The NDP's "Government in Waiting" Strategy

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Political News Tuesday, November 17, 2015 View Count = 2455

The NDP's "Government in Waiting" Strategy

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“The NDP's 'Government in Waiting' Strategy” is written by David McGrane from the University of Saskatchewan. 

W
ithin just 96 hours of October's federal election, David McGrane and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

The federal New Democratic Party entered the 2015 election in a position that was unprecedented in its 80-year electoral history. For the first time ever, the party began a campaign as the Official Opposition, with a solid base of seats in Quebec and in first place in the majority of public domain polls. Given the legitimacy of the idea that the NDP represented the “government in waiting,” the overarching strategic consideration of the party was to present the NDP as a governing party and to present leader Tom Mulcair as the next prime minister. All other possible strategic priorities—attacking Stephen Harper, attacking Justin Trudeau, representing social democratic values, being seen to be accommodating of Québécois nationalism—became subordinated to this overarching campaign objective. 

A closer look at the press releases and television advertising of the NDP during the first part of the campaign reveals four primary elements of their government-in-waiting strategy. First, early NDP television advertising focused on an initial campaign of presenting Mulcair’s family background and his experience as a cabinet minister in the Quebec provincial government. There was a clear attempt to positively brand Mulcair as an experienced leader who personified middle-class values. Second, another series of televised ads opted for hard-edged attacks on corruption within the Harper government and Canada’s poor economic performance since the Conservatives took power. NDP communications from early in the campaign therefore barely mentioned Trudeau and the Liberal Party. 

Third, while the initial phase of NDP television ads focused on Mulcair, the party’s press releases highlighted various members of the NDP team who would form an eventual cabinet in a NDP government. Fourth, the NDP choose to emphasize a long-term policy vision to portray itself as a moderate and reasonable party that had plans to kickstart the economy and protect the interests of Canada’s middle class. It promised to balance the budget in every year of its mandate and phase-in its social policy engagements, such as a national $15-a-day childcare plan, over several years. It also touted its plan for promoting economic growth that included a reduction in small-business taxes. 

However, the NDP was forced to adjust its strategy during the later part of the campaign in reaction to the rise of the Liberals in public polling (and one can only assume within internal polling as well). The first, and most evident, strategic change was to attack Trudeau and the Liberal Party on cuts that they would enact, the deficits that they would run, and the Bill C-51 Anti-Terrorism Act. The second and related strategic alteration was to shift the emphasis to issues that showed the NDP to be more “progressive” than the Liberals. In the party’s press releases and commercials, issues of health care, the environment, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) replaced the emphasis on fiscal responsibility and the economy. The NDP also began to make a direct strategic-voting pitch to voters by pointing out that it needed to win only 35 new seats to beat the Conservatives whereas the Liberals had to win over 100 new seats to ensure that Stephen Harper would no longer be Prime Minister. These strategic shifts were accompanied by continued references to the experienced leadership of Mulcair, and of  highlighting the quality of the NDP’s team of candidates. 

Judging the success or failure of this strategy depends on whether someone uses a long-term or short-term perspective. Winning 20% of the 2015 popular vote ranks among the highest scores in the CCF-NDP’s electoral history. Its popular vote and seat total in Quebec is much higher than any of the federal elections that took place before 2011. However, taking a short-term view, if public domain polls during the summer were accurate, the situation is less rosy. The NDP went from a contender to form government in the middle of August to reverting back to its traditional position as the third party in the House of Commons on election night. 

As such, the 2015 federal election returned Canada to a two-and-half party system similar to what prevailed for most of the second half of the 20th century. The party will have to combat the impression that voting NDP is somehow a wasted vote because the Liberals can actually deliver on their promises as the governing party and because voting Liberal prevents the Conservatives from getting back into power. Barring a major change in the electoral system—something that the Trudeau Liberals have pledged—the primary consequence of the NDP’s poor electoral performance for Canadian democracy may be a renewed dominance of the national political discourse by the Liberals and the Conservatives. Under the existing electoral framework, the NDP will struggle to be heard and will have to constantly fight to be seen as relevant in the eyes of the media and the public. 

David McGraneDavid McGrane is an Associate Professor of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. He is the past president of the Prairie Political Science Association and is the principal investigator of the Canadian Social Democracy Study. He is currently working on a book examining the activity of the federal NDP from 2000 to 2015. He is the author of Remaining Loyal: Social Democracy in Quebec and Saskatchewan (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014). 

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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