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jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

Saskatchewan used to be New Democratic Party country. From 1944 to 2007, the NDP and its precursor, the CCF, won 12 of 16 provincial elections. The NDP captured bushels of federal seats, too.

Since 2007, however, the Saskatchewan provincial NDP has lost three straight elections, including another this week when Premier Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party steamrollered the NDP, winning 51 of 61 seats. NDP leader Cam Broten lost his seat, and likely the party leadership.

Another provincial election, another NDP rout. Later this month, unless something of a miracle happens, the NDP government will be beaten in Manitoba. It has already lost power in Nova Scotia, failed to win in British Columbia an election it had hoped to take and stumbled in Ontario.

Only in Alberta did the NDP win a smashing victory, which was quite likely a one-time fluke. Political fortunes can change, but today, the Alberta NDP government runs third in public-opinion polls.

Which brings us to Tom Mulcair and the federal NDP, whose convention looms this weekend in Edmonton. There, Mr. Mulcair's continued leadership will be put to a vote, with no one either knowing how the vote will go nor what margin of support would suffice for him to remain.

Obviously, a party leader influences a party's electoral fortunes. So Mr. Mulcair is being criticized for the party's disappointing results in the last federal election. By historic standards, the NDP's third-place finish was not too bad; by the inflated expectations that preceded the campaign, the result was disastrous.

Look beyond Mr. Mulcair. Dispiriting provincial results, the federal election and today's polls (for what they are worth) giving the party a paltry 11 per cent of the popular vote all suggest a much deeper malaise for the NDP than the somewhat ephemeral question of Mr. Mulcair's leadership.

To put matters another way: Is the federal party's problem the leader or its relevance in the eyes of the vast majority of Canadians? If the leader is the party's problem, which provincial election results suggest is not so, then yes, whether Mr. Mulcair goes or stays is consequential. If the problem is deeper and more systemic, then someone else might not be any better, and could be worse.

Provincial results count for the federal NDP perhaps more than for the other national parties, since the provincial and federal parties are tied at the hip. Core NDP voters federally and provincially tend to be the same. Union support, such as it is, gets apportioned to both the federal and provincial parties.

Put another way, if a provincial NDP party has the wind in its sails, that breeze tends to help the federal party, and vice versa. Today, there is no wind anywhere for the NDP provincially (the gust of support for the party in Alberta having faded), and obviously the federal party finds itself equally bereft of moving air.

Any convention consists of party members drinking their own bathwater after success or dreaming after defeat of better days ahead. This convention, if members are honest with themselves, has to be different in that success again proved elusive and current realities everywhere make dreaming of better days a forlorn exercise.

What passes for the "left" within the NDP of course wants the party to become more radical, whatever that means. There's always been this kind of faction, whether called the Waffle, New Politics Initiative, the Socialist Caucus, but its influence has tended to stand in inverse relationship to the noise its members make.

In defeat, a temptation appears to veer even further from the Canadian mainstream, on the theory that the big parties are already there so why should the NDP contest that territory? The argument has intellectual merit but lacks political common sense, unless the NDP really does decide, given its weakened state, that being the self-described "conscience of the country" is all that can be achieved.

The Trudeau government is smothering federal programs with new money, raising taxes on the better off, talking a lot about climate change, improving the tax system for low-income Canadians, spending $8-billion on aboriginals, pulling away from a combat mission against the Islamic State.

It's tough for the NDP in its heart of hearts to oppose any of this, except perhaps to say the Liberals should do even more and do it faster. Such an argument, however, is not a reason for the NDP to get much of a hearing, whoever is the leader.

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