A Loss for the Left in Canada?

by adam rasmi


An NDP supporter reacts to results from Canada's federal election. (Courtesy Matthieu Belanger/ Reuters)

An NDP supporter reacts to results from Canada's federal election. (Courtesy Matthieu Belanger/ Reuters)

Read the original at Foreign Affairs.

"Canada: the country you think of so little … that’s it, end of sentence,” quipped John Oliver, host of the satirical HBO program “Last Week Tonight,” on the eve of Canada’s 42nd federal election. As Oliver correctly observed, Canadian politics rarely generate much outside attention. Yet all that changed the next day, when the gregarious and charismatic Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a resounding parliamentary win. The Guardian hailed the victory as a “big political shift to the center-left”; The Atlantic’s David Frum opined that Trudeau “repudiated” the “neoliberal Liberals of the 1990s”; and The Nation’sWashington correspondent John Nichols even called on American Democrats to “learn something” from the Liberal Party's example. 

It isn’t hard to understand why this win was seen as a victory for the left. Many Canadians had grown weary of nine years of conservative rule under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Conservatives’ muzzling of government scientists in a bid to temper criticism of Alberta’s Tar Sands, a more hawkish foreign policy, shying away from welcoming refugees, and harsher security and policing laws were but a few of the prominent examples of the country’s rightward turn.

The Liberal Party's victory on Tuesday was thus no small win for the anti-Harper vote. (The prime minister’s personal brand of politics had become so toxic that, in an unprecedented move on October 16, The Globe and Mail endorsed the Conservative Party but not its leader.) But the election outcome should not be interpreted as a win for the Canadian left. The real story is how the Liberals’ electoral sweep came at the expense of the traditionally left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), a party which, for the first time in history, had a real shot at winning.

The NDP had entered this election season as a front-runner, polling ahead of both the Liberals and Conservatives for the first half of the campaign. But things began to change in the last month—Trudeau’s personal popularity, NDP head Tom Mulcair’s stiffness as a candidate, and the NDP's handling of the debate over the niqab ban during Canada’s citizenship oath ceremony all seemed to cost it support. As the anti-Harper vote increasingly coalesced around the Liberals, that party pulled ahead. The NDP, meanwhile, saw its polling drop about ten percentage points since late September.

In the end, the Liberals won a definitive majority, with 184 seats in parliament, compared to 34 seats in 2011, the largest gain of any party in Canada’s history. Part of this occurred at the expense of the Conservative Party, which saw its vote share drop slightly from 5,835,270 to 5,597,565 since the 2011 election (a four percent loss), which ushered in a decline in its seats in parliament from 166 to 99. But the NDP saw its vote share hemorrhage most: from 4,512,411 to 3,460,288 (a 23 percent loss). Its number of seats fell from 103 to 44, which pushed the party back to its traditional third-party status.

What sparked this precipitous decline? It’s become something of conventional wisdom that the Liberals under Trudeau outflanked the NDP on the left. Unlike Mulcair, for example, Trudeau pledged to run up to $10 billion (Canadian) deficits for three years, to legalize marijuana, and to raise taxes on the wealthiest Canadians. 

The NDP, meanwhile, appeared to shift rightward. Since Mulcair became party leader following the death of Jack Layton, who had delivered the NDP its best election showing to date in 2011, the party disavowed its former socialist connections. In April 2013, the New Democrats overwhelmingly voted to remove all references to socialism in the party’s constitution, much to the chagrin of its socialist caucus. And in a 2014 interview, Muclair suggested that he would follow an approach similar to that of Tony Blair, the former prime minister in Britain who pushed the Labour Party rightward. (Mulcair himself was formerly a member of the Liberal bloc in Quebec’s legislative body, the National Assembly of Quebec, and was courted by the Conservatives upon leaving the party.)

Yet even on most issues, the NDP remained to the left of Trudeau’s Liberals. The NDP made affordable national childcare a major part of its election platform. It also pledged $2.6 billion (Canadian) in new funding to work toward universal prescription drug coverage, and to raise taxes on corporations. Of the major parties, only the NDP’s platform received an “A” grade from the nonpartisan, progressive Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

As for policing and security legislation, the NDP opposed the unpopular Bill C-51, which expanded police and security powers, and vowed to repeal it if elected. The Liberals had supported the bill in May, but after much criticism, said they would scrap or amend certain aspects of it. Even so, the Liberals also voted for the widely derided Bill S-7, more commonly known as the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment by highlighting “barbaric” acts that were already illegal to begin with. For many Canadians, these were strange positions for a party that could boast introducing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s bill of rights, which is considered among the most progressive constitutional documents in the world.

But perhaps the sense that Trudeau steers left comes from his association with his cerebral father, often considered to be one of Canada’s most left-leaning prime ministers to date. Yet even Trudeau senior became a Liberal late in the game after being approached by the party’s leadership. He was a former supporter of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the more leftist precursor to the NDP, but chose to join the Liberals partly because the party had better electoral prospects.

Although Justin Trudeau’s win on October 19 may come to be seen as a historic missed opportunity for the left, there are a few grounds for optimism. Harper was widely disliked among non-Conservative voters, so his defeat was welcome for many. Further, Trudeau has pledged to axe Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which has traditionally allowed political parties to obtain majorities in parliament with less than 40 percent of the popular vote—the Liberals received 39.5 percent on Tuesday. (As the National Post reported, the Liberals would have received 135 seats to the Conservatives’ 108 and NDP’s 68 under a system of proportional representation.)

Trudeau hasn’t offered specifics about what a new electoral system would entail, but it would certainly help the smaller parties such as the NDP, the Greens, and Bloc Québécois. (The Conservatives were able to hold office for a decade due mostly to vote splitting on the center and center-left along with the first-past-the-post system.) This would usher in a stronger multiparty system than Canada has ever seen. It would also, at a minimum, cement the NDP as parliamentary kingmaker—that is, unless Trudeau backtracks on his promise to reform an electoral system that just delivered his party such a decisive win.