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Devastating election result requires Tom Mulcair’s NDP to again rethink its purpose

What is the point of a faux Liberal party when the real Liberals already exist?

Canadian Politics

Photo by United Steelworkers

For the New Democrats, Monday’s election was devastating.

The party went from the 103 seats it had won in 2011 to 44.

It share of the popular vote was cut by a third — from 31 to 20 per cent.

It was wiped out in the Atlantic provinces. It was wiped out in Toronto.

Four years ago, New Democrats won eight seats in Canada’s largest city. This time they won none.

Even Toronto-Danforth, an NDP fiefdom that was former NDP leader Jack Layton’s old riding, went to the Liberals.

In Ontario as a whole, the NDP was reduced to an eight-seat rump, down from 22. It held out in the old union towns of Hamilton and Windsor. But in what had been the party’s northern stronghold it lost seats.

In the West, the party did better. Redistribution allowed it to pick up three extra seats in Saskatchewan and two in British Columbia.

Yet even in these provinces, the NDP’s share of the popular vote fell.

The surprise win of Rachel Notley’s Alberta New Democrats last May brought her federal cousins little joy. The NDP went into this election with one Alberta seat. It emerged with one.

Monday’s debacle comes hard on the heels of the NDP’s disastrous 2014 Ontario provincial campaign in which the party, under leader Andrea Horwath, lost three Toronto seats as well as its pivotal role in what had been a minority government.

There too, the New Democrats veered to the centre-right in order to attract votes. There too, the Liberals outflanked them on the left.

In 2014, the Ontario party blamed those who had designed the campaign but not Horwath. This time, it’s not yet clear who will take the rap. But various theories are being trotted out.

One is that the party lost seats because of the principled stand party leader Tom Mulcair took in supporting the right of Muslim women to wear the niqab.

That stance, it is argued, lost the party votes in Quebec — which in turn encouraged voters in other provinces to stampede to the Liberals in order to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

This is a comforting, if somewhat self-serving, theory. But it doesn’t explain why Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — who took the same principled stand on the niqab — did so much better than the NDP in Quebec.

Nor does it explain why voters in ridings where the Conservatives had no chance of winning — such as Toronto Danforth — abandoned the NDP for the Liberals.

Since Layton’s time, the NDP has been going all out to present itself as moderate.

It has befriended small business (although there is no sign that this affection is reciprocated). It has shied away from taxing the rich, downplayed its ties to organized labour and soft-peddled useful schemes it does support — like pharmacare — that would involve government intervention.

In this campaign, Mulcair vowed to balance the budget even if the economy slips into recession.

Were voters impressed by this pledge of fiscal sobriety? In Toronto, at least, I suspect they weren’t.

Those who distrust the NDP weren’t convinced. Many would-be supporters on the other hand found Mulcair’s position on the economy too timid.

At the end of this campaign, both of the losing parties went back to basics.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper called on former Toronto mayor and admitted crack cocaine user Rob Ford for help. Mulcair attacked the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and persuaded party icon Stephen Lewis to lend a hand.

Neither strategy worked. The Conservatives still lost the Etobicoke seats they hoped Ford would bring them. In Lewis’s home province of Ontario the New Democrats still went down in flames.

The NDP is far from finished. It maintains a beachhead of 16 seats in Quebec. It has been in worse spots before.

But the existential questions New Democrats have been asking themselves for more than 20 years remain unanswered:

What is the point of a social democratic party that is afraid of democratic socialism? What is the point of running as faux Liberals when the real Liberals are already there?

What is the point of being in politics if you never have a chance of forming government?

Yet if a left-wing party’s only chance at power is to move rightward, why bother?

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.


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