Brad Lavigne was the New Democratic Party’s national campaign director in 2011 and the author of Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story of the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP. He is a partner at Counsel Public Affairs.
By the end of election day, on May 2, 2011, the New Democratic Party of Canada – under the leadership of Jack Layton – received more than 4.5 million votes and elected 103 members of Parliament. In Quebec, the NDP captured more than 40 per cent of the vote and won 59 seats, including the ridings once held by former prime ministers Wilfrid Laurier, Louis St. Laurent, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. The NDP even beat Bloc Québecois leader Gilles Duceppe in the riding he had held for 21 years.
In what became known as the “Orange Wave,” the party was elected to serve as the Official Opposition for the first time in its 50-year history.
It was an overnight success that was also a decade in the making. Those of us inside Jack Layton’s circle referred to it as “The Project”: a campaign to professionalize and modernize the NDP and turn it into an electoral machine capable of competing and winning seats in every corner of the country.
In the two federal election campaigns since the Orange Wave, however, the NDP has lost three-quarters of its caucus and a million and a half votes. It has lost all but one of its Quebec seats, and today it sits in fourth place in the House of Commons.
All is not lost – far from it. The building blocks remain in place for another NDP surge. According to recent polling from Abacus Data, four-in-ten Canadians are open to voting for the NDP in the next election, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is the only leader of the four major federal parties to enjoy a net-positive view from voters. Debts from the 2019 campaign have been repaid, fundraising efforts are gaining strength, the caucus is united, and Canadians, like so many around the world in the pandemic, have a renewed appreciation for the role of activist government.
But to capitalize, the NDP – like it did when Jack was leader – has to answer a very simple question: Is it content to be the conscience of Parliament, or does it want to win?
For Jack, the goal was to win. Some scoffed at the time, but he never wavered. And he mobilized the party and its resources around that singular objective.
In the 2011 election, campaign staff constantly asked themselves one vital question: “Does what you’re doing directly contribute to winning seats?” If it didn’t, you were advised to stop doing it. Staffers understood that every minute in which they were not working on winning votes, they were losing.
It’s time to rally around the same philosophy. The NDP needs to see itself as a contender, not just a bystander – and declare itself as such.
The NDP needs 124 additional seats to form government – a tall task, indeed. But if the Orange Wave taught us anything, it’s that when the NDP sets its sights high, good things happen.
That means putting together the strongest possible slate of candidates who would be ready to govern. It means staying focused on the issues that matter to the millions of Canadians for whom the status quo does not work. It means taking and repeating its compelling message everywhere and matching the spending of the Liberals and Conservatives, dollar for dollar. And above all, it means refusing to listen to those who say it can’t be done. Canadians, not pundits, decide elections.
At the NDP’s recent party convention, Mr. Singh secured 87-per-cent support among delegates in his leadership review. He needs to leverage that support from within his party and make the decision explicit to the rest of the country that he is running to be Prime Minister.
What the 2011 election proved was that millions of Canadians will take you seriously if you take winning seriously. So, on the 10th anniversary of the Orange Wave, let’s celebrate the gains of the past and honour Jack’s legacy by getting and keeping our eye on the prize.
Let’s resolve to finish “The Project” – and win.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.