Or, why Jack Layton has been a miserable failure
In conversing with my friend Harrap by e-mail, we realized that we were on the same view with respect to Jack Layton's tenure as leader of the NDP. That is to say, it hasn't been as good as the NDP or the media have portrayed it. Harrap is in the process of doing an "electoral assessment" of each of the parties and the NDP is coming up next. He is going to talk about Bill Blaikie and how he should have been leader of the NDP. I would argue that Blaikie, though probably better than Layton, would not be as good of a choice as Lorne Nystrom.
So, why do I think Layton has been such a failure for the NDP when he has had such "strong" showings in the past two elections?
Let us take a look at the history of NDP (and its forerunner the CCF) in general elections:
1935 - 7/245 or 2.9% of the seats
1940 - 8/245 or 3.3%
1945 - 28/245 or 11.4%
1949 - 13/262 or 5.0%
1953 - 23/265 or 8.7%
1957 - 25/265 or 9.4%
1958 - 8/265 or 3.0%
1962 - 19/265 or 7.2%
1963 - 17/265 or 6.4%
1965 - 17/265 or 6.4%
1968 - 22/264 or 8.3%
1972 - 31/264 or 11.7%
1974 - 16/264 or 6.1%
1979 - 26/282 or 9.2%
1980 - 32/282 or 11.3%
1984 - 30/282 or 10.6%
1988 - 43/295 or 14.6%
1993 - 9/295 or 3.1%
1997 - 21/301 or 7.0%
2000 - 13/301 or 4.3%
2004 - 19/308 or 6.2%
2006 - 29/308 or 9.4%
So, in terms of proportion of the House of Commons, Jack Layton's best showing in 2006, we was about the same as Ed Broadbent's first and worst attempt. Now let us look at the broader picture:
Here are the rankings with interesting notes added:
01 - 1988, 14.6% - Tories hold majority
02 - 1972, 11.7% - Liberals slip to minority
03 - 1945, 11.4% - Liberals slip to minority
04 - 1980, 11.3% - Liberals win narrow majority
05 - 1984, 10.6% - Tories win large majority
06 - 1957, 09.4% (9.43396) - Tories win narrow minority
07 - 2006, 09.4% (9.41558) - Tories win narrow minority
08 - 1979, 09.2% - Tories win narrow minority
09 - 1953, 08.7% - Liberals hold government with smaller majority
10 - 1968, 08.3% - Liberals win move from minority to majority
11 - 1962, 07.2% - Tories slip from massive majority to minority
12 - 1997, 07.0% - Liberals slip to narrow majority
13 (tie) - 1963, 06.4% - Liberals regain power with minority
13 (tie) - 1965, 06.4% - Liberals retain minority
14 - 2004, 06.2% - Liberals slip to minority
15 - 1974, 06.1% - Liberal regain majority, David Lewis resigned for poor showing
16 - 1949, 05.0% - Liberals win massive majority
17 - 2000, 04.3% - Liberals win large majority
18 - 1940, 03.3% - Liberals win large majority
19 - 1993, 03.1% - Liberals win large majority
20 - 1958, 03.0% - Tories win largest majority in history
21 - 1935, 02.9% - first election attempt
You'll notice that when the Liberals do well the NDP tends to do poorly and vice versa. In fact the top 9 showings are in cases of Tory wins or Liberals going into a subsequent term while losing seats. Thus, the 2004 and 2006 elections were ideal scenarios for the NDP yet Layton managed only the 7th and 14th best showings (out of 21 elections). This is not good.
A look at the ridings since 1979, shows that the NDP has actually won in a remarkable 74 different ridings! And there has been very limited growth for the NDP, in the past few elections they have merely been winning back seats that they had held in their stronger years of the past. In 2004, Layton picked up only one new seat (Hamilton Centre, although Windsor West, won in a by-election when Alex McDonough was still leader, was won for the first time at a general election). In 2006, he did somewhat better - in picking up 10 seats, 6 had never been won by the NDP before, though most were in areas where past lessons show they would be likely lost if the tides were to turn.
Layton's biggest failure has been his inability to appeal to the NDP base. This has always been the rural prairie. In a remarkable turn of events, Saskatchewan, which with BC returned a majority of its MPs wearing orange in 1988, and elected 5 of 9 NDP MPs in their disasterous result of 1993, has completely shut out the NDP in both of Layton's elections as leader.
History shows the NDP surges in cities when they are on the rise, but then lose all of those seats when the Liberals do well. Layton has eliminated the NDP rural base and, as a result, they may well be completely wiped out the next time the Liberals come to power. Moreover, Layton's "slick" appeal to urban voters is over stated, he has done no better in cities than the NDP has done in other good elections like 1945, 1972, 1984 and 1988.
The NDP would have been wiser to chose someone like Lorne Nystrom, who held a rural Saskatchewan seat from 1968 to 1993 for the NDP and then, after the 1993 disaster, was easily elected in an urban-rural Saskatchewan seat in 1997 and 2000 before Layton's leadership resulted in the aforementioned NDP shutouts in Saskatchewan. At the same time Nystrom had a common man's touch with the intellectual edge that urban voters value. With the ideal scenarios that 2004 and 2006 presented, the NDP, if led properly, should have a minimum of 50 seats today.
What a shame.