Monday, December 28, 2009

Federal NDP Year in Review 2009: Incremental Progress

For any NDP supporters looking for instant gratification out of the political scene, 2009 might seem to rank as a disappointment on the surface. But on a closer look, there's plenty to like about what the NDP was able to accomplish on the year even as some of its more ambitious goals may not have worked out - and there's ample reason to look forward to how the events of 2009 will position the party for the future.

In the department of what might have been, the obvious starting point is the progressive coalition. The NDP has never been theoretically closer to power on the federal scene than it was at the start of 2009, with a coalition agreement raising the prospect that the NDP would take a historic place in the federal cabinet within a matter of weeks. But while the NDP followed a shrewd political maneuver with a valiant public defence of the coalition even as their supposed partners sat on the sidelines, the effort went for naught when Michael Ignatieff decided that he'd rather leave Stephen Harper in power than try to offer an alternative.

While the coalition may have been the largest missed opportunity of 2009, it wasn't the only point where potential watershed events for the NDP wound up producing less results than may have seemed possible. The party's Halifax convention, while generally well-attended and well-received, didn't produce any of the transformational discussion about the NDP's future that some might have hoped for. An apparent opening for broad policy progress created by the Libs' fall announcement that they were withdrawing support from the Cons was quickly slammed shut by the Cons' public refusal to negotiate with the NDP. And despite two historic shows of weakness for the Libs - one after the 2008 election with Stephane Dion still in charge, one in the latter part of 2009 under Ignatieff - the NDP wasn't able to pull itself within striking distance of second place in the national polls.

So anybody projecting the best possible outcome from the potential turning points may have ended up disappointed. But for those committed to the longer-term goal of building the party, there's every reason to be satisfied with the results from 2009.

To start with, the NDP proved remarkably adept in minimizing the damage from events beyond its control which had the potential to cause significant trouble for the party. While some pundits have tried to treat that agility as a basis for criticism, it's surely a sign of political skill that the NDP was able to get its public support back to normal levels in short order both after bearing the entire weight of the progressive coalition on its shoulders last winter, and after shifting from a years-long message of voting non-confidence in order to pass positive changes to EI this fall.

What about the need to build off the current support base? The best news on that front obviously comes from the NDP's strong by-election showings - with significant gains in three of four ridings, including an 11-point boost in the party's margin of victory in New Westminster-Coquitlam even with a new federal candidate in Fin Donnelly replacing a party stalwart in Dawn Black.

Of course, the by-election results were helped by the NDP's position as the lone federal party opposing the imposition of the HST on the citizens of B.C. (and Ontario). And that position should serve the NDP well in the years to come - adding a new dimension to the NDP's traditional policy strengths in areas such as health care, the environment and consumer protection.

But perhaps the most significant trend for the NDP's future has been its continued progress in Quebec. Contrary to expectations that Ignatieff's ascension would push federalist votes back into the Libs' camp, the NDP managed to stay within range of its 2008 election levels of support even through Iggy's honeymoon period. And with Ignatieff now losing favour in Quebec and elsewhere, the NDP looks to have resumed its upward trajectory in polls both formal (i.e. the Hochelaga by-election) and otherwise.

Mind you, there's still a lot of work ahead of the NDP. And the next key steps may be among the more difficult ones in bridging the gap between a fourth party and a government-in-waiting.

In Quebec, the NDP's inroads haven't yet pushed into serious contention in more than a few seats. And it'll take a serious push to end the Bloc's hold on the province to turn respectable polling numbers into seats.

And perhaps most importantly, the Layton NDP still hasn't been able to gain much of a foothold in vote-rich urban and suburban Ontario. With the Libs and Cons already engaged in a fierce battle over suburbia and most of the urban seats firmly in Lib hands, the going looks to be tough in trying to push the NDP into contention in significantly more Ontario seats. But progress in that area is an obvious must for the party if it wants to continue down the path toward government.

With those hurdles looming, 2010 and beyond won't be any easier for the NDP than the last year has been. But while the NDP didn't come out of 2009 with seats at the federal cabinet table or a shiny new party name, it did manage to keep on track toward its longer-term goals. And we'll find out in time just how much this year's progress will contribute toward the ultimate effort to build a national governing party.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

No comments:

Post a Comment