Op-Ed: The fight ahead of the NDP
The following is an op-ed written by Christopher Adams, Rector of St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba and a past pollster who has worked as a vice-president with the Angus Reid Group and more recently with Probe Research. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 21.
Regardless of what happens in the April 19 provincial election, and whether or not Manitoba’s New Democratic Party will go down to defeat, the party can count on support from its “two norths.”
The first north consists of the ethnically diverse, low-income constituencies in or near Winnipeg’s North End where labour-affiliated MLAs have been elected for more than 100 years.
The NDP’s second north is made up of mining towns and fishing and indigenous communities. Since Ed Schreyer’s unexpected breakthrough for the NDP in 1969, northern Manitoba has consistently supported the NDP.
The importance of the two norths cannot be understated. When the NDP was relegated to third-party status in the 1988 provincial election, even Schreyer expressed to others that this must be the end of the NDP as a major political force in Manitoba. Yet even at this very low point, the party held onto the North End and all of its northern seats. Rather than annihilation, the NDP went into a brief hibernation, came back as the official Opposition in 1990 and eventually formed the government in 1999.
Everyone knows the NDP is now in trouble, and if the polls are correct, it is doubtful they can win what would be for Manitoba an unprecedented fifth straight majority victory. And there are clear signs the NDP has lost what political analyst Jeffrey Simpson would call the “discipline of power.” Close to a third of NDP MLAs are not running again, while less than one-sixth of the sitting PC MLAs have declined to run again.
Last year’s caucus divisions and challenges to the premier’s authority took their toll. And its impact continues to be felt; Andrew Swan is the only one of the so-called Gang of Five seeking re-election. During the crucial pre-election phase, the premier has been taken off his game plan repeatedly, such as when he needed to defend his star candidate in Fort Rouge, Wab Kinew, when problematic social-media materials came to light. As well, he had to deal with continuing dissent among caucus members, including outgoing Flin Flon MLA Clarence Pettersen’s very public attack in the legislature on Steve Ashton’s ethics, and last month when fellow MLA Dave Gaudreau stormed out of caucus after telling the premier he is hated by voters.
Combine all this with ongoing fallout from the premier’s decision to increase the PST and expanding budget deficits, and it is hard to believe the NDP can turn things around in less than six weeks.
How bad are the polls? Last week Forum Research showed the NDP having only 22 per cent support among eligible voters, less than half of the 46 per cent they achieved in the 2011 election. Meanwhile, the PCs are at 46 per cent, a slight increase of two points from 2011, and the surging Liberals are at 23 per cent, up from just under eight per cent in 2011.
In Winnipeg, with 31 of 57 constituencies, the NDP is behind both the PCs and Liberals, scoring 25 per cent compared to the PCs at 40 per cent and the Liberals at 26 per cent. Other polls show the NDP just slightly ahead of the Liberals.
The way back for the NDP is to hold their support in the two norths, which they will probably do, and win back support in the swing constituencies that border on the northern portion of the province: Dauphin, Interlake and Gimli. But they also need to win back urban voters, especially women, to keep seats in south and west Winnipeg.
The most recent Forum Research poll shows NDP support among women is now at 23 per cent across the province. This is a drastic decline from 51 per cent during the October 2011 election, based on a Probe Research poll conducted for the Free Press.
Since Gary Doer’s NDP victory in 1999, the NDP has taken what many used to consider safe PC seats in south Winnipeg, largely because of support from middle-class female voters. In 2016, the PCs have nominated a large number of credible female candidates in winnable Winnipeg seats, and with a surging Liberal party led by a woman, the NDP’s chances of winning back sufficient support to hold onto seats such as St. Vital, Fort Richmond, Southdale and St. Norbert, among others, are declining.
It is worth remembering much can change during an election. Concluding who won the game based on the score in the first period of a hockey game, or even at the end of the second period, can be risky. In the 2012 Alberta election, everyone predicted Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party would defeat then-premier Allison Redford’s PCs. The PCs won. In the B.C. 2013 election every single poll throughout the election had Adrian Dix’s NDP defeating Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals. The Liberals won. And last summer, readers will recall Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were in third place, behind both the Conservatives and the NDP.
Election-time advertising, candidate-related mistakes, leadership debates and the discovery of skeletons in closets can all have an impact. We will see April 19 whether or not the NDP reverts to its northern habitats or surprises the pollsters and pundits.