Over the past two years Ed Broadbent and the federal New Democrats have staged one of the most remarkable political comebacks in recent Canadian history. Faced with near obscurity following the resignation of Pierre Trudeau (when the polls put them at a meager 11 per cent of the decided vote), the NDP gained an impressive 19 per cent of the popular vote in the September, 1984, election. They have since moved to the midto high 20s, only marginally behind the Tories, who have been in a free fall for the past year.
What is especially surprising about the NDP comeback is the party’s growth in support in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, regions where New Democrats historically have had problems finding candidates to run. Since the last election the NDP has shown consistent gains in Quebec, even surpassing the PCs in most recent polls. In Atlantic Canada the performance of the NDP has been equally impressive. Although it is always difficult to predict how many actual seats standings in surveys will yield in an election, party insiders talk confidently of winning as many as 20 seats east of the Ontario-Quebec border.
The NDP’s performance in the polls has led some political observers to ask what additional gains Canada’s chronically third-place party can achieve and if its current support will hold up in an actual election contest. Is the NDP simply cashing in on the midterm slump that has affected the Tories—as some critics argue, it is easy to say that you will vote for the NDP if you know there will be no election—or are we witnessing a more basic transformation in the political alchemy?
There is much to support the argument that the NDP gains are more substantial than illusory. According to a Reid poll conducted in June, Ed Broadbent enjoys considerably higher levels of popularity than do either Brian Mulroney or John Turner—especially among undecided voters. The NDP itself is no longer viewed as a fringe group of Communists and radicals. Only about one in five Canadians say they would never vote for the NDP—only marginally higher than the number
Angus Reid is president of the national polling company, Angus Reid Associates Inc. of Winnipeg
who say they would never support the Conservatives. In addition to the 27 per cent of decided Canadian voters who say they would vote NDP, another 23 per cent say the new Democrats are their “second choice.”
In Quebec the decline of the Parti Québécois movement has left many voters with centre-left leanings in search of a non-Liberal alternative such as the NDP. In other parts of the country, Ed Broadbent and his party are attracting support for other reasons: high unemployment rates outside of Ontario, a consistent position on issues such as free trade and the prospect of further provincial gains in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The single most important reason for the levels of support, however, has less to do with the performance and policies of the NDP than voter antipathy toward the other two parties and their leaders.
Is the NDP simply cashing in on a Tory slump, or are we witnessing a basic transformation in the political alchemy?
The Mulroney story is well known. Voter infatuation with his government skyrocketed Tory support to the 60per-cent mark in late 1984. Over the next year the infatuation gave way to disappointment, with a corresponding slide in the polls. In 1986 disappointment is being replaced by anger, and Tory support in opinion surveys has plummeted to the low 30s. Early this summer almost 60 per cent of Canadian voters disapproved of the way Mulroney was handling his job.
The John Turner story is only now emerging. A June poll conducted by CROP/Environics suggests that with Jean Chrétien as leader the Liberals would enjoy 46 per cent of the popular vote—up almost 10 per cent from its current level. The question that generated that answer has been criticized as unfair and unrealistic: Chrétien is basking in the same postretirement glory that Turner himself enjoyed and, after all, he says he does not intend to seek the leadership.
Little attention has been given to the other story—the dependence of the NDP on the fate of the Liberal leader-
ship review. The CROP poll question using Chrétien as Liberal leader puts the NDP back in the basement at 21 per cent, only marginally better than their level of support in the last election. A Reid poll conducted earlier this summer shows similar results when Chrétien’s name is used. Whether or not Chrétien decides to return, both polls indicate that when choosing between the NDP and the Liberals the public is sensitive to the issue of leadership.
Just how sensitive is illustrated by a further question included in the Reid poll. It tests the popularity of the three parties by reminding voters who currently leads each of them. Responses to that question yield a virtual three-way race, with the Liberals at 34 per cent and the NDP and Conservatives both at 33 per cent. This suggests that the NDP could do very well against the Liberals under Turner and may be poised to break the 30-per-cent barrier in popular support for the first time in its history.
Whether they will actually achieve that level of support will depend on the public’s perception of John Turner over the next three months—particularly at the Liberal convention in November. So far, in spite of generally favorable media reports, Turner still gets a lukewarm response from Canadians. He is trying harder than ever, speaking more clearly than ever, and is knowledgeable on the issues. Yet he is dogged with the image of a Bay Street lawyer who cares little for the problems of average Canadians.
As Liberal delegates gather later this year they will be faced with one of the most important and vexing issues they have had to confront this century. Will they stay with their leader in spite of the liabilities associated with his right-of-centre image? Will they initiate a bloodbath as they grasp at the ghost of left-wing populism embodied in their memories of Jean Chrétien? Or will they suffer emotional and intellectual paralysis as they ponder the underlying contradiction between the two central tenets of spiritual leader Keith Davey—keep to the left but don’t criticize the leader?
Looking down from the bleachers will be Ed Broadbent and his associates from the almost-official opposition party. In an ironic twist of fate, the NDP’S place in history may ultimately rest on the decisions of a group of hard-core Liberal supporters.
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