In defeat, New Democrats try to see past the doubts

Ahead of a difficult leadership vote, the NDP convention hears rousing speeches from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and former Ontario leader Stephen Lewis.

Rachel Notley and Stephen Lewis rouse NDP members with calls to not give up

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks at the NDP national convention in Edmonton on Saturday, where New Democrats are grappling with the question of whether they've persuaded Canadians that their party is ready to govern. (CBC)

​Concluding her remarks to the NDP convention in Edmonton on Saturday afternoon, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley invoked the final words of the late Jack Layton.

"As a good friend of ours said in his last days, Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world," she said. "We can be a better one — a country of greater equality, justice and opportunity."

Layton concluded that passage of his posthumously published letter to Canadians with his familiar refrain: Don't let them tell you it can't be done. Notley closed here with a shorter expression of a similar sentiment.

"Take it from an Alberta New Democrat," she said. "We never give up."

Layton's is perhaps the defining rallying cry of the NDP: a standing defence of its aspirations, positions, policies and, of course, its hopes of ever forming government federally. Despite its provincial successes, federally the party is still an underdog that imagines it might upend the 147-year-old political order of Canada. And absent evidence to the contrary, it need be insisted that that is indeed possible.

The leadership question

But for the fact that seemed distinctly possible last summer, Tom Mulcair's leadership might not now be in question. 

That question — likely to be settled on Sunday when delegates are asked whether they would like to launch a leadership review — has understandably come to dominate the weekend. But that much is only part of the larger question of the NDP's existence, something might not be answered unless or until it wins national power.

Notley, an NDP premier of Alberta, is living proof of Layton's assurance that what is doubted can be done. And in her speech to delegates, she insisted on the goal of governing. "Being a progressive party of government is exactly what the CCF-NDP is all about, and always has been," she said. 

In her opening speech to the convention, party president Rebecca Blaikie went right at a more limited view of the NDP's purpose. Yes, she said, the NDP has been considered the conscience of Parliament, but "we also work for the day when we have a government that has an appropriate conscience of its own."

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A party ready to govern?

However much New Democrats might need to remind themselves of that much, they may still have to convince Canadians. Unless, that is, the 2015 election hinted at an electorate that is actually ready to entrust New Democrats with the federal government. 

This is the flipside account of the NDP's poor finish last fall: that while the party lost its polling lead and fell back to third-party status, it did at least have that lead.

"I think that we got over whatever that barrier is in the public mind, that [we convinced voters that] these are people who could actually run the country, not simply be a party of aspirational change and idealism," says Jack Harris, the former MP who lost his seat last fall.

The irony might be that in trying, perhaps successfully, to seem like a party capable of governing, the NDP lost the chance to govern. "It didn't work this time because I guess, perhaps, the desire to do that, and prove that, conflicted with the ability to be nimble and take chances and take risks," Harris says.

Reasons for optimism

Six months after that defeat, the NDP is at around 11 points in national polls. But the party also drew 1,800 people to Edmonton. "I remember the last time we were really disappointed in an election. It was 1993 and we got nine seats," Blaikie said in an interview. "So I think that obviously we still haven't reached our ceiling.... But we have a brand new floor."

How to go about realizing that ceiling will be something for the party to consider over the next three years. The NDP is a party of a specific ideology, its pursuit of power framed by that. "We've never been in this game just to win," Blaikie said. "We want to win, but we're not here just to win."

On August 24 of last year, perhaps the high point of the NDP campaign, an ecstatic Stephen Lewis addressed a rally in Toronto. "I've waited 75 years for this day," the New Democratic firebrand enthused.

Nearly eight months later, Lewis addressed New Democrats tonight on the eve of Sunday's difficult vote and he declared himself "ebullient." Acknowledging last fall's defeat, he identified two reasons for his good mood. 

First, as a former leader of the Ontario NDP, he noted that he was well-acquainted with disappointing election results. Second, of the Liberals, he saw a government already beginning to fray.

"I recognize the painful defeat we suffered," he said. "But I have to end as I began. I'm irrepressibly filled with optimism.... When it comes to the Liberals, we live in a target-rich environment. There is so much to fire at. And we fire at it from a determinedly left-wing analysis. And we let the chips fall where they may."


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.