In federal politics the NDP has been the perennial third party. With the exception of 2011 election, the federal party has never finished better than third. The party’s lack of success is surprising given the extent to which elections in many other democracies developed into competitions between a major centre-left party like the NDP and a centre-right party. Australia, Britain, France, and Germany all have centre-left parties that have been far more successful than the NDP has been. What is perhaps more striking is that one does not need to even look outside of Canada to find centre-left parties with more success than the NDP. The NDP, and its predecessor the CCF, have had success at the provincial level. New Democrats should look carefully at provincial elections in order to determine what they need to do be successful as well as what conditions need to be present for them to be able to compete for government.
The graph below shows the difference in vote share between the CCF/NDP in provincial elections and federal elections. The lines show the average difference between the provincial party’s vote share in a province and the federal party’s vote share in all provinces and in just Western Canada and Ontario*. In every year since the 1940s, except the years surrounding the 2011 election, the difference is positive with the provincial parties outperforming their federal counterparts§. Outside of the maritimes, where the NDP provincial parties have been particularly weak, the difference is even more pronounced. In Ontario and Western Canada the NDP has not done as well federally as provincial since the 1940s. The gap between the federal parties since the early 1980s has been large, for most years over 10 percentage points.
The difference between the federal provincial parties’s success can be demonstrated by looking at British Columbia and Saskatchewan. In Saskatchewan the NDP, then called the CCF, made their first electoral breakthrough by winning government in 1944. Since 1944 the party has competed with various centre-right for government. In British Columbia the NDP has only governed three times, but has consistently been one of the two largest parties in the provinces. In neither province did the party’s provincial success fully translate into success for the federal party. The graph below shows that in Saskatchewan the federal party only matched the provincial party in support in 1980 and 2011. Outside of those years there were often gaps of 5 and 10 percentage points between the provincial and federal parties. In British Columbia the story is similar. There is some overlap between federal and provincial parties in the 1960s, but other than that, the provincial NDP and CCF do better than the federal party. Like in Saskatchewan, this gap is often 5 or 10 percentage points. In neither Saskatchewan nor British Columbia have the NDP been able to translate provincial success into federal success.
In Canada’s largest province, Ontario, the CCF and NDP never had the kinds of success they did in Saskatchewan or British Columbia (though the party won government in 1990). The gap between the provincial and federal CCF and NDP in the province is thus smaller, but is still substantial. In the 2000s the federal party managed to do as well as the provincial party, but before that, the provincial party was significantly more successful. The decline of the federal NDP in Ontario in the last federal election suggests that the province could be returning to an electoral trend that sees the provincial party outperform the federal one.
While it is clear that the NDP does better in provincial elections than in federal ones, it is not fully clear why. One potential explanation is that the kinds of issues important to federal elections are different than the ones important to provincial elections. Federal parties, unlike provincial ones, have to grapple with issues such as national unity and Quebec’s place in Canada. Historically the NDP has had difficulty positioning itself on Quebec issues while the Liberals have been able to cast themselves as the party that both defends national unity and Quebec’s place in the rest of Canada. It is notable that the election that sees the federal NDP start to match its provincial success is the 2011 election, the same election in which the party won a large number of seats in Quebec for the first time. This would suggest that the NDP has to be able to demonstrate it can position itself favourably on Quebec issues if it wants to compete for government in federal elections. The fact that the party was able to retain a significant number of its seats in Quebec in 2015 suggests that the party does have a potential to establish itself as credible on Quebec issues. If it manages to do this, it may be able to make a stronger case to provincial New Democratic voters with respect to the parties’ national competitiveness as well as its ability to deal with the issues that are of importance to the federal government.
A second explanation of the NDP failure to convert provincial support into federal support is the different party system that exists at the federal level. In the provinces that the NDP has had the most success in they have faced little competition for centre-left votes. In British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba the provincial Liberal party positioned itself as the centre-right free-market party as the CCF or NDP emerged. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba this led the Liberals to be replaced by centre-right parties in the Conservatives and (later in Saskatchewan) the Saskatchewan party. In BC the Liberals have become the main centre-right party, competing with the NDP for government. In the only province the NDP currently governs, Alberta, the Liberal vote completely collapsed leaving the NDP with no competition on the centre-left of the political spectrum. The NDP does not have to compete with the the Liberals for centre-left votes in any of these provinces. In contrast, the federal NDP faces stiff competition from a Liberal party that has made at least some progressive appeals targeted at centre-left voters. The Liberals under both Justin and Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and McKenzie King included appeals to social justice or to the expansion of social programs in their election campaigns. These appeals have forced the federal NDP to compete for centre-left votes in way that they often do not have to at the provincial level. So long as the federal Liberal party positions itself as a progressive party, the NDP will face more difficult competition at the federal level than in any of Canada’s western provinces.
A final explanation of the NDP’s weaker federal results lies in the ability of provincial parties to adjust their positions to reflect the ideological spectrum in their province. The Alberta NDP for example can take positions to the right of the British Columbia NDP in order that its views reflect an Albertan political spectrum that is to the right of the one in British Columbia. The federal NDP, in contrast, has to balance the concerns of provinces with very different political spectrums. This is far easier for a party like the Liberals to do because of their centrist position and because of their ability to pivot to non-left-right issues such as Quebec’s place in Canada and national unity. Because the NDP is a social democratic party they do not have the same ability to pivot away from left-right issues. As a result, when the party adjusts its left-right position to try to appeal to British Columbians or Quebecers it risks alienating voters in Alberta, Saskatchewan and some parts of Ontario. Unlike its provincial counter-parts, the federal NDP cannot tailor its left-right positioning to the electorate of a particular province.
The NDP, and its predecessor the CCF, have consistently been stronger in provincial elections than in federal ones. One of the challenges for the federal party is to convert provincial support into federal support. The extent to which it will be able to do so will depend on the extent to which each of the above explanations is responsible for the differences in vote share between the provincial and federal parties. It will also depend on the ability of the NDP to focus federal elections on the left-right issues on which it is most credible and to assert itself in place of the Liberals as Canada’s federal progressive party.
*A linear trajectory has been calculated between elections in order to allow for a comparison of provincial and federal elections that occur in different years.
§Quebec is excluded because it does not have a provincial NDP.