Rafe: What it would take for the NDP to start winning

Outgoing NDP Leader Tom Mulcair at the party's 2016 convention in Edmonton (USW/Flickr)
Outgoing NDP Leader Tom Mulcair at the party’s 2016 convention in Edmonton (USW/Flickr)

I’ve watched the NDP with considerable interest since it’s foundation in 1961 as an amalgamation of organized labour and other left-wing groups. I thought that it would form government within a decade because  the Conservative Party would fold and go away, the Liberals would move to the right, leaving the NDP on the centre-left in position to win the big prize. Not for the first time, I was dead wrong. There were times, however, as after the Mulroney romp of 1984 and the Tory wipeout in 1993 that the time seemed right – but it was not to be.


It’s not that the NDP haven’t had influence – they have, especially during the Liberal minority of the 70s. The problem is that the NDP, like most political parties, has power as its raison d’être.

Why hasn’t that victory happened?

Nagged by that question, the NDP nationally is in a period of introspection, with a lame-duck leader, Tom Mulcair, for two years. What should they discuss?  I have a couple of ideas.

A party of factions

Be warned that this analysis is most unprofessional and based on gut feeling rather than political science.

I’ve always doubted that the NDP ever became a “real” party even after their exhaustive amalgamation process in 1960, when the CCF joined labour to form the present party.

Every party has factions and the leader’s main job is to bring them together, especially at election time. The Liberals and Tories are much better at this than the NDP – perhaps because they are used to winning, know what it takes and, therefore, are far less likely to fall back on principles when votes are at stake. Not especially honourable but effective.

Dave Barrett as BC NDP premier
Dave Barrett as BC NDP premier

I had the great honour to be invited to Dave Barrett’s 80th birthday a few years ago and the large crowd was really interesting to behold. It wasn’t a matter of who was there but who wasn’t. At NDP conventions these divisions are more visible than that those of other parties.

I want to stress that this is not a criticism but simply an observation of priorities, the groups of people each party puts together.

In the NDP, I would argue that this inability to coalesce is because supporters are unwilling to abandon the notion that occupation counts as much as political allegiance as the criterion of loyalty. If I were leading the NDP, God forbid for both of us, I would concentrate on this problem so that at least at election time, the NDP would look like a political party, not a coalition of otherwise not terribly friendly tribes.

Lessons from Labour?

The temptation is to look at the UK and ask how it is that the Labour Party took power there 25 years after it was founded, yet 55 years after the NDP was founded and nearly 85 years after its predecessor was started, that party is a perennial distant also ran.

But comparisons are odious. In the UK, Labour came to power as part of the self-destruction of the Liberal party that started in World War I, when Lloyd George usurped the premiership from Asquith. The first Labour government, under Ramsay Macdonald, in 1924, a minority, lasted but nine months. Macdonald returned to power—this time as the largest party—in 1929 but was quickly overwhelmed by the Great Depression, which badly split the inexperienced Labour cabinet trying to find solutions. In 1931, Macdonald formed a National Government in which only two of his Labour colleagues agreed to serve, the majority being Conservative MPs. It was dissolved in 1935.

In 1945, Clement Attlee became the first Labour leader to have a majority but lost it in 1950. A fair assessment would be that the first Labour leader to be a legitimate contender, election after election (the Liberals now a spent force), was Harold Wilson in 1964.

Still, the party has been subject to splits, the most important being the Liberal Democrats in 1988 and the present Scottish Nationalists. Under Tony Blair, Labour won massively in 1997 but only after a break with organized Labour and rebranding itself New Labour, a party of the centre.

Though comparisons are dangerous, it’s fair to say the UK experience has got some lessons within it. The alliance between the NDP and Organized Labour, while never as strong as in the UK, is there and a win/lose situation. The win comes from huge funding but the lose comes in the suspicion of Labour influence by much of the general public, not excluding union members.

The myth of worker support

Any union leader reading this, in public at least, would protest that the rank-and-file are solidly behind the NDP. But that’s not true, wasn’t true in Great Britain and probably never will be true. It is a myth by which unions kept enormous clout with the Labour Party until John Smith greatly lessened it and Tony Blair won with New Labour in 1997. When John Horgan recently apologized to a powerful labour leader for changing party policy without telling him, it demonstrated that Union leaders still have considerable clout with the NDP.

It is not, therefore, a fair fight. Liberals and Tories may lose portions of the swing vote but, by and large, they keep their core support – the very essential thing the NDP doesn’t do well. If they did, they would win elections.

What, then, can the NDP do about this?

Prepare to offend

It’s not easy because it requires offending ancient allies, notably Labour. Moving the party to the right offends many NDPers not in unions, who are traditionalists and want the party to remain as close to academic socialism as possible. That is the bad news.

The good news is that most of those annoyed people have nowhere else to go. Even better news is that issues previously seen as owned by the left are now spread across the political spectrum, the most obvious being environmentalism but including most social issues. People who hitherto would rather have been caught in a house of ill-fame than vote NDP, are prepared to be made welcome.

A clear choice

It seems to me, then, that the NDP face a pretty clear choice: Either they change their concentration to the new, larger and less committed audience or they retreat into dogmatic exclusivity.

Many would vastly prefer the latter. To them, their beliefs are almost religious and to amend them for political convenience would be unacceptable hypocrisy. Others, however, would like the chance to do something other than bitch.

The NDP has had some first rate leaders, both political and lay, but to stay in power has required almost inhuman tact and has sapped the party’s strength.

Deliberate and introspect, folks, but sooner or later you must your choose: Do nothing, remain pure and lose, or take positive steps, get a little dirt on you and win.


About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at rafeonline.com.

17 thoughts on “Rafe: What it would take for the NDP to start winning

  1. The Libs are far closer to the NDP than Harper The Horrible’s Cons. You must remember they were not the Conservative Party Of Canada, they are Reform in sheep’s clothing. Reform is, at it’s black heart, comprised of a bunch of fundamentalist xian nutbars.

  2. Rafe you are absolutely correct that the NDP need to offend organized labour. A lot of people support unions ideologically, and sometimes in practice, but don’t see labour executives doing much of anything proactive these days. This should be part of a rebranding for the NDP, not an abandonment of social democratic values. Voters will respond if a guy like Cullen get in for leadership. Watch for Cullen in eight years. Like you say, NDPers need to get out there and work for it; there’s enough bullshit coming out of the Liberal camp (and the Green camp?) for the NDP to attract a common sense vote.

  3. it’s about PERSONA … and bearded pseudo intellectuals are rather unlikely to do the job … get a decent public speaker in at the head of the party

  4. The simple fact is that the NDP doesn’t represent the people’s views. They represent their precious hobby horses on parade. They continue to support the Global Warming Mythology, and in spite of believing they are against Corporatism, they fall for every Globalist agenda that these propagandists trot out. They rush to be on the side of every socially progressive idea, no matter how absurd, just because someone tells them what’s “trending”, and therefore “correct”. We have not abandoned the NDP…they abandoned us.

  5. Serious question regarding, didn’t passive Tom during the election try to change the NDP toward more right leaning views? So you want them to go even further right than they did previously?

    1. Left/Right only mean something to those using 70s speak.

      The NDP have a choice – find a way to bring their disparate views together at election time as tha Liberals and Tories do or continue as fascinating and consistent losers,

      That may not be how you think it ought to be Mr Hassam but that’s the way it is.

  6. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain. A winning political party with a winning tradition and habit won’t come down the river on a piece of bark to the NDP either. They must earn it and as I tried to point out, can only do that when like successful parties, they can get everybody pulling on an oar when it matters.
    Bud (Smith?) is right. Instead of deciding it’s the leader’s fault or voters just don’t pay proper attention, for once, NDP, decide that the “fault is not in the stars” but squarely with you. You didn’t build the stadium but that’s where the goddam game is played and if the crowd doesn’t like you, DO SOMETHING! If you would rather belong to a party that puts all their principles, all of them however vague or undoable, ahead of getting elected be satisfied that you have that now or bugger off and form a society of dreamers. Just stop whining!

    1. Good reply Rafe. But the NDP are a society of dreamers (not a political party) and always will be, as my earlier post demonstrated. No, I am not Bud Smith…but there is a connection. 😉

  7. The NDP has a much better policy than the other parties, but it is not reported in the MSM. The MSM is biased towards the Liberals and Conservatives and the NDP does not get a fair review of its policies. We need an unbiased press to accurately report the policies of the parties.

    1. HAHA! You socialists are all so paranoid. Any time you don’t get your own way it is a conspiracy. Fact is, NDP policies are well publicized and they are what keeps you the perpetual losers you are.

  8. a problem seems to be the “CULT” thinking… “if the NDP gets in I might just as well close up my business” from a tire shop owner who worked there for a long time and then bought it. The business was very successful with the NDP and currently the owner thinks the libs are great. This is NOT normal or thoughtful. The NDP’s biggest problem it seems is the expected alliance with unions who have done a lot of damage… libs… much the same.

  9. The “spotlight” is most often turned toward the government… less often on the opposition, especially if that opposition appears to be toothless…it is not in the best interest of the NDP backroom boys to have the spotlight turned on them…thus… time after time after time after time the NDP snatches defeat from the jaws of victory… and the backroom boys can continue to same-old same-old for whatever reasons and profit they invent.

  10. Good analysis Rafe but incomplete in my view. In the first place the NDP is less a political party and more a failed social movement with pretensions. Too many of the zealots who continue to support this conglomeration of unthinking, knee-jerk irrationalists still cling to the CCF founding “manifesto”…a socialist clutch word-which sums itself up thusly; “No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and Put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.”

    The very best thing which could happen for Canada is for the NDP to wither up and blow away. We have the Trudeau Liberals which are nothing more and nothing less than NDP Lite. Union membership, except in the public service, is dwindling and has been for over 30 years. Their power base is slowly evaporating.

    1. You got it wrong, Bud.

      The Trudeau liberals are nothing more than the Harper Conservatives Lite.

      If you think global capitalism, as it’s organized today, is in good shape, well I have some beachfront property in Grande Prairie to sell you.

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