New Brunswick NDP faces an uncertain future after years of leadership instability

When New Brunswick returns to the polls for the next provincial election — whenever that is — a new face will once again be leading the New Democrats.

The party hasn’t won a seat since 2003, when Elizabeth Weir was leader

New Brunswick NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie announced Monday she resigned from her post, furthering the instability at the top of the party.

When New Brunswick returns to the polls for the next provincial election — whenever that is — a new face will once again be leading the New Democrats.

It's become somewhat of a tradition. The party entered the past four campaigns with a new leader and the streak will continue into the next one after the news Jennifer McKenzie resigned Monday, five months after a disastrous election night.

Once the principal alternative to the major parties, the NDP now appears in decline.

The party has struggled under shifting direction, the vote to review McKenzie's leadership was far from unanimous (52-43), and the NDP's most popular candidate described disunion within the ranks in a post-election interview with CBC News.

Meanwhile, the NDP remains voiceless at the legislature and pushed further to the fringe by two newer third parties heading in the opposite direction, with three seats each.

"I think the party is in a really tough spot, kind of going through a rebuild," said J.P. Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.

The last time the party won a seat was 15 years ago — making it harder and harder to energize volunteers and voters, Lewis said.

"You can see the impact of not winning a seat, not being in the legislature can be pretty devastating on a party's momentum," he said.

McKenzie speaks to reporter following her election night concession speech on Sept. 24. The party failed to win a seat for the fourth straight election. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

The most recent Corporate Research Associates poll from December suggests a dip in support for the NDP. A single percentage point drop in support among those polled left the NDP at six per cent, or fifth among the five main political parties and the only one in single digits.

The party has yet to file financial returns to Elections New Brunswick, so it's unclear what shape its war chest is in.

Instability at the top

The NDP hasn't had much success in elections since Elizabeth Weir stepped down as leader in 2005, and previous party success is inked to Weir's popularity in Saint John.

In the past 10 provincial elections, an NDP candidate was elected five times, but Weir accounted for four of those times.

During her tenure as leader, from 1988 to 2005, the party's share of the popular vote hovered around 10 per cent, and that figure has ebbed and flowed with each successive leader.

Former NDP leader Elizabeth Weir was elected to the legislature four times. She is the last NDP candidate to win a seat. (Government of New Brunswick)

Its popular vote reached an all-time high of about 14 per cent under Dominic Cardy, now a Progressive Conservative MLA. Then it hit a 44-year low in the Sept. 24 election, with a measly five per cent.

Party leadership has been anything but stable since Weir's departure.

There have been four leaders — plus three interim leaders — and none have lasted long enough for a second campaign. Cardy held the longest term, from 2011 to 2017, coming in on the heels of the 2010 election but taking off before 2018.

"When political parties change leaders after successive election defeats, it can be demoralizing to the rank-and-file party members," said Jamie Gillies, an associate professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University.

"For the NDP, in a province where they have not been in a position to form the government, it is especially frustrating because supporters are looking for leadership that can break them out of disappointing election cycles."

A leadership convention is supposed to occur within six months. The new leader needs to appeal to disaffected progressive voters, Gillies said.

"But the New Democrats in recent elections, apart from Elizabeth Weir's support in Saint John, have not had too much traction provincially, so building the membership and expanding voter support is challenging," he said.

And attracting leadership candidates may prove difficult, too. McKenzie was acclaimed in 2017.

Change in direction

In her election night concession speech, McKenzie struck an optimistic tone despite the resounding defeat.

"The NDP is back," she said.

McKenzie was speaking to the overall party direction and a return to an uncompromising stance on social programs after Cardy steered the party to the centre and alienated some members by endorsing the Energy East pipeline and distancing himself from unions.

"We know we're on the right track," McKenzie told reporters that night. "It's a question of getting our message out."

NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie's hopes of getting the party back to its roots and into the legislature were crushed Monday when she went down to defeat in Saint John Harbour. 10:26

Reaching progressive voters may be a tall order, however. Lewis said the Green Party — which, unlike the NDP, is gaining momentum provincially and federally — has eclipsed the NDP in that regard.

The PCs and Liberals also saw declines in their share of the popular vote last year, he said, but the NDP failed to pick up the slack. On the left, it was the Greens who came through with a historic three-seat night.

"The Green Party, in numerous provinces, including New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, has become the progressive alternative to the Liberals and Tories, and that has hurt the New Democrats even among the traditional labour union base of the party," Gillies said.

A pragmatic approach

Lewis suggested the party could benefit by taking a page from the Green playbook. The NDP could be best served by stepping back from a provincewide campaign and narrowing its focus and resources to a select few ridings, or even one, where victory is a possibility.

Returning to the legislature is crucial, he said, citing the success of Green Leader David Coon, who was the lone third-party MLA from 2014 to 2018 but made the most of it, pushing policies in the legislature and to the voters.

"He gets a lot of coverage for being just one MLA, and I think that helped the Greens get that three-seat breakthrough in 2018," Lewis said.

Gaining that seat would bring the NDP back into the spotlight and back at the decision-making table, he said.

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