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Will the NDP's Stick-to-Their-Guns Attitude Win Them the Federal Election?

The federal NDP has been taking principled stands on key legislation, which is exactly what their Alberta colleagues did before sweeping into victory in May.

by James Wilt
Jun 22 2015, 9:16pm

Look at that quiet smile. What does he know about our future? Will he tell us? Photo via Flickr user United Steelworkers

"OH, BURN!"

So hollered a Conservative MP when Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested the Leader of the Official Opposition should take a seat during question period on June 17: "At least the leader of the Liberal Party knows when to stop getting up," Harper droned.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair retorted to the jab with a smirk: "That's the kind of arrogance that could mean that this is the Prime Minister's last question period." That smug comment triggered infantile laughter amongst his caucus.

The heated exchange wasn't only fascinating in its resemblance to a locker room face-off between pubescent teens, but because Mulcair's assessment—that this might be Harper's last round in the ring—could prove to be true. The three major parties are within points of each other for first place heading into the federal election (expected to be held in late October): At last count, the NDP led by 0.8 percent over the Conservatives and 5.2 percent over the Liberals. But the approval ratings of leaders are a far more distinct story: Mulcair stands out with a 67 percent approval rating. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau trailed with 51 percent. Then there was Harper in a beyond-distant 34 percent. Ouch.

"Single issues never matter a ton during an election," explained Peter Loewen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto. "What matters is people's impressions of the leaders and where they stand. There are a bunch of these issues where Thomas Mulcair really does have a lot of daylight between himself and the other two candidates. That's really to his advantage."

Back in February, the NDP were polling in a distant third. Bill C-51—the highly controversial "antiterrorism" legislation that became law on June 18—changed everything: Frank Graves, president and founder of the polling firm EKOS Research Associates, says there's a significant contingent of "promiscuous progressive voters" who will oscillate between the Liberal or NDP depending on the perceived chances of party success, some of whom jumped ship due to Trudeau's support of Bill C-51. The NDP vehemently opposed the bill, pledging to repeal it if elected; as a result, Loewen suggests that gives Mulcair "a lot of room to run."

"Bill C-51 provided an opportunity for the NDP to take a position which became where the public were," Graves says. "It wasn't obvious at the time, but it's become particularly true among progressives who just find it an appalling act of stupidity and overkill and a violation of core progressive values."

The position the federal NDP have found themselves in—separated from direct competition due to a few select pieces of legislation—was one that recently proved very successful in the leftie takeover of Alberta in May. The provincial NDP, led by Rachel Notley, is by no means a "socialist party;" many policy planks were notably similar to those of the Liberals and Alberta Party. Yet small offerings such as raising the minimum wage for the 2.2 percent of Albertans who currently earn that, and conducting a review of the province's resource royalty framework managed to differentiate them from other "progressive" parties: the orange clan appeared kinder and more concerned with the average voter.

"Already, the Alberta election has changed Canadian politics," says Dennis Pilon, associate professor of political science at York University and co-author of the 2012 Rosa Luxembourg Foundation report Left Turn in Canada: The NDP Breakthrough and the Future of Canadian Politics. "When the pundits and the 'I know better than you types' get up and talk about 'let's talk about realism,' everyone can now just say 'Alberta.' If the NDP can win in Alberta, they really can win anywhere."

Trudeau's recent announcement of 32 Theses regarding electoral reform threw some fuel on the fire for the Liberal cause. In addition to many other ideas, Trudeau pledged to introduce a new voting system by 2019, prohibit omnibus bills, and augment the contentious process by which senators are chosen (Pilon notes the Liberals have pledged to introduce an alternate voting system since 1921 and never have). Meanwhile, the political resurrection of Gilles Duceppe, long-time leader of the Bloc Québécois, may partially cannibalize the NDP vote in Quebec.

The electoral success of the federal NDP may in fact depend on the decisions made by the Nötley Crüe in the coming months. The Alberta government's already under fire for inconsistencies over finances and the province could feasibly dip into a recession (defined by two consecutive quarters of negative growth). If that situation—something the respected Conference Board of Canada predicted back in January—occurs, it could gift easy ammunition to the Conservatives and Liberals.

Regardless, the NDP win has allowed Canadians to imagine something different. "Alberta's permitted people to think that it's possible," Graves says. "If the most conservative province in Canada can elect an NDP majority then why can't we?"

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