Thomason said.
“We have an amazingly educated and amazingly talented team of candidates,” he said. “And I am so excited to be able to say that they are going to be the team that we use as resources going forward to help rebuild this party.”
More than half of the NDP’s candidates are under the age of 35.
And they are advancing a class-based message evocative of the party’s forerunner, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
“We must invest in the working class and their families,” the party says in its election platform. “The NB NDP is in this race to show the province that there is a party for the working class, of the downtrodden, of the renter, of the homeless, and of the poor.”
Many of the party’s candidates come from the working class they aspire to represent.
“It shows that you don’t have to be a lawyer or an executive or a well-off person to run for politics,” said Thomason, a hotel guest service agent who is running in Fredericton North.
John Nuttall, the party’s candidate in Riverview, supports the party’s change in tone.
“I think it’s really important that we move left,” he said. “The Greens in New Brunswick are popular because they’re viewed as the progressive option.”
A member of the party’s socialist caucus, Nuttall said the NDP platform might have been even more explicitly left-wing had the pandemic not put its June convention on hold.
“The socialist caucus has been working extremely hard to build a large coalition of people to vote in convention for moving this party to the left and fully embracing it as a socialist workers’ party,” he said. “If COVID hadn’t happened and we had the convention that we were supposed to have, you would be looking at an unabashed, openly socialist party.”
The NDP platform calls for a $15 minimum wage, universal pharmacare, eliminating community college fees and reducing university tuition.
It also proposes the creation of 24,000 new childcare spaces and the introduction of a provincial carbon reduction fund.
In addition to young people and workers, the NDP has also been working to connect with the province’s small but growing immigrant population.
Natasha Akhtar, the party’s standard bearer in Oromocto — Lincoln — Fredericton, is the co-founder of the New Brunswick Immigrant Women’s Association.
Originally from Pakistan, she hopes her candidacy will inspire other immigrants to get involved in politics.
“By stepping forward, I want to give them encouragement to run as well or be involved in policy-making in a meaningful way,” she said.
Distinct messaging is essential to differentiate the New Democrats from the more electorally successful Greens, Akhtar said. “We need to be really, really clear what people are going to get with us and that the NDP has a much broader platform.”
Despite the enthusiasm of its candidates, recent opinion polls and historical precedent suggest the party will be shut out when the votes are counted.
“The NDP does not seem to have made any real inroads, certainly in the last few months, nor have they really since the last election,” said Margaret Brigley, CEO of Narrative Research, an Atlantic Canadian polling firm. “The party that seems to have progressed potentially is the Green party.”
In the 2018 election, the Greens went from one seat in the provincial legislature to three.
That same election saw the Progressive Conservatives score the slimmest possible margin of victory with 22 seats, compared to the incumbent Liberals’ 21. The previously seatless People’s Alliance elected three MLAs.
Polling done by Narrative Research last month put the NDP at seven per cent of popular support and the Greens at 14 per cent.
On the question of preferred premier, Thomason was the choice of five per cent while Green Leader David Coon was favoured by 14 per cent.
Brigley said her company has been tracking Atlantic Canadians’ satisfaction with provincial governments, as well as their provincial voting intentions, every quarter for more than 20 years.
All signs point to a decisive win for the ruling Conservatives.
Premier Blaine Higgs’ minority government received a 67 per cent satisfaction rating despite calling an early election many New Brunswickers feel is unnecessary.
“We have never seen a governing party not re-elected if their satisfaction level is over 50 per cent,” Brigley said.
The New Brunswick NDP/CCF has elected only three people to office since contesting its first election in 1944. The party’s last MLA left office 15 years ago.
J.P. Lewis, associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said 2020 is shaping up to be another disappointing election year for the NDP.
“It’s a real challenge for them to win a seat,” he said.
The New Democrats, who are running candidates in 33 of the province’s 49 electoral districts, will suffer from unfavourable vote splits and the limitations of competing in a snap election during a pandemic, he said.
The party’s place in New Brunswick’s political wilderness is part of a long-standing regional phenomenon, Lewis said.
“It could fit into the pattern that exists in other Atlantic provinces, where the NDP kind of struggled to break through as the third party for years even though, at times, there’s been a strong national brand.”
While Nova Scotians elected a one-term NDP government in 2009, the party has since returned to distant third-place status in that province.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the party’s best election result came in 2011 when it netted five seats. On Prince Edward Island, the NDP has won just one seat in its history.
Despite the gloomy predictions for his party, Thomason remains confident the New Brunswick NDP will increase its vote share next week and enter its April 2021 convention reinvigorated and optimistic about the future.
“It’s really about the people that we have at the table now,” he said. “When we look at a four-year plan, or even an eight-year plan, the opportunity to have all these young people around for the next one or two election cycles is absolutely amazing.”
Scott Costen is a freelance journalist based in Enfield, Nova Scotia.
Image: Don Paulin