PHOTOS: Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair – whatever was he thinking? Below: Guest Post author Mimi Williams; Jeremy Corbyn, new leader of Britain’s Labour Party.

Many New Democrats were shocked and dismayed at the outcome of Monday’s federal election, despite their relief that Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party government were gone at last. Long-time NDP activist and freelance Alberta journalist Mimi Williams explains in this guest post why she believes the NDP’s own campaign decisions were the principal reason for this unhappy turn of events.

By Mimi Williams

Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning sweep to victory and leadership of the British Labour Party last month should have given the strategists in the NDP war room pause to reflect. It didn’t. And it was probably too late, anyway.

Mr. Corbyn’s win, along with the rise in popularity of Democrat presidential nominee hopeful Bernie Sanders in the United States caused me and others concern about the NDP’s electoral prospects well before Labour Day. Had the party abandoned the democratic socialist principles of its roots just as the populace was prepared to embrace them? As I feared then and as became clear on election night, the answer was ‘Yes’ and it was Justin Trudeau’s Liberals who capitalized on this recognition and benefitted from it.

There’s a well-worn saying in NDP circles that Liberals campaign like New Democrats and govern like Conservatives. This election showed what happens when you throw the NDP campaigning like Liberals into the mix. Young voters, who didn’t have the benefit of remembering what a Liberal government acted like, flocked to the Liberals en masse. You can’t really blame them.

For its part, the NDP has moved ever more toward the centre for years, to the point where, in this election, accusations that it was running to the right of the Liberals were not unfounded. That said, it would be entirely unfair to pin the NDP’s defeat entirely on Tom Mulcair. Jack Layton also pushed the party to propose balanced budgets and Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow was the first premier to do so in the early 90s. Balancing budgets had become the end instead of the means to the end that they are supposed to be.

Despite all of its promises, the neoliberalism espoused by leaders of all political stripes – from Margaret Thatcher to Bill Clinton to Jean Chretien – has increased inequality, worsened poverty and hampered the advancement of human rights world-wide, including here in Canada. Those countries that have shown more socialist tendencies – where taxes are not considered a four-letter word – are the ones that have managed to better weather the many economic storms the world has experienced over the past four decades. Progressive voters know this, even those so young that they’ve never experienced any other kind of government. The Liberal Party incorporated this realization into its platform; the NDP, for whatever reasons, did not.

Last spring, EKOS pollster Frank Graves coined the term “promiscuous progressives” to describe people who wanted to get rid of Stephen Harper but weren’t sure who should replace him. The campaign platforms presented to voters made that choice a lot clearer for many: Choose the one who promises to do it differently.

Along with the misguided attempt to reassure voters with the promise of balanced budgets, the NDP’s vetting of candidates who expressed solidarity with Palestinians also hurt them far more than they will likely admit. It was with a not-insignificant measure of incredulity that I watched Mr. Mulcair hold a press conference condemning Mr. Harper’s muzzling of scientists. I couldn’t help but rub that up against what I and so many others had personally witnessed: the muzzling and removal of candidates who expressed even the mildest of criticism of Israel. In so many respects, the NDP itself made it easy for the Liberals to paint Mr. Mulcair as Harper Lite.

The NDP has managed to force the introduction of important initiatives in this country without ever holding power. There was Tommy Douglas, who built the party with an emphasis on social policies and was a driving force in the introduction of medicare, first in Saskatchewan, and then throughout the country. It was David Lewis who coined the term “corporate welfare bums” and brought forward the idea of the Crown corporation that would become Petro-Canada (later privatized by Brian Mulroney). To those leaders, principles were more important than power.

Ironically enough, had the party not veered to the right in an ill-fated attempt to capture votes, it might very well have been able to retain the former while finally grasping the latter.

Mimi Williams is a longtime NDP activist and freelance journalist living in Alberta. This federal election was the first NDP campaign she has sat out since 1986. This post also appears on

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  1. Thanks for that. The truth hurts only slightly less than knowing that this was likely our only chance at government. On the bright side though, I think our man Justin might just follow through with electoral reform.


    Thomas Homer-Dixon explanation below re impact of Anybody But Harper voters (ABH)

    The niqab issue undercut NDP support in Quebec changing the national NDP polling profile. And that got the ball rolling toward Liberal win.

    excerpt: As soon as the NDP poll numbers turned south in Quebec, the probability that the NDP would win enough seats to form the government dropped precipitously, given the importance of the NDP’s Quebec caucus to the party’s election hopes.

    This was a signal to the ABH vote across the country to shift to the Liberals. ABH opinion leaders immediately recognized the implications of the Quebec developments; it took about another two weeks for those implications to be communicated through the ABH crowd and felt strongly in the polls, especially in Ontario. The Liberal Leader, Justin Trudeau, helped the shift by performing well on the stump and in debates.


    Also, exit polls have found

    1) getting rid of Harper was THE biggest factor in the shift to Liberals.

    2) as much as 10% of voters made their decision on election day.

    So, IMHO, very little impact on voters from muzzling candidates on Palestine, balanced-budgets, too little understanding/critique of neoliberalism, lacklustre debate performances by Mulcair, etc.

    The number of voters materially affected by these factors was too small to have made any difference.

    1. I don’t disagree with much of what you say here. In fact, I appeared on our local CTV morning news show on September 29th and said that if it looked like support for the party was wavering in Quebec the psychological effect of that would be felt across the country. And I also agree that the position on Palestine probably had little effect on voters but it most certainly had an effect on our base and led to a number of people finding themselves with other things to do during the campaign.

      I’ll stand by my assertion that the balanced budget position had a very strong effect on voters. They wanted change and they went with the party that promised it.

  3. You wrote: “The NDP has managed to force the introduction of important initiatives in this country without ever holding power. There was Tommy Douglas, who built the party with an emphasis on social policies and was a driving force in the introduction of medicare, first in Saskatchewan, and then throughout the country. It was David Lewis who coined the term “corporate welfare bums” and brought forward the idea of the Crown corporation that would become Petro-Canada (later privatized by Brian Mulroney). To those leaders, principles were more important than power.”

    Maybe you’re saying that “winning” and “winning elections” are two different things and that NDP riding associations that see themselves as election machines (such as mine) pursue the second at the expense of the first. What to do about that?

    1. The one good thing Tony Blair did was participate in the war for freedom in Iraq. He will be reversed from history for this contribution to world stability.

  4. Great comments Mimi, particularly “the misguided attempt to reassure voters with the promise of balanced budgets”. On the same general topic, a good column by economist Paul Krugman in the October 23 New York Times: “Keynes Comes to Canada”. Exactly why were we proposing a balanced budget?

  5. Although I do not at all disagree with you that the NDP has veered too much too the center, I think that in this case there was more of a strategic vote. The First Past the Post system does not allow 3 or more parties to function without strategic voting. It is an awful system and it will hopefully be scrapped soon, A lot of people recognized the Liberal party’s momentum and saw an opportunity to get rid of Harper’s evil ways. Democracy needs a total renewal in Canada and although not very hopeful I still believe that it may be possible with the new goverment

  6. I’m not sure I’d agree, at least not completely. While it’s easy for us to be quaterbacks after the fact (and I’m no different here), I truly wonder if the NDP would have fared any better had it moved to where the Liberals positioned themselves in this election. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no fan of where the NDP is these days; I miss the NDP of Ed Broadbent, Audrey Mclaughlin , and Alexa Mcdonough and I hope they get back there (now more than ever). But I really am not sure that would translate into greater electoral success. Indeed, maybe holding the reigns of power is actually the worst thing that could happen to the party, insofar as they could easily lose their true raison d’etre (it certainly happened to the Conservatives, who traded their ideals for power). History shows us that our progressive welfare state occurred when the NDP held the balance of power in a minority parliament. Granted, it resulted in slow progressive change, but then it might be even slower (or non-existent) with a new-Labour-like NDP a la Tony Blair (who pretty much destroyed the Labour Party in the UK).

    I guess I’ve just argued myself around in circles and ended up in agreement with the author – except that I don’t think that the NDP being true to themselves ideologically is the key to power – it is the key to influence, though, and, ultimately, real change.

    1. P.S. I did not vote strategically in this election and my candidate lost…but I’m glad I did it.

      1. I did not vote strategically either, and my candidate lost as well. But, strategic voting is definitely a 1990s Liberal thing, and it always targeted the NDP. Despite denial of ideology by the groups promoting strategic voting, it is naive, I think, to not acknowledge the Liberal history with it.
        So based on that, I will not vote strategically. I think the Harper regime could have been reduced quite nicely this time without strategic voting. It leaves me with some feelings of used skullduggery, and it is troublesome, for me, that folks could be swayed by this.
        Now, Trudeau, is actually promising electoral reform! Will he come through? Majority governments tend to not keep promises. Time will certainly tell. But, if we would have had a form of proportional representation with this election, the NDP would have elected quite a few more MPs.

        1. The success of the Alberta NDP on May 5, 2015, was clearly the result of progressive voters who were Alberta Liberals or Red Tories voting for the NDP instead of for the Progressive Conservatives, which they viewed as having lost their way, or the Wildrose Party, which they saw as dangerous extremists. So, while it often has, we ought not to claim that strategic voting ALWAYS benefits on the Liberals.

  7. Excellent piece, Mimi. I think “angry Tom” would have had greater success than “mild mannered Mulcair”. Young Canadians were looking for feist and confrontation in the race to depose Harper. Canada has followed the States in producing a sound byte generation with a hunger for revolution. Bernie Sanders has harnessed some of that shallow dissatisfaction south of the border; it’s too bad that Mulcair was so focussed on looking prime ministerial.

    1. I agree with you wholeheartedly! I spent a lot of the time while watching/listening to Mulcair, whispering “For God’s sake, say SOMETHING that means something!” I watched the NDP implode in British Columbia by ‘playing nice’ and believing the polls. Three weeks into the campaign I had exactly the sale feeling about the Federal election.

  8. There has been a long history within the NDP, both at the federal and the provincial levels, of tension between the “purists”, who want to campaign on a democratic socialist platform, regardless of the probability of getting elected, in the hope that in the long run enough voters will come around to that point of view that it will eventually get elected; and the “pragmatists”, who see getting elected as the first priority, without which nothing else can be accomplished, even if that means compromising democratic socialist principles. This tension dates back to the old “Waffle” faction of the 1970s.

    What’s new, in my view, is that NDP strategists have recently deluded themselves that they can somehow convince the unconvinceable: that they can get the right wing, corporatist, oligopolistic mainstream media and the “ThinkTankocracy” to end or at least soften their opposition to progressive politics long enough to get the voters to embrace the NDP. Balanced budgets in a soft economy, and grudging respect for diversity and human rights as a tepid response to identity wedge politics, were both intended to bring those types around.

    I think one thing is clear: this was a misguided approach; those Conservative fellow travellers were just never going to do it. Mr Trudeau and the Liberals made a better strategic decision: to just talk over the heads of the pundits and the columnists directly to voters, loudly and clearly, with a message of hope and light (no matter how deceptive it may prove to be). It was that direct, “damn the Postmedia torpedoes, full speed ahead” appeal to voters’ hopes and dreams, that led the Liberals to victory. There is a lesson to be learned here. Money talks, but the voters don’t always listen. You need to talk to voters, not to money.

  9. I agree, as an older voter, re: Mimi’s comments re: Liberals campaigning from the left wing, but governing from the right wing. And, again, some of us older voters are well familiar with that, and younger voters, are not. So, based on this, I definitely did not vote for either the Liberals or the Conservatives.
    I cannot say more than what is stated, aptly, in this article and represents my sentiments as well:
    “Trust Trudeau? I’ll wait and see. Canada’s young prince promises ‘real change.’ I can’t help but be wary.”

  10. A bit of addition perspective to your insightful piece: The shameful thing about the NDP is they are to the right of former Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on economic issues. Starting in 1958 Dief supported the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) selling wheat to a starving China, defying the US food embargo. Dief later supported the Farmers Union of Alberta’s (FUA) call to end the boycott of China in the early 1960s. Within a few months of this call, he dispatched a trade delegation led by FUA president Paul Babey, along with his Agriculture Minister, and representatives of most of the western cooperatives to expand trade with China.

    This earned him the enmity of the Kennedy clan and the US foreign policy establishment, but it earned western grain farmers a loyal, long term, and very lucrative customer not to mention the gratitude of the Chinese people. It is hard to imagine an NDP leader, Premier, or Prime Minister taking a similarly decent, courageous (and Canadian centered stand) today.

    PS: by killing the CWB, the Conservatives have ruined that lucrative relationship with China.

  11. Some good comments here, which I mostly won’t repeat, but will add my dismay at hearing that McGrath has been appointed to find out what went wrong. Yep, that should be quite the grand inquisition.

    Most of the NDP’s organizational leadership – federal, provincial, municipal – seems locked into repeating the same doomed 3rd Way experiment again and again. After the 2013 BC election, a lot of us here are primed to recognize all the warning signs, and sure enough, right on cue, it was Groundhog Day …. Anyone who lived through that campaign would have been hearing alarm bells right from the beginning, starting with the high polling results and the play-it-safe, frontrunner approach.

    And if hear “middle class” this-or-that again, I’m gonna puke. (So I’m keeping my barf bag handy.)

    And I’m saying all this as someone who voted for Mulcair for the leadership. (Based on how Topp subsequently ran the BC 2013 campaign, we dodged an even bigger bullet. Watch out, you poor dears in AB!) I did that with eyes open. And of all of the likely winners of that contest, I don’t think that any of them would have done better executing such a flawed campaign.

    So I’m not looking to see Tom walk the plank soon. We have plenty of time to see how the surviving caucus functions, who Harper’s successor is, and where & how the Liberals start to weasel on all that hopey-changey stuff. But if McGrath and Lavigne are still around in any significant roles by springtime, my wallet is closed.

    I think that the outcome of the Con’s leadership succession is critically important for the NDP’s long-term fate. This is where I strong disagree with those who would like to see the wackiest possible successor (Jason Kenney, Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch etc.). Although the analogy isn’t perfect, we only have to look at the stability of the U.S. duopoly: two plutocrat parties, one with most of the crazies, and the other with most of the cool kids. So we need the most presentable, inoffensive Con leader possible. Otherwise the NDP will be permanently doomed by the curse of strategic voting. And 19% of the vote will look wonderful in retrospect.

    1. I have also not joined the chorus of those calling for the leader’s head. Not only did I support Mr. Mulcair in the leadership, I was the Alberta Co-Chair of his campaign – a thing that did not go over too well in my circle of friends. What happened here goes beyond the leader. I participated in a political panel on a local radio talk show before Labour Day and, in response to a question from the host, I said that if I had to do it all over again, I’d still support Mr. Mulcair. The unease I was feeling, which I also expressed, involved the fact that if it was this party (as reflected by its campaign and platform) that was presented to me back in 1986, I probably would not have joined it in the first place.

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