'In weather, there's something called the doldrums," observes former NDP MP Peter Stoffer, when asked about the current state of his party. "You're out on the ocean and everything's flat and there's no wind. That's sort of where we're at right now."
The party of Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair is in a parlous state. In the second quarter of this year, the party raised $1-million, less than a quarter of what it raised in the second quarter of 2015. Its donor base is only a third of what it was a year ago.
A leadership race is allegedly under way, but two of the leading possible contenders, B.C. MP Nathan Cullen and former Halifax MP Megan Leslie, have ruled themselves out of contention, and Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo, who had announced her intention to run for the leadership, has withdrawn for health reasons. With polls showing the party languishing below 15 per cent, the New Democrats are at a particularly low ebb.
So how do they get their mojo back? By finding a leader who can knit together three disparate factions within the party, and present it as a truly progressive alternative to Justin Trudeau's Liberals. Bernie Sanders demonstrated that social democracy is a rising force in the United States. There's no reason it can't rise in Canada, as well.
"This is a progressive country and there is a huge majority that can be assembled on progressive issues," documentary filmmaker and social activist Avi Lewis says. The Liberals, he says, talk like the NDP, but govern from the centre or the right, which voters will eventually figure out.
But Mr. Lewis has ruled himself out as a possible leadership contender. "I'm not going to run for the leadership of the NDP … even though political conditions are amazing," he said Thursday, citing his obligations to his four-year-old son.
It's hard to remember that, only a year ago, New Democrats were the Official Opposition, poised to unseat Stephen Harper's governing Conservatives in an election campaign that was already under way. New Democrats are still debating why voters turned instead to the Liberals. Whatever the reason, the party squandered its best chance at forming government, ending up in third place, and embittered delegates voted no-confidence in Mr. Mulcair at a party conference last April. A new leader will be chosen in October of 2017.
James Laxer, a York University professor and veteran party activist, believes the party's failure to achieve power affords an opportunity for it to return to its socialist roots.
"Society is divided in a way it hasn't been in many decades," he said in an interview. The postwar move toward class and income equality "has been replaced by a huge shift toward inequality," with manufacturing workers let go and millennials living from contract to contract, even as a fraction of the 1 per cent vacuum up the wealth others create. "That has to be the starting point for a democratic socialist party: to face up to that reality and to do something fundamental about it."
But for Mr. Stoffer, the vast majority of Canadians range from slightly left of centre to slightly right of centre. "If you go beyond that, you end up on the margins, and people don't take you seriously." The NDP must continue to present itself as a responsible, progressive, able-to-govern alternative to the Liberals, he believes.
Whatever they might disagree on, Mr. Stoffer and Mr. Laxer are united in their strong dislike for the Leap manifesto, which was put together by a group of environmental and social activists, including Mr. Lewis, and presented at the April convention, where the party agreed to take it under consideration. The manifesto calls for a dramatic conversion to a green-energy economy, while limiting natural-resource development.
While Mr. Laxer and Mr. Stoffer warn that Leap ignores the consequences for Canadian workers, former Toronto MP Peggy Nash believes its environmental and indigenous focus deserves consideration. "They are raising issues, certainly around climate change, of great importance," she says.
Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, a progressive think tank named after former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, maintains that the NDP today is stronger in terms of regional representation and voter-ID infrastructure than at almost any time in its past. "When the next federal election rolls around," he predicts, "the NDP is going to be a competitive, effective fighting force that will vie in a serious way for power."
If the past few years have taught us anything, they should at least have taught us never to count the third party out.