Founded in 1961, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is a social democratic political party that has formed the government in several provinces but never nationally. Its current leader is Jagmeet Singh. In 2011, it enjoyed an historic electoral breakthrough, becoming the Official Opposition in Parliament for the first time. Four years later, despite hopes of winning a federal election, the NDP was returned to a third-place position in the House of Commons. It slipped to fourth place in the 2019 federal election, after a resurgence from the Bloc Québécois.
When Was the NDP Formed?
The New Democratic Party (NDP) was founded in Ottawa in 1961 at a convention uniting the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and affiliated unions of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and also New Party clubs. The NDP’s founding leader was Tommy Douglas (1961-71), a long time CCF Premier of Saskatchewan and a Baptist minister. Douglas was a champion of social democracy, and is best known as the father of medicare, after introducing Canada’s first government funded health insurance in Saskatchewan (see Health Policy). He led the first socialist government elected in Canada and, after serving as premier for 17 years, made history again as the first leader of the NDP.
Leaders of the NDP
After Tommy Douglas (1961–71), the NDP was led by seven other political figures: David Lewis (leader from 1971–75), Ed Broadbent (1975–89), Audrey Mclaughlin (1989–95), Alexa McDonough (1995–2003), Jack Layton (2003–2011), Thomas Mulcair (2012–2017) and Jagmeet Singh (elected leader in October 2017).
From its founding until 2008, the federal NDP obtained on average 15.6 per cent of the vote in national elections. Such a percentage is sufficient to influence Canadian politics, particularly during minority governments, but is not enough to form either the national government or official opposition. Because of the electoral system, the NDP, like the CCF before it, had consistently received a smaller percentage of the seats in Parliament than its percentage of votes.
In 1988, the party achieved a then-historic high of 43 House of Commons seats, but in the following election of 1993 plummeted to a record low of nine seats. In 2004, Jack Layton, a former Toronto city councillor, led the NDP back to its normal level of voter support, which slowly increased in 2006 (when the NDP won 29 seats) and in 2008 (when the NDP won 37). In the 2011 election, Layton led the NDP to what was described as an “Orange Crush” triumph (named after the NDP’s colours) when the party captured an unprecedented 103 seats (and 30.6 per cent of the vote). Layton and his wife, fellow NDP MP Olivia Chow, moved into Stornoway, the residence of the leader of the Opposition.
Many of the Commons seats captured in 2011 were won in Quebec. This was unusual. Traditionally the West provided the highest number of seats and individual memberships for the party, while the largest number of actual NDP votes traditionally came from Ontario. The NDP was unable to elect an MP from Quebec in a general election until 2011, although it had acquired the occasional Quebec seat via the defection of an MP from another party (1986) or in a by-election (1987).
Provincial NDP Governments
Several provincial branches of the NDP have formed governments. In British Columbia, the NDP ran the province under the following premiers: Dave Barrett (1972-75); Mike Harcourt (1991-96); Glen Clark (1996-99); Dan Miller (1999-2000); Ujjal Dosanjh (2000-01) and John Horgan (July 2017-present).
In Alberta, an NDP government came to power for the first time in 2015 under Rachel Notley (2015-19).
The NDP has had considerable success in Saskatchewan under the following premiers: Tommy Douglas (1944-61); Woodrow Lloyd (1961-64); Allan Blakeney (1971-82); Roy Romanow (1991-2001); Lorne Calvert (2001-07).
In Ontario, Bob Rae (1990-95) was NDP premier. In Nova Scotia, Darrell Dexter was NDP premier (2009-2013). And in Yukon, Tony Penikett (1985-92) and Piers McDonald (1996-2000) ran the territory as NDP premiers.
In domestic affairs, the NDP is committed to a moderate form of socialism and a mixed economy. It favours government planning and public ownership (including Crown corporations and co-operatives), where necessary, to provide jobs and services. The NDP has always been a vigorous exponent of such social security measures as universal medical care, old-age pensions, workers’ compensation and employment insurance as a means to reduce class inequalities. It has called for national dental-care and child-care programs, favoured higher taxes on corporations and the rich and generally favoured greater government expenditures to expand social services.
In recent decades, the federal NDP under Layton and Mulcair targeted the big banks and fees charged to consumers. As the official political voice of labour, the NDP has encouraged trade-union organization. While the CCF advocated strong, federal government, the NDP has been more receptive to provincial rights.
In foreign policy, the NDP has manifested strong pacifist tendencies. While this pacifism lessened somewhat in the 1950s and early 1960s, the party has opposed Canada’s involvement in NATO and NORAD and has called for Canada to become a nuclear-free zone. The NDP has also been uneasy about increased military integration with the United States, believing that this will jeopardize Canadian sovereignty. It has warned of the dangers of the weaponization of space and American lobbying to have Canada join the North American anti-ballistic missile system. The NDP has been highly critical of America’s unilateralism and propensity for military interventions in world politics, and instead favours more peaceful international efforts through the United Nations.
Throughout its history, the NDP has been critical about the high rate of foreign, particularly American, ownership of Canadian industry. Under NDP pressure, the Liberal minority government of Pierre Trudeau introduced the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) in the 1970s. When Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives campaigned for economic integration with the US under the Free Trade Accord (FTA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NDP opposed both agreements.
Rebuilding After 1993
Following its 1993 electoral setback, the federal NDP sought to rebuild organizationally and sponsored policy conferences in an attempt to re-energize itself and its platform. One innovation employed in 1995 was to elect its next leader by means of a two-step process — first involving a direct ballot of party members and affiliated unions and then followed by a national convention. The new leader, Alexa McDonough, led the NDP into the 1997 campaign with the challenge of regaining official parliamentary status for the party. The goal was achieved, but the NDP still remained a distant fourth place in the House of Commons. The 2000 election saw the party slip in both votes and seats, narrowly retaining official party status in Parliament.
After several disappointing elections, party members once more debated the future of social democracy, the party’s organizational structure and its relationship to the labour movement. To facilitate the renewal process, McDonough stepped down as leader. In a 2003 nation-wide direct ballot, individual and affiliated union members elected Layton the new federal NDP leader.
Layton’s victory signalled that the NDP membership wanted a more visible leader better equipped to tackle urban issues and foster links between the party and new social movements. Leading up to the 2004 campaign, the energetic Layton attracted media attention and the party rose in the polls. Some Ottawa reporters joked in the press that Layton never met a camera he did not like. In the 2004 election, the NDP recorded its best vote count in more than a decade (almost doubling its votes to 15.7 per cent) but the number of seats won increased only to 19, significantly less than the party had anticipated.
Nevertheless, in the minority Parliament of 2004/2005, the NDP was able to play a key role. The NDP’s amendment to the Liberal government’s budget generated more spending for infrastructure and social programs. The NDP also successfully lobbied the Liberal government of Paul Martin to resist involvement in the US missile defence system and to pass the same-sex marriage legislation. In the 2006 election, the NDP under Layton continued to make gains in votes and seats. Given the diffusion of power in yet another minority Parliament, the NDP’s role continued to be substantial.
One of the greatest organizational difficulties for the NDP was the 2004 election finances legislation, which virtually eliminated trade union financial contributions to the party that labour co-founded. The legislation strictly limited corporate and union contributions to individual candidates. In 2006, all such contributions were banned. Instead, parties received public funding based on the number of votes they had received in the previous general election. (This subsidy ended in 2015; see Political Party Financing in Canada.)
Another challenge emerged during the 2006 election when Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) president Buzz Hargrove called for union members to vote strategically. He urged unionists and others, where necessary, not to vote NDP, but instead to vote Liberal, in order to stop a Conservative Party victory. The debate continues over the place of Canada’s labour party and the role of trade union members in political action and party politics.
The party continued to make strides in the areas of peacekeeping overseas, environmental issues and amendments to the Clean Air Act, and in the issue of residential schools, which resulted in an apology from the federal government in June 2008. The federal election that year returned the NDP to Ottawa with a stronger team to take on the larger Liberal opposition party and to exert pressure against the Conservative Party. The NDP pushed the Conservatives on issues that included health care wait times, global warming, jobs and affordability. In May 2010, the House of Commons passed the NDP’s Climate Change Accountability Act, which would have made Canada the first to adopt scientific targets to cut climate-changing emissions by 80 per cent before 2050; the bill was voted down in the Senate the following November, but was reintroduced by the NDP in 2011.
Following the 2008 election, the Conservative government opened Parliament with an announcement of temporarily suspending federal employees’ right to strike and denying monetary subsidies for political parties. The leaders of the other three parties responded by announcing that they could not support such measures. Layton, along with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, negotiated terms to form a coalition to replace the Conservatives in the House of Commons. In early December 2008, they signed an accord for an agreement on a coalition government. They were expecting Governor General Michaëlle Jean to replace the Conservatives with the coalition government, rather than dissolve Parliament and call another election. Except for inside Quebec, popular opinion across the nation was opposed to the coalition. Prime Minister Stephen Harper applied to the governor general to prorogue Parliament until January, when he would introduce the new budget; on 4 December, Jean granted his request.
Dion was replaced as leader of the Liberal party by Michael Ignatieff before the issue of a coalition was resolved. Layton, opposing the Conservative budget, urged the Liberal Party to unseat the Conservatives before the coalition expired, but on 28 January 2009 Ignatieff agreed to support the Conservative budget, thereby ending any possibility of a coalition.
In the subsequent March 2011 election, Layton led the NDP to a record number of seats in the House of Commons and the role of official opposition. The party’s success came largely as a result of a breakthrough in Quebec — having entered the race with only one seat in that province, and then winning 59 of the province’s 75 seats.
Layton had announced in February 2010 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Yet he led the NDP through the 2011 election campaign with the same apparent vigour and enthusiasm he had displayed throughout his career. In July 2011 he announced he would be taking a temporary leave from his duties to fight a second cancer, and said that Nycole Turmel would be interim leader. Layton succumbed to the disease only a month later. Thomas Mulcair, a lawyer and former Quebec government Liberal Cabinet minister, was elected the party’s new leader in March 2012.
Mulcair and 2015 Election
Mulcair provided steady leadership, proving an effective performer and questioner in the House of Commons as leader of the Official Opposition. He led the NDP into the 2015 federal election, widely expected to challenge the Conservative hold on power and perhaps form the country’s first NDP government. This belief was bolstered by the unprecedented victory earlier in the year, of the provincial wing of the party in Alberta, a Conservative bastion, where the NDP had been elected to power.
Mulcair and his party ran what they considered a safe campaign, turning away from the NDP’s traditionally activist role and instead wooing moderate, centrist-minded voters by promising — like the Conservatives — a strict adherence to balanced budgets. The effort failed. Canadian voters were ready for change after nine years of Conservative rule, but most threw their support instead behind the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau. The NDP came a distant third in the election, and many of its most prominent MPs were defeated. Its dreams of winning power in Ottawa were once again unfulfilled.
In 2016, Mulcair was ousted when 52 per cent of delegates at the party’s convention in Edmonton voted against his leadership. Mulcair decided to remain in his post until a new leader could be chosen, no later than the fall of 2017. Along with the leadership turmoil, the Edmonton convention further divided the party over a document put forward for debate called the Leap Manifesto, which called for a transition of Canada’s economy away from fossil fuels development, and a ban on new oil and gas pipelines. Although supported by activists both in and outside the party, the Manifesto was deeply unpopular among many Alberta delegates — a newly powerful wing of the party led by Alberta NDP premier Rachel Notley.
On 1 October 2017, Jagmeet Singh was elected as the NDP’s new leader, defeating several sitting party MPs for the position. With no seat in the House of Commons, Singh named another leadership candidate, Quebec MP Guy Caron, as the party’s leader in Parliament. A lawyer from Windsor, ON, and a former NDP member of the Ontario legislature, Singh was the first visible minority (and first Sikh) to lead a major national political party in Canada. In the leadership campaign, Singh denounced the Quebec government’s controversial Bill 62, which would ban Muslim women from giving or receiving public services while wearing a face covering. He also advocated the decriminalization of all illegal drugs, and the reform of Canada’s electoral system (see Electoral Reform in Canada).
One of the most serious challenges facing Singh and the federal NDP was the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Rachel Notley, the NDP premier of Alberta, supported the project. However, John Horgan, the NDP premier of British Columbia, opposed the pipeline. Horgan’s minority government depended on the support of the BC Green Party and was fully committed to halting the pipeline expansion. This conflict put Singh and the federal NDP in a difficult position. For months, Singh tried to remain neutral, calling for a more thorough environmental assessment of the project. However, in May 2018, he announced his opposition, leading Notley to call his position “naive.”
In August 2018, Singh announced that he would run in the Burnaby South by-election in British Columbia. The Vancouver-area riding had been vacant since June, when NDP MP Kennedy Stewart resigned to run for election as mayor of Vancouver (Stewart won the election and became mayor in October 2018). On 25 February 2019, Singh was elected MP for Burnaby South.
2019 Federal Election
On 16 June 2019, Jagmeet Singh and the NDP announced A New Deal for People, the party’s campaign platform for the October federal election. One of its key policies was a national pharmacare program, including prescription drug coverage for all Canadians. The platform also addressed climate change, vowing to end subsidies to gas and oil companies and increase emissions targets. The party also promised to expand cell coverage and broadband Internet and set caps on Internet and cell phone bills in line with global averages. In addition, the NDP platform emphasized affordable housing, including promises to create 30-year terms for CMHC-insured mortgages, which would enable smaller monthly payments for first-time buyers, and construct 500,000 affordable units. The NDP also confirmed its commitment to reconciliation and Indigenous rights and promised improved housing, clean water and education for First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. To help pay for these initiatives, the NDP proposed increasing the corporate tax rate and highest income tax rate, as well as imposing a new one per cent wealth tax on fortunes worth over $20 million.
During the 2019 campaign, Singh announced several new policies aimed at shoring up and enhancing support in Quebec, where polls indicated that Quebecers are largely abandoning the party. Those included a promise for more money for immigrant integration, recognition of the importance of Quebec’s cultural autonomy, and an effective veto over infrastructure projects that have an environmental impact, such as pipelines. Singh also suggested that he could make Quebec — the lone province that has not signed the Canadian Constitution — a signatory, though he did not specify how he would achieve that.
Singh was also criticized — including by some in his own party — for declaring before the election campaign that he would not work with the Conservative government if it won a minority in the election and wanted to look to the party for support for some measures. Critics suggested that he was effectively conceding that the NDP could not win the election itself and said he was also forsaking a potentially valuable bargaining chip in such an event.
At the beginning of the election campaign, Singh and the NDP were virtually tied with Elizabeth May’s Green Party in public opinion polls. However, the New Democrats pulled ahead of the Greens as the election neared, due in large part to Singh’s performance in televised leader debates. This did not, however, translate to success at the polls. While Singh kept his seat in Burnaby South, the NDP was reduced to 24 seats in the House of Commons, dropping to fourth place overall. The party lost all but one of its seats in Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois enjoyed a resurgence. The NDP was also shut out of the Greater Toronto Area, which the Liberals dominated. Despite this, Singh was optimistic about his party’s ability to influence policy in the new Liberal minority government.