Chin up, New Democrats. It won't always be 2016.
It's a hard time for the NDP. They are still living with the dashed hopes of the 2015 federal election, when they went from almost there to square one (maybe two). Rachel Notley's Alberta government, which triumphed in 2015, is being trashed now, in a tough economy. The only other provincial NDP government, in Manitoba, is about to be flushed out of power.
Thomas Mulcair's federal party, in an Ekos poll released this week, was at 11.7-per-cent support. Ouch. To add insult, a Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is persuading left-leaning Canadians he is bringing progressive government to Ottawa, and winning style points and photo-op wars to boot.
But the good news for federal New Democrats is that there is some reason to believe things will be better for them three years from now, when Canadians are getting ready for another election.
That does not necessarily make it easier to decide whether they should boot Mr. Mulcair in a leadership-review vote next Sunday. But as they tally their recent mistakes, they should remember they will face a different electorate in 2019. People will not be thinking of how Mr. Trudeau contrasts with Stephen Harper, but whether he has lived up to expectations.
The federal NDP sees itself as the real McCoy party, the people who really want social justice on all fronts. That is the party's core, its stalwarts: They see the Liberals as chameleons, election-time imitators who cynically steal NDP chops to win power, running to the left, but governing to the right.
The bad news for the New Democrats is that many of their potential voters do not share the certain belief that orange is more genuine than red. When they thought Mr. Trudeau offered a more compelling program last fall, they voted Liberal. Worse, many of those voters are feeling pretty good now about the tone Mr. Trudeau is setting – some New Democrat MPs say their own supporters get annoyed when they criticize the new government, because they want Mr. Trudeau to be progressive, and to succeed.
But those core NDP activists might want to look to the past. The party has been squeezed before when a wave elected a new Liberal prime minister. It bounced back.
When the Liberals under Jean Chrétien won in 1993, the NDP fell to nine seats and 7 per cent of the popular vote. But it did better in 1997.
When Pierre Trudeau was elected in 1968, the NDP seemed in existential danger. Months after the election, Gallup found more than 50 per cent of Canadians supported the Liberals while the NDP fell below 10 per cent. Six months after the election, Gallup asked if Canada was returning to a two-party system, and 56 per cent of those surveyed said yes. But eventually, Trudeaumania faded, the Liberals were reduced to a minority in 1972. The NDP held the balance of power.
That is not to say that Trudeau history is inevitably destined to repeat. It is not. But there is a reason for the pattern: The Liberals and the NDP fish in the same pool of progressive voters for a lot of their support. When Liberals ride a wave to power, it is because they have united them to a greater degree, squeezing out the NDP. But after their first term, there is usually a disappointed group of Liberal-NDP switchers.
Mr. Trudeau is not likely to succeed enough for all of them, either. It is unlikely he will fulfill a promise to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Liberals are keen to approve an oil pipeline to tidewater, which would leave offended opponents. Their promise of electoral reform will not be the proportional representation system some on the left believe is fair. Many things, like national subsidized daycare, that appeal to many progressive voters, are not in the Liberal program.
Nothing is automatic. The NDP is in a funk, and has to decide on a policy direction and leader. But though support is at a low ebb, a Nanos Research poll found 45 per cent say they would still consider voting for the party. Lucky for them, many of them have high expectations of Mr. Trudeau, and if the past is a guide, they are not all lost to the NDP forever.