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Battleground BC

The New Democratic Party: A Look Back

Will traditional NDP supporters who’ve abandoned the party return in 2005?

By Will McMartin, 11 May 2005,

British Columbia's New Democratic Party, handed its worst-ever defeat in 2001, aims for a breath-taking comeback to government in 2005. Is it possible, or likely? Battleground BC offers a two-part analysis of the NDP: today, the party's history in provincial and federal general elections; tomorrow, the NDP and 'polarization.'

The New Democratic Party's electoral history in British Columbia dates to 1933, when its predecessor the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation first contested a provincial general election. Over the past 72 years, the CCF-NDP offered candidates in 41 general elections in B.C. - 20 provincial tilts and 21 federal. The party's average popular-vote in all of those battles was 31.7%, or about one-in-every-three voters.

It is extremely difficult to win a majority of seats with the support of just one-third of voters. Indeed, the CCF-NDP captured a majority of B.C. ridings just four times: provincially in 1972 (38 of 55), 1991 (51 of 75) and 1996 (39 of 75); and federally in 1988 (19 of 32).

The party also gained a plurality of seats on four more occasions, all in federal tilts: 1962 (10 of 22), 1963 and 1965 (nine of 22 in both), and 1972 (11 of 23).

These eight provincial and federal general elections, out of 41 tilts, are the only occasions when B.C. voters have made the CCF-NDP the province's dominant political entity. Historically-minded readers will have noted, however, that all eight of these 'victories' occurred after 1961, the year when the CCF was transformed into the New Democratic Party. It is evident, therefore, that the NDP's electoral record is much better than that of the CCF. (Those who suggest the NDP should review its formal alliance with organized labour might want to study the party's electoral record without trade union affiliation.) Let's look at three distinct periods of CCF-NDP electoral history in British Columbia.

The first period covers the life of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Founded in Calgary in 1932, the CCF adopted its electoral platform - the Regina Manifesto - the following year at the party's inaugural convention. A few months later, in B.C.'s 1933 provincial general election, the CCF captured 31.5% of the vote and seven legislative seats. In 1935, in its first federal tilt, the party took 33.6% and elected three Members of Parliament from B.C..

This was an astoundingly successful launch for a new political party, but it marked a high-water mark of sorts. The B.C. CCF failed to enlarge its initial vote-share in the next six federal general elections, and did so in just three of eight subsequent provincial contests.

The 1940s saw a number of positive developments in B.C. and across Canada. In the 1941 provincial general election, the CCF garnered more votes than any other party, but finished with seven fewer seats than the Liberals. The Grits promptly fashioned a coalition government with the Conservatives, and the free-enterprise administration remained in power for more than a decade. In 1944, Tommy Douglas led the CCF to victory in Saskatchewan, thereby forming the first socialist government in Canada - and North America. It seemed inevitable that the party would soon triumph in other provinces as well.

But the CCF stumbled in the 1950s. To be sure, the party again topped the polls in B.C.'s 1952 general election, but with one-less seat than W.A.C. Bennett's Social Credit party, the socialists remained stuck on the opposition benches. In 1956, the CCF sunk to just 28.3% of the popular vote, its lowest-ever vote share in a provincial general election. The situation was even worse on the federal scene. Over three successive general elections in the '50s, the CCF won support from fewer than one-in-four B.C. voters. Douglas continued to win elections in Saskatchewan, but success in other provinces proved elusive. Change was in order.

The second phase of the party's history began in 1961 when the CCF entered a formal affiliation with organized labour and created the New Democratic Party. It was an alliance that proved popular with voters in B.C. and elsewhere over the next three decades.

Thirty percent or more of B.C. voters supported the NDP in every federal general election from the party's founding until the end of the 1980s. The apex was reached in 1988, Canada's 'free-trade' election, when the New Democrats captured 37% of the vote and won 19 of B.C.'s 32 seats.

The NDP also recorded impressive gains in provincial elections during this period. After enjoying support from an average of 32% of voters in four elections in the 1960s, the party soared to 39.6% in 1972 and captured a majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly.

Led by Dave Barrett, B.C.'s first socialist government was the third NDP administration in western Canada, as Manitoba in 1969 had followed Saskatchewan's lead. The Barrett government lasted but a single term in government, but its vote-share in the 1975 defeat was 39.2%, just fractionally lower than the victory mark attained three years earlier. The NDP's vote-share would go even higher in the next four general elections, surpassing the two-in-five level as British Columbia became 'polarized' between the centre-left NDP and centre-right Social Credit party. The New Democrats hit a record-high 46% in 1979, then 44.9% in 1983, and 42.6% in 1986.

But polarization, while boosting the NDP's vote-share, also kept Social Credit in power for 16 years. It was only when the right-wing vote fractured in 1991 that Mike Harcourt was able to lead the NDP to their second-ever victory in B.C. with 40.5%.

The NDP's third phase saw a marked deterioration in party fortunes in B.C. and across the country. Ontario in 1990 became the fourth province to elect a New Democratic Party administration, but premier Bob Rae was quickly confronted by a severe economic recession. The government's finances deteriorated badly as Rae and his colleagues attempted to spend their way to prosperity, and Ontario voters handed the NDP a crushing defeat in 1995. Later that year in B.C., the New Democrats mired in a seemingly never-ending party scandal, Harcourt announced his resignation as premier.

With increasingly-unpopular NDP governments in Canada's two-largest English-speaking provinces, perhaps it was inevitable that the party's federal wing would feel voters' wrath in the 1993 general election, but the results were shocking nonetheless.

From a historic-high of 41 Commons seats won in 1988, the New Democrats plummeted to just nine five years later.

In B.C., the result was near-disastrous. The party fell to a minuscule 16.5% of the popular vote and lost all but two of its 19 MPs.

The next two federal elections were similarly dismal. In 1997 the B.C. New Democrats won three seats with 18.2% of the vote, and then in 2000 sunk to two seats with a historic-low of just 11.3%.

A resurgence of sorts was recorded in 2004, as the NDP captured five B.C. seats in the House of Commons with 26.6%.

The only bright spot in the period for the provincial New Democrats occurred when Harcourt's successor, Glen Clark, took his party to a surprising, come-from-behind re-election victory in 1996. Clark's NDP captured 39 of 75 seats with a bare 39.5% of the vote.

But New Democrats' euphoria was short-lived. Clark resigned from office under a cloud of scandal in 1999, and two years later the party was nearly obliterated at the polls. In its worst-ever provincial performance, the NDP won just two legislative seats with a paltry 21.6% of the popular vote.

To review. From 1933 to 1961, the CCF usually won support from slightly less than one-in-three voters, and remained on the province's opposition benches. Then, from 1961 to 1991, the NDP vote-share increased both federally and provincially, and on four occasions in the latter arena surpassed the 40% mark. Twice, in 1972 and 1991, the New Democrats were elected to government.

But from 1991 to the present, the B.C. New Democrats recorded their worst-ever electoral performances, with fleeting relief provided by Clark's upset victory in 1996. So the questions loom. Has British Columbia's New Democratic Party turned the corner on the dismal 1990s? Can the NDP regain the giddy heights of the 1970s and 1980s when it was winning 40%-plus of the popular vote?

Will traditional NDP supporters who abandoned the party in droves over the past decade, return in 2005? Does the party offer a home for new Canadians and young voters? Is the party about to enter a fourth phase of history?

The answers to these and other questions may be answered on May 17. But from the historical perspective, a majority government so soon after the dismal 1990s and the 2001 debacle seems a leap too far. More likely is a return to the opposition benches with an enlarged caucus.

Check here daily for Battleground BC, Will McMartin's voting predictions and analysis, exclusive to The Tyee. You can reach him with tips, insights and info at  [Tyee]