3 lessons from races past as NDP prepares to name its new leader

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon the NDP will choose its new leader. Éric Grenier looks at some key lessons from the party's past leadership races and what they might tell us when the results of the first round of voting are announced Sunday.

If no candidate gets majority support on today's first ballot, a new week-long voting round will begin

The four NDP leadership candidates, right to left, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, Charlie Angus and Jagmeet Singh are looking to follow in the footsteps of party legends Jack Layton, top, and Tommy Douglas. (Canadian Press)

In 1961, Tommy Douglas was named the first leader of the New Democratic Party at the Coliseum in Ottawa, easily defeating Hazen Argue on the first ballot.

Fifty-six years later, New Democrats could announce the name of their eighth leader today in a downtown Toronto convention centre, a building fittingly located next to the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, named in honour of the party's sixth and most successful chief.

That is, if any of the four candidates in the running — Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, Quebec MP Guy Caron and Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh — manage to take a majority of ballots cast. If no one does, voting will open again and the leader might instead be named next Sunday in Montreal. Or the Sunday after that in Ottawa.

That the results of this leadership vote could stretch out over the next few weeks makes this contest different from the seven that have come before, but there are still some lessons that can be drawn from the historical record.

The most obvious one is that it's better to win on the first ballot.

One and done

Only two leaders have done it. Douglas captured 78.5 per cent of delegates' votes in 1961, while Layton took 53.5 per cent of votes cast by members and labour affiliates in 2003. Both Douglas and Layton then led the NDP through four federal election campaigns — and Layton almost certainly would have led the party into a fifth had he not died of cancer in 2011, just months after the party's historic breakthrough.

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The record suggests leaders who had stronger first ballot showings had longer tenures at the helm of the party. Along with Douglas and Layton, Ed Broadbent also led the party through four elections — and 14 years, making him the longest-serving leader of the party — after taking 33.1 per cent of delegates' votes in 1975.

Leaders who took less than 33 per cent had a rougher time. Alexa McDonough had 32.6 per cent support on the first ballot in 1995 and finished second behind Svend Robinson. She lasted for only two elections as leader. Tom Mulcair, at 30.3 per cent on the first ballot in 2012, and Audrey McLaughlin, with 26.9 per cent in 1989, only got one kick at the can.

David Lewis is the lone exception to the rule that a strong first-ballot showing results in a long tenure as leader. He took 38.9 per cent of first ballot support in 1971, but was only leader for four years and two elections. He lost his seat in the 1974 campaign.

Live coverage Sunday

CBCnews.ca will have live coverage of the 1st ballot results starting at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday. CBC News Network special coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET.

An NDP history of seatless leaders

More frequently than either the Liberals or the Conservatives, the New Democrats have chosen their leaders from outside the House of Commons — with some reason, considering the party has historically had fewer MPs to choose from.

Whether or not the party can afford to do that again has been a topic of debate throughout this leadership contest as Singh holds a seat in the Ontario legislature, while his three opponents sit in the House.

But the historical precedent is not a bad one for Singh. Douglas, McDonough and Layton all came from outside the House when they were chosen leader. Douglas was the premier of Saskatchewan and a former MP. McDonough was an MLA in Nova Scotia and the provincial party's leader, and Layton was a Toronto city councillor.

Tommy Douglas celebrates after being chosen NDP leader in 1961. (Canadian Press)

Having a seat doesn't appear to make much difference in terms of electoral performance. Douglas (compared to the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP), McDonough and Layton all did better in their first campaign than their predecessors did in their last. But so did Lewis and Broadbent, who became leaders as sitting MPs. Having a seat didn't seem to help McLaughlin or Mulcair.

Follow the money

The past two leadership campaigns, in 2003 and 2012, suggest one of the best predictors of first ballot outcomes is fundraising.

In 2003, Layton raised 53.8 per cent of all the money raised by the six contestants in the running. He then captured 53.5 per cent of the vote in the first round.

The pattern continued in 2012, when Mulcair raised 29.2 per cent of every dollar donated to leadership contenders before winning 30.3 per cent of the first round ballots.

In fact, the share of money raised by each candidate matched their first ballot result to within 1.5 percentage points or less in 2003.

With the exception of Paul Dewar, who underachieved based on his share of the fundraising, the 2012 first ballot outcome aligned with each candidate's share of fundraising to within 1.9 percentage points or less. 

Jack Layton won the 2003 NDP leadership on the first ballot. (Andrew Wallace/Reuters)

That would appear to be good news for Singh. He has raised about 44 per cent of all money donated to candidates in 2017, against 27 per cent for Angus, 18 per cent for Ashton and 12 per cent for Caron.

This broadly aligns with the latest Mainstreet/iPolitics poll, which gave Singh 38 per cent support among decided NDP members against 29 per cent for Angus, 18 per cent for Ashton and 14 per cent for Caron. 

Taken together, these numbers suggest Singh is well-placed to finish ahead on the first ballot, but also that at least one more ballot might be needed before a winner can be declared.

So while a new page in the history of the NDP could be written today by one of the four candidates, we might have to wait a bit longer for the last word on this leadership campaign.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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