The NDP is conducting a review of its national campaign to find out what happened with its ground game, which left the party with limited gains and in fourth place despite throwing $25 million into the pot to burnish its appeal.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s campaign tour followed a planned path to grow the caucus, visiting 51 mostly Liberal-held or Conservative-held ridings. But the NDP is increasing its 24-seat count by only one seat.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t elect more MPs … and that we did not significantly increase the size of our caucus, because that was the goal,” said Anne McGrath, the NDP’s national director, in an interview with CBC News.
Some New Democrats want accountability, because they feel they lacked resources and training at the riding level to get the vote out.
“People talked about an orange wave coming, but the reality was there was no work being done on the ground,” said Jessa McLean, the riding association president of York–Simcoe NDP in Ontario.
“There was nobody out there making sure that people who needed drives to the polls could do that, reminding them to get to the advance polls, to get to the final day, telling them how to do the mail-in ballots, walking them through it.”
Calls for change in leadership
McLean, who ran unsuccessfully for NDP president earlier this year, said she wants McGrath to resign.
“If they keep her on, it’s to put another checkmark beside this horrible strategy that saw us essentially lose ground,” McLean said. “She has to go.”
If the NDP’s strategy doesn’t change, McLean said, Singh should also step aside.
“If we just pour everything into his image, where will we be when he does leave,” McLean said.
CBC News put those concerns to McGrath, who said that she has no plans to step down and that Singh isn’t going anywhere.
“There is a special level of vitriol reserved for women in leadership positions in this country,” McGrath said. “In my experience, it sometimes takes a few elections for things to gel.”
McGrath, who was chief of staff to the former NDP Leader Jack Layton, noted that she went through four elections over the span of nearly a decade before triggering an orange wave that propelled into the role of Official Opposition by winning 103 seats in the 2011 vote.
She said Singh has grown as a leader since running in the 2019 federal election.
McGrath also noted that the NDP increased its share of the popular vote, from 16 per cent in 2019, to nearly 18 per cent in this election. She believes the party is laying the foundation for growth.
‘More needs to be done to support local ridings’
But McGrath also believes a lack of on-campus voting, long line-ups for the ballot box and fewer polling station locations — some absent from Indigenous communities — suppressed the NDP vote.
“Part of the reason for having the election at this time was to keep the turnout numbers low in order to re-elect the incumbent government,” McGrath said.
“I do believe that young voters and Indigenous voters, in particular, were disenfranchised.”
McGrath said NDP fundraising is still strong and she feels confident the party will have the finances to put up a fight in the next election.
WATCH | NDP tries to get out the vote using TikTok
But McLean said NDP donations in York–Simcoe, a Conservative stronghold, ran dry after the party had to battle first in a February 2019 byelection, then the October 2019 election. She said the riding’s resources were still depleted by the time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the August election call this year.
McLean said her riding can usually rely on Elections Canada campaign-expense reimbursements — money that commonly flows to candidates and helps electoral district associations or ridings — but New Democrat headquarters kept all the rebates in 2019 and again this year.
McLean said money is usually raised at nomination meetings, but her riding failed to hold one before the snap election was called for Sept. 20.
“We were left with almost no funds to start off this campaign, and we didn’t find out who our candidate would be until a week into the campaign,” McLean said.
“By the time we went to our members and said, ‘Oh, we have a candidate now,’ we looked completely unorganized. We didn’t look like something that people wanted to plug money into.”
The decision to keep Elections Canada campaign rebates was made by the NDP’s federal council.
“We do take the rebates to be able to run an effective central campaign,” McGrath said. “But I do agree that more needs to be done to support local ridings.”
Why didn’t likes appear to translate into votes?
Gabriel Masi, co-president of Jeunes NPD du Québec, said he would like to see the NDP grow its on-campus presence and thinks the party needs new young leadership at the top.
Having said that, Masi said the NDP’s success in the future depends on Singh.
“If we didn’t have a leader that people saw as a great person, I don’t even think we would’ve done how we did,” Masi said.
“It is incredibly dangerous to remove someone who is this popular.”
WATCH | NDP targets youth vote
Other New Democrats, who spoke to CBC, said they also support Singh, but they want him to spend more time talking about his plan and policies rather than attacking Trudeau.
They said they feel the party didn’t pitch enough bold, progressive ideas to motivate voters, such as offering free post-secondary education or nationalizing telecoms.
Many New Democrats also believe strategic voting played against them, particularly in places such as the Greater Toronto Area, where the NDP was shut out.
Nearly half of the NDP’s $25 million campaign budget was dedicated to advertisements, social media and online.
Although the strategy didn’t appear to result in a surge of new votes, Masi believes it was money well spent, especially in countering the prejudices some people may have against Singh.
“His image was an asset to us,” Masi said.
“We got a lot of comments from people in the Montreal-area saying I really like him, he’s personable.”
In the future, Masi said the party should take some of the money dedicated to social media and invest it in getting out the vote.
“The ground game organizing has to start now and we have to make sure that we have that local infrastructure,” Masi said.