New Democrats, take a deep breath. Yes, the election results came in way below expectations. Very fine MPs were defeated. The dream of government died. Party members feel sore, even shell-shocked.
Step back. The NDP won 44 seats Monday, the largest in its history, except for 2011. It took more than 19 per cent of the popular vote, bettered only by its 31 per cent in 2011 and 20.3 per cent in the 1988 election.
Monday's election produced a bit of the same morning sickness that arrived in 1988. The party had been scoring well in the polls throughout 1988. Ed Broadbent seemed a popular leader. The Liberals under John Turner were struggling. Becoming the official opposition seemed possible. Instead, the Liberals galvanized an anti-free-trade vote and the NDP sank. The Liberals became the official opposition with about twice as many seats as the NDP.
Compared with the 2011 election, the 2015 NDP results were poor. The party wound up way down in the popular vote and number of seats. Its Quebec bastion disintegrated. Third-party status now beckons. Some excellent MPs lost who deserved a better fate.
What were the 2011 results all about that propelled the NDP into official opposition status for the first time? The start of a bigger and better future for the NDP eventually leading to power or a fluke?
We know that the wisdom of hindsight is hard to beat. In retrospect, the NDP got ahead of itself. The party saw itself first or second in the polls for many months before the election. It rejoiced in the party's win in the Alberta provincial election. It believed the Liberals were struggling and the Conservatives were stuck. Winning the largest number of seats and forming a minority government seemed possible.
A campaign strategy was framed to help the party, and Leader Tom Mulcair, look like a responsible alternative. The NDP would be socially progressive (child care, affordable housing, more money for health care) but fiscally responsible with balanced budgets. It seemed the proper trade-off. And then, the strategy collapsed. Was it really the strategy that collapsed, or were New Democrats kidding themselves, as they had before?
The 2011 election was a one-off triumph, built on the so-called Orange Wave in Quebec. Outside Quebec, however, the party did not do much better than before. New Democrats were running across Canada against a Liberal Party in the doldrums led by Michael Ignatieff. That they couldn't do appreciably better outside Quebec ought to have been a cause for concern.
In the period between 2011 and 2015, the NDP blew a provincial election in British Columbia, lost power in Nova Scotia, failed to advance in the Ontario provincial election and saw an NDP government in Manitoba plunge in popularity. Nothing provincially suggested the party was on the rise – an ominous state of affairs for a party whose federal and provincial wings work closely together.
Something more fundamental was at work. The number of Canadians who call themselves New Democrats wasn't budging even though the number who said they might consider the NDP was rising. The NDP core remained much smaller than the Conservative core and the Liberal one.
More ominously still, the Liberals were regrouping, feeling better about their party, contributing money, attending nomination meetings. A very strong team of Liberal candidates was being built. That old Liberal brand, easy for some to believe was past its due date, was coming back into favour, slowly at first, rapidly toward the end.
The Conservatives invented the slogan about Justin Trudeau that "he's just not ready." Despite all the NDP's efforts, too many voters felt that its federal party was "just not ready" to govern. Maybe this was, and is, unfair. New Democrats would say so, but they aren't numerous enough to decide.
And then there was the fierce, widespread anti-Harper sentiment that fired so many voters, more than two-thirds of whom said they wanted "change." The Liberals' platform was successfully sold as representing more change than that of the NDP. But a deeper factor was at work. Voters had seen the Liberals in office before. Once those who wanted change became somewhat reassured in the competence of Mr. Trudeau, more of them preferred the party that had exercised power before to the one that had not.