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The NDP seem unable to tell Canadians who they are. It’s hard, therefore, to explain why they should govern.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Here’s a piece of free advice for Jagmeet Singh and the NDP: If you want to revitalize your party, set your sights on third place.

That doesn’t mean giving up. Mr. Singh can still travel around the country saying he’s running for prime minister. The late Jack Layton did that in every election campaign and nobody believed him till the fourth try.

It doesn’t even mean writing off the hope of winning power in 2019. That looks like a pipe dream right now, with the NDP at 15-per-cent support in the latest Nanos Research poll, but anything is possible.

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But federal New Democrats have fallen in another way. They seem unable to tell Canadians who they are. It’s hard, therefore, to explain why they should govern.

It would help if they start by telling Canadians why they should vote for a third-party NDP. They might regain their identity, and their mojo.

The federal NDP used to do that all the time. They often saw themselves as the party of conscience that could influence Canada’s politics, even if they didn’t hold power. They had missionary zeal, seeing themselves as fighting the good fight, win or lose.

Now, Mr. Singh’s party is at best in a rebuilding period – low in the polls, finding it hard to raise money, and still restructuring its internal affairs. He could use a little NDP zeal.

Mr. Singh’s Wednesday speech to his own caucus about the “disappointment” people feel about Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might make partisans nod, but it won’t fire up an NDP mission. And the NDP needs a refreshed identity before it can become a contender again.

There’s always been tension in the NDP about whether it should be a party of principles or electoral success. Mount Royal University Professor Roberta Lexier, co-editor of a new book, Party of Conscience, about the NDP and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, argues that it had an underestimated influence, not just on social policies such as medicare, but in prodding Liberal or Conservative governments on human-rights issues or foreign-policy stands. Influence, Ms. Lexier contends, “is not always about being in power.”

The NDP’s good-fight, third-party appeal has also been a potent electoral argument on occasion, when the NDP could offer to wield influence if voters gave them the balance of power in a minority Parliament. As it happens, that just might be their most credible option in next year’s election.

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But the point is that if you start to tell voters how you would influence change even as a third party, it gives voters a sense of your mission. The NDP has had a problem doing that since 2011, when Mr. Layton led them to official opposition status. Now they are running against a Liberal government that employs progressive rhetoric and has hinted it intends to promise a national pharmacare plan in the next election campaign.

If the NDP wants to establish its identity, it might start with things the party would force on a Liberal minority if it held the balance of power – the things many “progressive” voters want that the Liberals won’t do. It doesn’t have to be radical. It has to be something to fight about.

Mr. Singh has done that recently on pipelines when he came out against the Trans Mountain expansion project. One can debate whether that is good policy – Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley certainly hates it – but now Mr. Singh has picked a lane many on the left will like.

Mr. Singh now needs three or four high-profile points that give people an idea of the NDP that distinguishes it from the Liberals – including some things it could feasibly demand if it held the balance of power.

The NDP wants a full, publicly funded pharmacare system, while the Liberals are hinting at more of a mix with private insurance – so the NDP can insist on “real” pharmacare. There may be others. Mr. Singh believes in the decriminalization of all drugs.

Many in his party would like to back the beginnings of a national basic-income program. Pick something that stands out, Mr. Singh, and soon, because it’s getting harder to remember what the NDP is about. This is a party that needs a mission.

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