It has not been a good year for Jagmeet Singh. Singh was chosen leader in the hopes that he had the kind of charisma that could challenge the Trudeau Liberals. Instead, he has seen incumbents retire, filings that showed the party deep in debt at the end of 2017, a by-election in Leeds Grenville Thousand Islands Rideau Lakes that saw the party at the level of support they had in the 1990s, and poll numbers under 15%. If that is not enough, Conservative criticisms of the Liberals are taking public focus away from the kinds of issues that the NDP can use to differentiate themselves from the Liberals. A 2019 election that is fought over a carbon tax and immigration will be bad for the NDP. Such an election will allow the Liberals to set themselves as the progressive fighting centre-right Conservatives, and will leave the NDP struggling to remain relevant.
Scholars of Canadian and comparative politics have often pointed to the success of the Liberal party as a puzzle. Across the industrialized world centre parties tend to struggle, getting squeezed between centre-right parties that steal their centre-right voters and centre-left parties that steal their centre-left voters. The Liberal party has always stood out, not only for its ability to resist these pressures, but for dominating Canadian electoral politics through much of the post-war era. The Liberals have been able to do this by finding issues that do not fit neatly into the left/right spectrum. Be it national unity, national identity, multiculturalism and immigration, or regional brokerage, the Liberals were able to win elections by finding ways to appeal to voters on issues that did not fit neatly with the left/right spectrum.
What was good for the Liberals was bad for the NDP. As a centre-left party trying to represent voters along class lines, the NDP was consistently frustrated by the relatively low profile of left/right issues. While the NDP could claim to represent working class voters looking for larger social programs, it never found a way to gain the kind of credibility on national unity or regional politics in the way that the Liberals had. The result was that the NDP struggled to demonstrate that they could speak to the issues most important to voters in the way that the Liberals could. This was demonstrated most strikingly in 1988 when the party was on the verge of its first breakthrough. At the outset of the election it looked possible that the party might pass the Liberals to become the official opposition. When the election became a debate over free trade this opportunity disappeared. The Liberals cast themselves as the opponents of Mulroney’s free trade agreement with the United States. This left the NDP as the other party against free trade. Anti-free trade voters moved from the NDP to the Liberals leaving the NDP in third place.
These dynamics appeared to be coming to an end in the 2000s. As the referendum on Quebec’s independence faded from voters’ memories and national unity became less important to Canadian federal elections the Liberals started to struggle. In elections that were largely about left/right politics the Conservatives pulled centre-right voters away from the Liberals while the NDP pulled away centre-left voters. This culminated in the 2011 election where the Liberals fell to third place for the first time in Canadian history. The Liberal revival in 2015 is a bit of a puzzle, though it could be attributed to a mix of the Liberals recasting themselves as a centre-left party, the inability of the NDP to respond to a proposed niqab ban in a way that held their soft-nationalist Quebecois/pro-multicultural English Canadian coalition together, and strategic voting.
Two issues that were prominent this year have the potential to prevent the 2019 election from being about left/right class politics. The first is the carbon tax. Both leaders of provincial conservative parties and the federal Conservative party have attacked Trudeau’s carbon tax plan, making it a major issue a federal-provincial meetings, and in the case of Saskatchewan, an issue that has been taken the courts. This should benefit the Liberals, at least in so far as it gives them an issue which they can use to pull the election away from the class politics that benefit the NDP. As the party that first proposed the carbon tax in 2008 and is now putting it into practice, the Liberals have earned a great deal of credibility on the issue. This leaves the NDP in a difficult spot. They can also propose a carbon tax, but that does nothing to distinguish them from the Liberals. Given a choice between two parties favouring a carbon tax, environmentalist voters are likely to go with the party that got there first and that has the power to implement it. The NDP could opt for more radical environmentalist positions, but that risks alienating the more moderate voters they need to grow their party. It also may take them towards positions that are similar to the Green party. Outside of the pacific coast of BC, where Liberal support for the Trans Mountain pipeline may move some environmentalists to the NDP, a debate between the Conservatives and Liberals over a carbon tax leaves the NDP with little ability to differentiate themselves from the Liberals.
The carbon tax also has the potential to split NDP voters. While the NDP has lots of urban progressive voters who favour a carbon tax, it also has significant numbers of working-class voters and Northern rural voters who may be hurt by such a proposal. While a carbon tax probably is not the main thing responsible for auto-plant closures in Southern Ontario, it probably does not help them. Unionized auto-workers who traditionally vote NDP in such places may be legitimately concerned about what a carbon tax means for their future employment. The potential for this split is likely why the NDP has been more reluctant to support a carbon tax than the Liberals. At the federal level the NDP opposed such a policy in 2008 when the Liberals proposed it, and in BC the NDP campaigned against the carbon tax in 2009 (before supporting its increase in subsequent elections). The NDP is probably better off supporting the tax than they are opposing it, but they still stand to lose some support by backing a carbon tax. An election where the carbon tax is a central issue is probably not good for the party.
The second issue that can hurt the NDP in 2019 is immigration. Andrew Scheer has recently (with significant factual errors) been criticizing the Liberals for Trudeau’s commitment to the UN Compact on Migration. This, coupled with the increasing amount of public discourse over border crossings and the rise of far-right anti-immigrant populists across the industrialized world, suggests that immigration could be a major point of contention between the Liberals and Conservatives in 2019. This is serious problem for the NDP. The Liberals have a long legacy as the pro-immigration, pro-multicultural party in Canada. Liberal governments de-racialized Canada’s immigration policy and introduced Canada’s first multiculturalism policies. In most elections the Liberals have had a significant advantage over the other parties when it comes to winning the support of immigrant, visible minority, and ethnic minority voters. More recently, the Liberals’ commitment to accept refugees in 2015 was a major policy promise in that election. While the NDP also has a history of support for multiculturalism and immigration, the Liberal governments’ past actions on the issue and their historically deep support amongst immigrant voters will make it very difficult for the NDP to out-multicultural the Liberals. If 2019 is about immigration and multiculturalism, the NDP will struggle to differentiate themselves from the more competitive Liberal party.
To add to this, multiculturalism and immigration has the potential to split the NDP voter coalition. Across the industrialized world centre-left parties are struggling to find a way to find a balance between their socially progressive pro-multicultural supporters and less anti-multicultural voters many of whom are working class. The NDP may have similar problems. On top of this, the NDP needs soft-nationalists in Quebec to support them in order to be competitive in the province (and the NDP needs to competitive in Quebec to be competitive in federal elections). Ideas around secularism and prohibitions on religious symbols worn by government employees that are often popular amongst these soft-nationalist voters tend to be opposed English Canadian social progressives who tend to support the NDP. It is hard for the NDP to find a position on multiculturalism that does not either hurt their support in Quebec or hurt their support in English Canada. Not only do immigration and multiculturalism issues give the NDP little ability to differentiate themselves from the Liberals, these issues may also divide the voter coalition that NDP needs in order to be successful.
Much has been made this year of Jagmeet Singh and his struggles to appeal to voters. Singh still has time, though, to build a national profile. It is also hard to judge the charisma and campaigning ability of leaders until they have had a chance to campaign. The bigger challenge for the NDP may be the issues that are important in the 2019 election. An election about environmentalism and immigration allows the Liberals to play to their strengths as a socially progressive, economically centrist, party. Such an election would see the class issues on which the NDP can more easily differentiate themselves from the Liberals downplayed and may leave the party struggling to gain traction. In the worst-case scenario, both environmentalism and multiculturalism could split the NDP’s voters separating urban progressives from some working-class voters and from soft Quebecois nationalists. The issues that are important in the 2019 election could be one of the major barriers to NDP success in 2019.