Why the NDP missed the boat in Québec during the federal election
by Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, Professeur en sociologie politique, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
By making the fight against COVID-19 the central issue of the campaign, the Liberals polarized the situation with the Conservatives, leaving little room for the other parties.
The 2021 federal election did not end the status quo in Parliament, but by winning another minority government, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party has gained at least two more years to forge the country in its image.
Even though the Liberal campaign got off to a bad start, the party has withstood the wear and tear of being in power since 2015, and its opponents aren’t ready to start campaigning again.
The NDP increased its proportion of the vote in the 2021 federal election to 17.7 per cent from 15.9 per cent. It increased its number of MPs from 24 to 25. However, these figures are a far cry from the growth experienced when Jack Layton was leader.
In Québec, the party’s vote slipped to 9.8 per cent in 2021 from 10.7 per cent in 2019. Former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was shown the door after receiving 25.4 per cent of the vote in Québec in 2015.
Regionalism in Canada
Canadian politics is highly regionalized, and it is a major challenge for political parties to frame their messages in a way that can be adapted across Canada’s regions.
The framing problem has been a persistent one for the NDP in Québec since 2016. The party is in decline, struggling to attract significant local stars or support. Only Québec MP Alexandre Boulerice is more popular than his party.
Even in Laurier Ste-Marie, a left-leaning riding held by the NDP from 2011 to 2018, the party was unable to defeat Liberal Steven Guilbeault.
What explains the NDP’s difficulties in Québec?
The answer is obviously a combination of factors. The NDP has little control over some of these, and more control over others. But the party still needs to do some serious introspection.
The dynamics of the party system
The first factor working against the NDP is the dynamics of the Canadian party system. The Liberals are seen as the natural alternative to the Conservatives, so voters fall back on them to block the Conservatives. This is the power of the first-past-the-post system.
The fear of a Conservative government was very real during this election. Polls showed the Conservatives in the lead during the second third of the campaign. The prospect of a Conservative government may have encouraged voters who were previously tempted to vote for the NDP to return to the safe haven of the Liberal Party instead.
On a longer historical scale, the NDP’s 42.9 per cent in Québec in 2011 came in the wake of the sponsorship scandal that hurt the Liberal brand in Québec. This result is therefore not the barometer that should be used to assess the NDP’s performance in Québec. However, one might wonder why the party is performing below the national level. One should take into consideration that the early 2000s were lean years in Québec: the party garnered 4.5 per cent of the vote in 2004, 7.5 per cent in 2006 and 12.2 per cent in 2008, before climbing to 42.9 per cent in 2011.
The effects of polarization
The trajectory of the campaign is another variable to consider in explaining the NDP’s difficulty in pulling ahead in 2021. By making the fight against COVID-19 the central issue of the campaign, the Liberals polarized the situation with the Conservatives, leaving little room for the other parties. Assault rifles were a second issue that framed the campaign, and forced the other players out of the picture.
Then there was the now infamous question put to Yves-François Blanchet by the moderator of the English debate. In Québec, this polarized the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. The leader of the Bloc had a lot of capital for outrage that he was ready to use, and he managed to build on this until the end of the campaign.
The data compiled by Claire Durand of Université de Montréal clearly shows a rise for the Bloc in the seven days following “the question.” Despite the conclusions of Angus Reid, who made unfair comparisons between the Bloc’s performance in 2019 and 2021, this was a turning point for the Bloc campaign in Québec, as Blanchet’s earlier attempts to bring the issues of identity or secularism into the campaign had been unsuccessful.
It was difficult for the NDP to come out on top in any of these polarizing issues. However, the party would have had more room to manoeuvre and credibility on the third issue if some of its MPs had not conveyed such a simplistic vision of Québec society during the year leading up to the campaign. This made it easy for some political scientists in Québec to portray the NDP as a cluster of Québec-bashing MPs.
The NDP has often explained its low popularity in Québec by the importance of the sovereignist vote. However, this explanation does little to explain the party’s current marginalization. Support for sovereignty has been declining since 1995 and is not what it used to be among young voters. Even among Québec Solidaire voters, roughly 50 per cent do not share the resolutely pro-independence orientation of party leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and his inner circle.
So while the dynamics of the party system and polarizing campaign explain part of the NDP’s weakness in Québec, the sovereignist vote explains it much less. On the other hand, four factors could have favoured the NDP: the collapse of the Green Party, the slight decline in the popularity of the Liberals, the Bloc Québécois’ support for tunnel project linking Québec City and Lévis and the declining appeal of the sovereignist option in Québec. But the party did not benefit from these. Why not?
Layton and the Sherbrooke Declaration
The NDP’s good years in Québec were not just the result of the sponsorship scandal. As my colleague David McGrane and I have shown, two other factors also played a role: First, the adherence of the party’s potential voters in Québec and the Québec MNAs to the principles of the Sherbrooke Declaration, and, second, the ability of Layton, and later Mulcair, to embody the spirit of that declaration.
The Sherbrooke Declaration made a clean break from the centralizing spirit that has characterized the history of the NDP in Québec. It went much further in recognizing the legitimacy of the social and cultural struggles being waged by some nationalists in Québec.
Moreover, Layton and Mulcair both had long experiences with Québec society. They knew they couldn’t merely recite the articles of the Sherbrooke Declaration, but had to embody the spirit and subtleties that are part of Canadian and Québec politics. It is essential to quickly understand what territory needs to be occupied, and what can’t be conceded to other parties.
In 2011, Layton’s appearance on Québec’s popular TV show “Tout le monde en parle” was a home run. Singh’s preparation for the show earlier this year was ordinary by comparison.
Both of these elements of the Layton era have been missing from the NDP since 2016. The feeling that the NDP had already conceded Québec was palpable, long before the 2021 campaign began.
During the campaign, Singh missed several opportunities to embody the spirit of the Sherbrooke Declaration. He did not even hint at it during the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Layton’s death at the beginning of the campaign. The leader poorly navigated the predictable issues of respect for provincial jurisdiction. If he had made these mistakes during his first campaign, they could have been blamed on inexperience. But they are harder to justify in a second campaign.
It is very difficult to understand why the NDP organization has put the concept of federalism, the most important legacy of the Layton period, on hold. Behind the scenes, the word is that the best organizers of the Layton era have left the party to work for the provincial wings of the NDP, which have been successful in Western Canada. If we add this to the lack of any references to Québec in the Broadbent Institute’s principles for the renewal of social democracy, and the fact that the NDP’s youth wing ran only presidential candidates who didn’t understand French, it is easy to measure the growing abyss between the NDP and Québec’s francophone federalist leftists.
If the party didn’t have an advantage in Québec, its national organization and current leadership must be held responsible for this failure. Its lack of vision and political acumen in Québec help explain why former federalist NDP voters voted instead for the Liberals or even the Bloc Québécois, and not for a party where they felt misunderstood.