It’s no great secret that a federal election is in the offing, perhaps as soon as this spring or as late as next year. While the nation’s attention will surely be focused on the fight between Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Stephane Dion’s Liberals, the under card will be defined by the NDP fighting not for relevance, as it has in the past two elections, but instead for its own survival. This might seem like an outlandish claim considering the fact that the NDP currently has 29 seats in the House of Commons, the largest caucus that it has sported since Ed Broadbent’s leadership in the 1980s. But the NDP has always lived on the razor’s edge of Canadian politics and the next election, whenever it comes, could very well return the NDP to the electoral and political irrelevance it endured in the 1990s.
Unlike every other federal party with representation in the House of Commons, the NDP does not have an electoral base upon which it can rely in good times and bad. Like the name suggests, a base of support shields parties from the electoral tides that, on average, sweep across Canada every decade or so. In 1984, Brian Mulroney’s Tories pushed the Liberals out of power and formed a majority government, yet the Liberals remained strong in Toronto. In 1993, Jean Chretien’s Liberals swept into power and formed their own majority government, but while they won every seat in Ontario, most of the seats in Quebec, and a majority of seats in the Prairies and Atlantic Canada the trend didn’t hold in the West. In both cases, the bases held strong. The NDP, even with its recent success, only has ten safe seats – defined as victories of more than 10,000 votes – with the rest of their 29 seats all won by an average of 3,630 votes, or approximately 6% of the total votes cast.
The NDP has begun to aggressively – although not yet entirely effectively – target urban ridings that are a natural fit for the party’s cosmopolitan ethic and socially liberal policies. It has established something of a base in downtown Toronto with Jack Layton, Olivia Chow, and Peggy Nash all holding important seats. But it is these very seats that the federal Liberals are preparing to target, and the results could prove disastrous for the NDP. There are rumours that the Liberals are considering running leadership kingmaker Gerard Kennedy in his old provincial riding of Parkdale-High Park, and it is difficult to imagine Peggy Nash rebuffing his challenge considering her meager 2,301 vote margin of victory in the 2006 election and the massive pluralities that Kennedy consistently earned in that riding as a Liberal MPP.
Trinity-Spadina’s Olivia Chow isn’t much safer, either from a rematch with Tony Ianno or a contest with leadership contest darling Martha Hall Findlay. Her 2006 margin of victory was a mere 3,681 votes, and that was before her ham-handed attempt to hand-pick former constituency assistant Helen Kennedy as her successor in her old riding in the recent Toronto municipal elections. Even Jack Layton himself isn’t safe in Toronto-Danforth, as a rumoured contest with none other than Bob Rae, a man who held the seat provincially in the 1970s and 1980s and who would be running as a means of demonstrating his loyalty to his new party, has party hacks, election junkies, and members of the media whetting their proverbial lips in anticipation. Layton barely squeaked out a victory against Dennis Mills in 2004, and his victory over political neophyte Deborah Coyne in 2006 was hardly convincing.
Elsewhere in the country, Ottawa-Centre’s Paul Dewar will face a strong challenge from Penny Collenette, the wife of Chretien-era minister David Collenette and a political heavyweight in her own right. BC MPs Dawn Black, Peter Julian, Bill Siksay, and Denise Savoie are all vulnerable to a reinvigorated Liberal Party of Canada in British Columbia led by a left-leaning, environmentally conscious leader whose national campaign is chaired by British Columbian Mark Marissen.
Making matters worse is the fact that the NDP will be outflanked in the upcoming election on the environment, traditionally a bread-and-butter NDP issue, both on their left by Elizabeth May’s Green Party and on their right by Stephane Dion’s Liberals. That leaves their record upon which to run, and Jack Layton hasn’t exactly given his campaign team a lot to work with. Layton’s focus in the last two parliaments has been on strategic battles, and while he’s earned a few victories – a budget supported here, a confidence vote avoided there – he hasn’t produced any substantive victories like the promise to create Petro-Canada that NDP leader David Lewis extracted from Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1973. A campaign built around a series of backroom political victories may have very little resonance with a Canadian electorate weary of minority parliaments and constant electioneering.
In the last federal election, Jack Layton encouraged left-leaning Liberals to lend him their votes, “just this once”. In the next election, they may well decide to take them back. Jack Layton’s flirtation with the politics of power, rather than the politics of purpose, has earned him a few short-term victories over the past few years, including a larger caucus and a voice in major policy decisions. But the predictably unpredictable winds of political change in this country are set to howl, and without a base in which to seek the refuge the NDP may find itself blown completely off the map.
Toronto, January 14, 2007 – 909 w.