It was billed as the kickoff for a preelection campaign. New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent sported a strained smile and a Florida tan as he unveiled a seven-point program aimed at boosting job security for Canadians. But, instead of the usual polite questions about his proposals, Broadbent’s press conference last week brought a barrage of inquiries about his party’s fading political fortunes. It was another bad day for a party that lately has faced slumping popularity and a scathing internal indictment of its policies and must shift strategies and emphasize different policies in order to survive. “We need a break,” admitted a senior NDP strategist. “Something good has to happen soon instead of this unending round of bad luck and bad news.”
The party’s plight is certainly dismal. A poll conducted for the Toronto Globe and Mail indicated last week that only 12 per cent of Canadians would vote for the party compared to the 20 per cent who supported the NDP in the 1980 federal election. Party strategists admit that the party could lose up to 23 of its 31 seats if an election were held now.
Worse still, the problems facing the party may be largely beyond its control. Party strategists believe that because so many Canadians want to get rid of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his Liberal government they have flocked
to Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives. That could mean that the NDP will not be able to recover until the Liberals get a new leader or Tory popularity declines.
Despite the bleak prognosis, a spirited, if somewhat strained, mood prevailed among federal NDPers. In February a major campaign aimed at persuading voters to save “the party of conscience” will be launched in Manitoba— where Premier Howard Pawley leads the country’s sole surviving NDP gov-
ernment— and then spread to three other traditional areas of NDP strength: Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Broadbent planned to buttress that effort with a series of eight policy pronouncements on “a fair economic recovery”—the party’s way of saying that it wants workers to get a bigger share of increased corporate profits and other benefits of renewed economic growth.
Starting this week with a tour through Toronto and other Ontario centres, Broadbent will be on the road every second week until midsummer trying to rally the dispirited grassroots. Meanwhile, New Democrat MPs are eschewing most foreign travel and much of their committee work to concentrate on their constituencies.
As the NDP struggled to gain some new momentum, the party’s federal leadership was still simmering over the body blow delivered earlier this month when James Laxer, the party’s former research director, made headlines with a report that dismissed the New Democrats’ economic program as a “hodgepodge of contradictions and dead-end solu-
tions.” Laxer, a veteran party
radical who ran against David Lewis for the leadership in 1971—and then threw his support to Broadbent’s predecessor-charged that the NDP policies to increase employment would simply serve to boost government deficits and spur inflation. The real need, Laxer wrote, is to rebuild and “Canadianize” the nation’s manufacturing sector through an investment pool of public money and the targeted use of corporate taxes. Some NDPers faulted Laxer’s critique as inaccurate and unjustified,
while others angrily pointed out that Laxer, who now has a teaching post at Toronto’s York University, wrote his report while still on the party payroll. But the real complaint was over the timing. Said former Ontario leader Stephen Lewis: “They [theNDP] feel that here is a party under siege externally and along comes someone from inside who seems to thwack at it.”
Laxer’s attack came at a time when the NDP has decided to emphasize its social—rather than economic—policies. “The party’s role will be a social conscience role with a twist that coincides with the fears and concerns of workers,” says Broadbent. “They are hoping the recovery will be sustained and fairer.” Added a party strategist: “The national NDP is about the conscience of the nation—it is not the economist of the nation.” The party’s preelection campaign will thus “remind working people that the voice they could always count on was ours. And now, more than ever, with the prospect of a Tory government, they will not want to be without the NDP.” The campaign will be waged on the assumption that the Tories will win the next federal election. “It’s not that we don’t want power, but it’s a very distant aim,” said NDP federal secretary Gerald Caplan. “You know that you are fighting instead for influence, to persuade governments to take a more humane approach.”
The NDP’s realistic assessment of its prospects is reflected in another strategy shift. During the 1979 and 1980 federal election campaigns, the New Democrats insisted that they were a national party. The current priority accorded just four provinces amounts to a tacit admission that the party is a regional entity and almost nonexistent as a federal force in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Alberta.
In the meantime, adversity appeared to be drawing NDPers closer together. Despite the party’s plummeting popularity, Broadbent’s leadership has not been questioned seriously since he was re-elected party leader by acclamation last July. Two possible leadership alternatives—Ontario’s Lewis and Saskatchewan’s former attorney general Roy Romanow—insist publicly and privately that they do not want the job. “We’re all back on the same team,” says Saskatchewan MP Lome Nystrom. “Sure, we pray a little and we also try desperately to find a couple of ideas that will catch hold. But give Brian Mulroney a little more time, and give the Liberals a leadership campaign, and the lay of the land could be a lot different by summer. Our spirit is back.”
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