Hébert: Fortunes already fading for new party leaders

On the morning after his party endured a quadruple byelection beating, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had this to offer on Twitter: “Each and every one of us has an inherent self worth. Nurture and grow it. Give it time and love. Build a courageous belief in your own self worth and you will have the strength to overcome any challenge you face.”

Whether a dose of social-media philosophy will provide much solace to a party that has endured diminishing returns since it elected its latest leader is an open question.

The only saving grace for the NDP on Monday was that Singh took a pass on trying to enter the House of Commons via one of the ridings in play, thus avoiding an even more personal defeat.

The downside is that if he wanted to reverse his initial decision to stay out of the House until the 2019 election – possibly because his absence from the parliamentary stage has made him virtually invisible on the national radar – he could be hard-pressed to find a reasonably safe place to run.

It is increasingly fair to ask just how many safe New Democrat seats there are left in the country.

None of the federal ridings in contention this fall was a promising one for the NDP. But Scarborough-Agincourt should have been within the sphere of influence of its rookie leader.

Scarborough is Singh’s birthplace, and his former provincial seat was in the GTA. As recently as 2011, the NDP won a riding whose territory is now part of Scarborough-Agincourt with 40 per cent of the vote.

Six years and two leaders later, there is barely a trace left of the party’s former strength.

On Monday, the New Democrats barely took 5 per cent of the vote in Scarborough-Agincourt, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Bonavista-Burin-Trinity and B.C.’s South Surrey-White Rock.

In Saskatchewan’s Battlefords-Lloydminster, the party finished second, with 13 per cent of the vote. In all cases, the NDP’s share of the vote went down from 2015.

Stacked against the party’s performance in the same ridings at the time of Jack Layton’s last election campaign, the picture is even more dismal. Indeed, the end-of-year polls show the federal NDP deep in third-party territory across the board.

As the Singh-led New Democrats fail to register, the Conservatives under Andrew Scheer are losing long-held seats to the Liberals. The two are not unrelated.

When the party lost Lac-Saint-Jean in October, many rationalized the defeat as the product of a Quebec microclimate that is more auspicious to a native son such as Justin Trudeau than to a relatively obscure Conservative leader from Western Canada.

The NDP had been fading in Quebec before Singh became leader. No one was surprised that it fell 17 points in a byelection that immediately followed his leadership victory.

But Monday’s Conservative loss of South Surrey-White Rock combined with the lacklustre NDP scores points to a larger pattern. The B.C. riding had not elected a Liberal since 1972. And while Trudeau did recruit a popular candidate, the Conservative tasked with holding the riding – Kerry-Lynne Findlay – was a former Harper minister.

Buoyed by two upset byelection victories over the Conservatives this fall and with a solid shot at winning back Outremont from the NDP if and when Thomas Mulcair retires in the new year, few in the Liberal backrooms will lose sleep over the fact that overall, the Conservatives increased their vote share in three of four ridings on Monday.

Scheer cannot win the next general election in the face of a Liberal juggernaut in Quebec and B.C. And he won’t have much of a shot at toppling Trudeau unless the NDP reverses its decline.

The two parties to the left of the CPC are communicating vessels. A lost vote for the New Democrats is almost always a vote gained for the Liberals. It usually takes a split in the non-conservative vote for the Conservatives to win government.

Throughout the fall – Trudeau’s most difficult political season to date – the New Democrats and the Conservatives have been telling themselves that buyer’s remorse was about to catch up to the Liberals.

It seems both opposition parties had been inhaling their own question period fumes.

In the end, the only seeds of buyer’s remorse that may have been planted in the mid-mandate byelections would pertain to the opposition’s leadership choices.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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