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Why the NDP is Designed to Fail

Dylan Robertson (2L)

The New Democratic Party is unique amongst the major political parties of Canada. As of 2018, the NDP is the only party to maintain strict organizational ties between its federal and provincial arms. The establishment of the provincial parties is mandated in Article XII of the NDP’s governing constitution, which states that each provincial party will be autonomous, but must govern themselves according to the constitution and policies of the federal party.

Contrast this with the policies of the other major federal parties. The Liberal Party leaves it optional for their provincial arms (known as provincial and territorial associations) to also act as a political party (s22.4 of their constitution). While the Conservative Party constitution calls upon them to work with provincial conservative parties, it outright prohibits any sort of formal organizational connection (s15.1).

This relationship creates problems for both sides. It is an issue of optics and association, as the provincial parties are held accountable for the sins of the federal party to a degree that other parties are not. In recent years, the federal NDP’s open opposition to further development of the oil and gas industry has led to a split with its provincial arm in Alberta, which for obvious reasons is a major supporter of further development. The conflict has become so bitter that Premier Rachel Notley – arguably the most notable NDP politician in the entire country – has called federal leader Jagmeet Singh’s opinions on pipelines “irrelevant.” Not surprisingly, when he made his first visit to Edmonton as leader of the NDP last year, he did not meet with Premier Notley.

This is all because of the NDP’s integration of its federal and provincial arms. Every disagreement between the two is highlighted and scrutinized by the media, lending itself to the suggestion that the NDP is in disarray; a rudderless ship captained by a man who is incapable of uniting his own base and capitalizing on the party’s support across the country.

What causes such a conflict between parties which are, at least on paper, meant to share the same basic policies and ideological goals? It has to do with the political realities of the federal party. Since their breakthrough in Quebec in the 2011 election, the federal NDP’s base has been located in Central Canada. Following the 2015 election, just over half its 44 seats come from Ontario and Quebec (a further 14 seats come from British Columbia, another province with heavy opposition to the oil industry). The practical result of this is that the policies of the federal NDP need to reflect the political opinions of Central Canada, which by their nature differ from those found in Western Canada. While the NDPs of the Prairies must champion the oil industry due to its vital role in the economy, the federal NDP must oppose it to cater to those supporters in Quebec who balk at the possibility of pipelines. Given how influential economic factors are to how people vote, the conflict could not be more unfortunate for the NDP’s electoral fortunes.

The culmination of this political split was the election of Singh as the leader of the federal party. Singh is a man who is unapologetically Eastern Canadian in his world view and who has very little in terms of policy to share with party supporters in Western Canada. As outlined above, this is not necessarily his fault; it would be political suicide for him to ignore the views of Central Canada. However, everyone does come out of this looking worse as a result: the federal NDP has no hope of making any gains in Alberta thanks to their vocal opposition to the economic wellbeing of the province, and the provincial NDP is harmed by association every time the federal party makes a misstep in this province. Not even Premier Notley’s championing of the Trans Mountain Pipeline can fully erase Singh’s damnation of it in the minds of Albertans.

While it might not be ideal, or even supported by party officials, the NDP should look at abolishing the formal connection between the federal and provincial parties. Such integration sounds good on paper but it is proving to be a major distraction for federal and provincial politicians alike. A more informal working arrangement similar to that of the Liberal Party would likely be an optimal solution since it would allow the NDP to maintain formal ties in some provinces while allowing a valuable degree of separation from the provincial parties it has fundamental disagreements with. These types of public disputes do nothing but undermine confidence in the party, and until the conflict is settled it is unlikely the NDP will find electoral success. After all, how can a political party hope to convince Canadians of its leadership when it cannot even convince its own members?