Like all political parties, the NDP has its factions. I spent twenty years active in the party, running twice and serving as a Vice-president of the Nova Scotia wing back in the 1980s. Even then there was a continuous tension between those who wanted to concentrate on seeking power and becoming government and those who preferred to be consistently leftist and try to influence other governments – notably Liberal though sometimes Conservative as well – through rational argument and moral suasion.
For most of the time and in most parts of the country, it was the latter branch of the party that held sway – though as much from necessity as from any victory over the more pragmatic centre. The NDP, and CCF before them, only consistently held power in Saskatchewan (where they have been largely extinct for the last ten years) and occasionally in Manitoba. Single term governments had been formed in Ontario and BC (and much later in Nova scotia) but for the most part, the NDP was in opposition and often the third party.
On the national scene this was the case through the sixties and seventies. While NDP policies — like Medicare – were often adopted and implemented by other parties, again mostly the Liberals, direct influence was rare, though it did occur from time to time as in the Trudeau minority of 1972.
However, gradually the faction that was tired of being the social conscience of Parliament gained sway and there was no doubt that Ed Broadbent had a long-term plan to moderate the party and gradually supplant the Liberals. They had survived the Mulroney sweep of 1984 in good shape and finished a mere ten seats behind the devastated Liberals. Just before the 1988 election, the NDP were leading in the polls and it appeared they would be the main opposition to the Tories. Then Free Trade happened. Trade has long been a weak point in party policy and when it became the centre piece of the campaign, John Turner – for whom trade was a natural issue – took the lead as the opposition.
The failure of the party to rise above third place brought down Broadbent and returned the party to a more social activist movement. Given the fractured political scene of the 1990, the party under first Audrey McLaughlin and later Alexa McDonough, struggled to survive. Still, they did provide a strong voice in Parliament and had some influence over the Liberal governments of the day.
The government seeking wing came back under Jack Layton and many think that if the 2011 election had been two or three days later, Layton might well have headed up the first NDP federal government in Canada. As it was, he easily supplanted the Liberals and wiped out the Bloc Quebecois to become the first NDP leader of the Official Opposition at the federal level. His untimely death brought Tom Mulcair to the fore.
The results of the 2015 election must bring back bitter memories for long-term party stalwarts. Leading in the polls at the start of the campaign, they looked like the strongest party to supplant the Conservatives. Yet by the time the vote arrived, they had fallen once again to third place, with the Liberals sweeping past them into a majority government. This time the issue was more subtle – as an agent of change, Mulcair too closely resembled – at least in the public’s eye – the man he wanted to replace while Trudeau looked genuinely different. Whereas Layton needed a few more days to win, Mulcair would have benefitted from a few fewer weeks.
Now the party is back where it began – having failed twice to achieve government precisely when it seemed the stars had aligned for them, will they now go back to the future and once again be the social conscience of Parliament and the birthing place of new progressive ideas, as was always their strong point? Early indications are that the new PM is open to working with other parties – even when he doesn’t have to. And with electoral reform on the horizon, the NDP may have a new role to play as permanent junior partners in a long-term progressive government.
And that’s slightly more than ten minutes.