What the heck happened to the Ontario NDP?

ANALYSIS: New Democrat MPPs are about to head off on a retreat — and you have to think their party’s third-place standing will be top of mind
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 11, 2020
Andrea Horwath has been leader of the Ontario NDP since 2009. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Let’s acknowledge right off the top that being leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is one of the worst gigs in politics. Your job is to show up to work every day and be negative. Several opposition leaders have told me over the years that it can be soul-destroying work. Even if the government does something you like, you feel obliged to say, “Too little, too late!”

More than four decades ago, Ontario premier Bill Davis — in a reference to the first-ever James Bond movie — nicknamed the Liberal opposition leader Stuart Smith (a psychiatrist) “Dr. No.” It allowed the premier to portray himself as totally positive about the province’s future, while framing his opponent as relentlessly negative. The moniker stuck, and Davis beat Smith twice, in 1977 and 1981.

Which brings us to the current opposition leader at Queen’s Park, Andrea Horwath.

In spring 2018, things were looking up for the leader of the Ontario New Democrats. She was leading her party into a general election for the third time, and, for a while, the NDP was in first place in the polls. If you don’t follow provincial politics all that much, you need to know how extraordinary that is. In the 24 elections that the NDP (and its predecessor party, the CCF) has contested, it has won once. It’s come second five times. In every other election, the party has come third. So even a taste of first place was making New Democrats giddy.

Of course, the heady times didn’t last, but, still, they were pretty darned good. Horwath led the NDP to its second-best showing ever — 40 seats and official-opposition status.

It’s always been the dream of New Democrats to supplant the Liberals as the champions of the progressive vote, and that certainly happened 20 months ago. The Liberals cratered, and the NDP fancied itself a government-in-waiting if the Progressive Conservatives under Doug Ford were to falter.

But what’s happened since? The NDP has dropped back to its traditional third-place position. It’s the Liberals, who don’t even have their new leader in place yet, who are topping the polls. Indeed, the last three polls have been unhappy ones for New Democrats. The latest, released by Pollara Strategic Insights last month, has the Liberals at 33 per cent, the Tories at 29 per cent, the NDP at 27 per cent, and the Greens at 9 per cent. That’s a seven-point drop from where the NDP was on election day in 2018. Even worse, despite a widely acknowledged disastrous first year in power for the government, the poll suggests it is the Liberals, not the NDP, who are once again the preferred alternative to govern.

In other words, everything old is new again for the NDP.

It’s a disheartening position for party stalwarts to find themselves in. And it has inevitably led to serious rumblings in the NDP’s backbenches about the job Horwath is doing.

The timing isn’t particularly good for the leader either: on Wednesday, the NDP caucus will gather in Ottawa for a retreat during which, one can assume, some of these concerns will be raised.

“It’s really not going to be a retreat, I can tell you that,” is how one NDP caucus member put it to me yesterday. “The sense of frustration is real, with the polls being more than discouraging. We need to have some honest, tough conversations about where we are.”

Over the past 25 years since the NDP lost power after its only election victory, the party has won, on average, about 17 seats per election — which suggests that, if the party were to have just an average showing in the next election, more than half the current crop of MPPs would lose their seats.

“The leader is M.I.A.: missing in action,” is how another MPP harshly described it last week.

For Horwath, who’s been party leader since 2009, job one will be to convince her fellow MPPs that they’ve got to play the long game. The next election is still two and a half years away — which leaves plenty of time for the party to make its case to Ontarians. Furthermore, as Horwath’s chief of staff Michael Balagus told me Sunday from his office at Queen’s Park: “The Liberal brand in Ontario is very strong, and to expect that lifelong Liberals weren’t going to wander home in between elections is pretty naive. I’m not surprised by it. But to say we can’t get them back is just not the case. We can.”

While New Democrats would certainly love to be showing more robust polling numbers, Balagus says he’s not overly concerned about the party’s third-place standing today.

“I have never known in my 35 years in politics a caucus that didn’t get skittish because of lower-than-desired polling numbers,” he says.

But other sources have told me that many caucus members feel that the NDP had an opportunity to take advantage of the Tories’ cratering popularity and the Liberals’ being disheartened, leaderless, and seemingly out of the game — and that the party failed to capitalize on it. The result: “New members are feeling panicked,” as one MPP says.

Making predictions more than 840 days before the next election is a fool’s errand, so we won’t do that here. Suffice to say, a decent number of official-opposition leaders have gone on to become premiers or prime minister over the past several decades. But the list of those who’ve fallen off the electoral map is longer, and many New Democrats fear Horwath is about to join the latter set.

Horwath and her advisers have consistently maintained that she’ll lead the NDP into the next election, in June 2022 — her fourth as party leader. At some point, it’ll behoove the opposition leader to prove both to her caucus and to Ontarians that she’s got something up her sleeve to prevent the NDP from returning to its traditional third-place position in the legislature.

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