In Newfoundland and Labrador, they are tied with the governing Tories and their leader is more popular than the premier. In P.E.I., their support is growing and has moved them into second place in the only public poll. They are building in New Brunswick with a new leader. In Nova Scotia,they already run the joint.
After generations spent on the political margins, the NDP looks like it has finally arrived as a serious player in provincial politics across Atlantic Canada, from the Quebec border in the west to the eastern tip of Newfoundland.
It’s no longer any big deal in Nova Scotia, where the Orange Crush won a smashing majoritygovernment in the summer of 2009. Premier Darrell Dexter has since governedfrom the middle, building relationships with business and promising fiscal probity.
The NDP has been a player for quite a while in Nova Scotia and while it might be sorelytested in the election expected later this year, it’s not going away. The formerly socialistic party has moderated its policies, patiently built support over many elections and has benefited from demographic trends.
As people have become better educated and incomes have risen, albeit slowly, the NDP’s voting base has changed. It’s no longer just a party of labour unions and social activists. That coalition was never a winning election base because for alltheir bluster, unions and pressure groups are bad at delivering votes.
Rather than a party of unions it has become a party of many union members but also managers, soccer moms and urbanites. These voters all have one thing in common: theirhighest priority is their own economic situation and that of their families. The NDP has worked hard to cast itself as the family party and the one closest to the hearts of young people.
I think it’s fair to say that the NDP has changed along with the voting population. That’s what has transformed it from little better than a fringe party 20 years ago to the mature political force that it is today.
Across Atlantic Canada, today’s NDP voter is less likely to be a coal miner or paper maker and more likely to be a fairly well-educated public servant or small business employee.
It’s no flash in the pan. Along with its majority on the provincial level, Nova Scotia NDP candidates won more than 30 per cent of the vote in the 2011 federal election. It won three seats and came second in another three, according to figures compiled on the very useful Pundits Guide to Canadian Federal Elections, www.punditsguide.ca.
The party put in a similar showing in Newfoundland and Labrador, where it took a third of the popular vote and elected two out of seven MPs. It only took one seat in NewBrunswick in 2011, when Conservatives dominated, but it won about 30 per cent of the vote and ran second in six ridings.
The NDP didn’t do nearly as well in P.E.I. in the federal vote. But provincially, it has an opening with the chaos that has been created within the PC caucus. The messy overthrow of former leader Olive Crane suggests the Tories have problems that can be exploited if the NDP plays its cards right.
Those cards are pretty similar to the ones played so strategically by the party’s cousins in Nova Scotia, where they also exploited a Tory collapse. There are economic and labour force similarities too.
In P.E.I., public service is the second-largest sector of the economy. Employment in the provincial bureaucracy grew by almost 20 per cent between 2000 and 2011. Not surprisingly, public servants are not hostile to parties that see value in government programs and services. That benefits the NDP.
And rather than aging into small-c conservatives, baby boomers mostly have retained their mildly progressive views on politics and society. They don’t vote the way their parents did, but they do vote and are comfortable with progressive politics.
Stars like Megan Leslie, Peter Stoffer and Darrell Dexter in Nova Scotia and Jack Harris in Newfoundland have shown the way for emerging candidates. Like them or loathe them, the East Coast Dippers are here to stay.
Dan Leger is a Halifax-based writer and commentator. Twitter: @Dantheeditor.