Opinion

It's tough to be the NDP when the Liberals keep encroaching on your territory

If Singh is to succeed in building the NDP into something other than a perpetual third party, he needs to find ways to undercut Trudeau. He might be able to do that on the energy file.

One area that Singh might be able to exploit: Trudeau's position on pipelines

If Singh is to succeed in building the NDP into something other than a perpetual third party, he needs to find ways to undercut Trudeau. He might be able to do that on the energy file. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The recent New Democratic Party convention in Ottawa showed, once again, how Canada's most left-leaning party continues to struggle with that greatest of uncertainties: defining themselves. The NDP remains caught between a socialist rock and a free enterprise hard place — while the image of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to dance in the delegates' — and voters' — heads.

Leader Jagmeet Singh can be grateful that almost 91 percent of the party faithful voted not to have another leadership race. But what did he expect? He's barely been at the helm long enough to define himself, let alone the party, and no political organization is anxious to go at another divisive leadership contest so quickly.

Swiping NDP ideas

You can bet Singh isn't thanking Prime Minister Trudeau for making his job more difficult with a federal budget that not only swiped the NDP's national pharmacare plan, but also committed the government to a swarm of left-wing social reengineering policies, from directing StatsCan to gather gender-neutral data to fretting about the lack of women in the construction industry.

Singh opened his convention with an apology for sexual harassment; Trudeau went one better with the Liberal budget, directing the RCMP to reopen "unfounded" sexual assault cases back to 2015. And drugs? The Grits are poised to introduce legal weed this summer but are now — like the NDP — considering decriminalizing all illegal drugs.

Singh was left a party without a vision following Tom Mulcair's exit. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Singh was left an uncertain legacy from former leader Thomas Mulcair, who could never decide if he was a liberal, conservative or wannabe socialist. He ran a respectable campaign in the 2015 election — certainly a better one than the Stephen Harper Party, as the Conservatives basically rebranded themselves during that marathon race to 24 Sussex.

Mulcair ran the most conservative NDP campaign in history, easily. Not only did he rail against Trudeau's irresponsible deficit spending plans, he even tried to bury the old gag about NDP being an abbreviation for "No Defence Policy" by reversing the NDP's dismissal of the F-35 joint strike fighters for the Royal Canadian Air Force, insisting they be included in any competition. I almost collapsed when I heard that one.

The assiduous move to the right seemed to be working for Mulcair throughout much of the campaign as the three parties were essentially in a three-way tie; then the NDP support started to hemorrhage and the direction of the blood flow went to Trudeau, when left-wing voters embraced his effervescence and Nouveau Left glamour.

Rebranding the party

For Singh, the convention was really his first opportunity to rebrand the party in his image. His attempt to do so was admirable, if obvious. But despite the warm publicity that much of the national media heaped upon Singh after the convention, it is still crystal clear that he is taking a middle road that will not satisfy enough voters to either eviscerate the Trudeau spell, or to form a government. 

Trudeau is remarkably adept at claiming he represents middle class voters. He is so familiar with this mantra that he has compared himself to U.S. President Donald Trump by contending that both he and Trump won their elections due to middle class voters. Singh, though well aware of this segment of the electorate, is seemingly unconcerned with the fact that they are not apt to be charmed by talk of loving taxes — or even that we should smile when the government picks our pockets because taxes are "an investment in the future." Uh huh — big government's future.

Singh was able to ignore both the demands and the grating influence of the upper class leftists, or the LEAP Manifesto crowd — the environmental elites of the party — who almost threatened to break the NDP apart at its previous convention. 

But sidelining this constituency, at least temporarily, might not have been the most sagacious of manoeuvres for Singh. That's because environmental purity is one of Trudeau's weakest ideological links. His support of the Trans Mountain pipeline that is supposed to bring Alberta oil to the British Columbia coast is not only dividing the two provincial NDP governments, but it is also illustrating where Trudeau is most vulnerable with the usually happy leftist voters who naturally gravitate toward a prime minister who must surely see himself as the greenest leader in Canadian history.

If Singh is to avoid becoming another cipher in political history, and if he is to succeed in building the NDP into something other than a perpetual third party, he needs to find ways to undercut Trudeau. He will not do it by insisting Canadians should learn to love paying taxes, or by floating big ideas that the Liberals can simply swipe and claim as their own. He might do it by characterizing the prime minister as a environmental pretender who is really in the pockets of those wealthy energy companies.

Singh will handily lose the next election if he cannot capture some of the electorate away from Trudeau. And, as politics is played today, he'll likely never again see a 91 percent vote against a leadership review.

David Krayden has worked in print, radio and television journalism. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces as a public affairs officer and was employed for almost a decade as a communications specialist on Parliament Hill. He is currently the Ottawa Bureau Chief for The Daily Caller, a Washington-based news service.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

David Krayden has worked in print, radio and television journalism. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces as a public affairs officer and was employed for almost a decade as a communications specialist on Parliament Hill. He is currently the Ottawa Bureau Chief for The Daily Caller, a Washington-based news service.

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