New leader, new name or new party? Discussions swirl around Sask. NDP's future

Saskatchewan's NDP is looking for a new leader, but some think that may not be enough to change the party's reputation with voters.

About 55% of Saskatchewan voters think the party needs to rebrand, according to a recent poll

The Saskatchewan NDP has been successful in the past, but after losing to the Saskatchewan Party in four consecutive elections, they are no longer seen as the natural governing party. (Stefani Langenegger/CBC)

As Saskatchewan's New Democratic Party prepares for a leadership race, some people and pundits are discussing what the party needs to move forward successfully. 

Ryan Meili, who has led the party since March 2018, will stay on as the provincial NDP leader until a replacement is found. But his announcement last week that he would step down has raised a number of questions for the Opposition party. 

So far, no candidates have put their names forward in the party's fourth leadership race since 2009, though Regina Rosemont's Trent Wotherspoon and Saskatoon Centre's Betty Nippi-Albright have both said they won't run.

Regina-based Sally Housser, an NDP advisor who worked with Meili's 2020 campaign, told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning that the party has needed to reconnect with regular working people and voters since the 2007 election that brought the Saskatchewan Party to power.

"That's an issue we're kind of seeing, not just in Saskatchewan, but in Canada and really all around the world," said Housser, who works with the NDP throughout the country. 

"It's that kind of reconnection with people and their everyday concerns and pocketbook issues.… That real personal aspect of reconnecting with voters the NDP needs to be focused on."

Poll finds support for rebranding

About 55 per cent of voters in Saskatchewan think the NDP needs to rebrand in order to be successful in Saskatchewan, according to a poll published on Friday. It showed some 61 per cent of those who voted NDP in the 2020 provincial election felt the same way.

It also found that 53 per cent of decided voters would support the Saskatchewan Party and 37 per cent would vote NDP if an election were held now. The online poll of 808 people in the province was held between Feb. 19 and Feb. 23.

Anecdotally, people on social media have mixed views, with some calling for a new vision, a focus on attracting younger voters, or a new political party altogether. 

Sarah Wilke, a self-described uninformed voter, said in her younger voting years she often heard broad, sweeping generalizations about the boogeyman of the NDP, or judgments about politics and politicians in general and would vote along the same conservative lines as her parents.

Living in Saskatchewan, she felt her perspective was shared by many who are apathetic about provincial politics, or politics in general in Canada.

At university though, she was exposed to different perspectives and people and found herself with views more to the left of those she'd grown up with.

Recently, Wilke's interest in politics has grown and she's taken to Twitter, where she participated in a discussion last weekend with a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, both politically oriented and not.

She said some felt the same way she did about the party — that the NDP's name in particular was "tarnished" in Saskatchewan. 

"While I know morally in my stance, I tend to align with NDP values… I know it's extremely difficult for other folks like me who aren't, or are even less, informed, or who still aren't getting themselves informed to ever vote for the NDP," Wilke said.

Although she'd vote NDP and has in the past, she said she feels a bit like she's throwing her vote away because other people aren't doing the same. 

Housser said there are pros and cons to collapsing the existing NDP in Saskatchewan and creating a new party, as well as rebranding the party that already exists with a new vision and focus.

From her work with the NDP across the country — including a stint as press secretary for the popular former federal party leader Jack Layton — she's found Saskatchewan's rendition of the NDP is already quite centrist in its stance.

Housser said she wasn't sure if the party necessarily needs to be more left or move more toward the centre of the political spectrum, but that it does need to refocus on voters.

Wilke said in order to avoid splitting votes, she'd rather not see a new party. But she thinks the NDP faces an uphill battle to change the way it's perceived in rural Saskatchewan.

"We need a progressive party that doesn't have the word Liberal, that doesn't have the words NDP, or any association with the federal liberal or NDP," Wilke said.

Her sentiments were shared by a number of people in Saskatchewan in various Twitter threads. 

Housser said a leadership race could galvanize the party. 

"That excitement and engagement and signing up members and raising money; it's always exciting when you have somebody who is an outsider," Housser said. 

"It brings not only a different perspective to a leadership race, but also that ability to kind of expand outside of what the membership already is."

Exploring leadership changes by the numbers

The upcoming race inspired Brett Dolter, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Regina, to explore how the party's changes have fared in elections. 

Dolter found the party's success was greatest when tied to name changes, as opposed to leadership changes. 

Opposition Leader Ryan Meili announced he would step down as party leader earlier this month. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

In 1944, when Tommy Douglas was brought to power, the party — known then as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — captured more than 50 per cent of the vote.

They did it again in 1952, but the party didn't capture the same percentage of votes again until the 1970s, by which time it was known as the NDP.

Dolter said a split between the conservative and liberal voting bases likely played a role in the party maintaining power in the 1970s.

The NDP came to power again in a strong way in the early 1990s, when other parties were embroiled in political scandals and MLAs were locked in jail.

The Sask. Party are currently pulling from two voting blocs in the province — former progressive conservatives as well as some liberal-leaning voters — where the NDP haven't been able to move their numbers, Dolter said. 

Current position

In the 2020 election, the NDP had 13 people elected to the official Opposition. More recently, the NDP lost a byelection for a long-held seat in Saskatchewan's Athabasca region.

Dolter, a self-described armchair political analyst, speculated a refocused vision may be the way for the NDP to go.

This graph by Brett Dolter, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Regina, shows how the NDP fared under new leaders in the 2011, 2016 and 2020 provincial elections. (Submitted by Brett Dolter)

"The other option is the NDP somehow becomes more appealing to a broader range of voters and that's always a possibility, it's just, looking back at the history, they haven't had over 50 per cent [of the vote] that often," Dolter said. 

"What would it take to actually get there again?"

With files from Saskatoon Morning and Adam Hunter