Hébert: Quebec unimpressed with the NDP

The numbers are in and they don’t bode well for the NDP in Quebec, regardless of the outcome of the party’s upcoming leadership vote.

The enthusiasm that attended the 2011 orange wave has given way to widespread voter indifference as well as internal discomfort within the province’s depleted NDP ranks.

None of the four candidates has emerged as a panacea for the party’s post-election blues. Many of the province’s New Democrats see little light at the end of the leadership tunnel.

A Léger Marketing poll published this weekend by Le Devoir, the Gazette and the Globe and Mail found 80 per cent of respondents unable or unwilling to state a preference for any of the contenders for Thomas Mulcair’s job. Almost three-quarters professed to have no interest in the NDP campaign.

Under Mulcair in 2015, the party earned 25 per cent of the vote in Quebec and won 16 seats. In the Léger poll, none of his would-be successors came close to that score.

At 16 per cent, MP Guy Caron – the only Quebec candidate in the lineup –fared marginally better than his three out-of-province rivals, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Jagmeet Singh, but still well below the threshold beyond which votes start translating into actual seats.

Voter disaffection with the NDP is reflected in its membership roles. Of the 124,000 members eligible to vote for the next leader, fewer than 5,000, making up a measly 4 per cent of the total, are from Quebec. When the party selected Mulcair to succeed Jack Layton, it had almost three times as many Quebec members.

The 2012 leadership dynamics were strikingly different. Mulcair was – by far – the leading candidate among Quebec New Democrats. Polls showed he was best placed to preserve Layton’s Quebec legacy. With federal power suddenly in their sights, consolidating that legacy was job number one in the minds of most New Democrats, regardless of the region they hailed from.

In this campaign, there is no candidate guaranteed to be competitive in Quebec in 2019 and no prohibitive favourite among the province’s ranks. But there is vocal concern about the NDP’s prospects under one of the contenders. It is increasingly common in the dying days of this campaign to hear some Quebec New Democrats warn that under a turban-wearing Sikh leader, the party will hit a wall in the province.

On Sunday in Montreal, Singh asked the audience attending the campaign’s only French-language debate to look beyond his turban and beard. But the fact is, his identity is a major, and in some instances, the main attraction for many of his supporters.

It is not primarily the ideas and the policies he has put forward in this campaign that have some party members dreaming of a big NDP breakthrough in the more multicultural quarters of Canada.

By all indications, Singh is headed for a strong first-ballot showing on Oct. 1. The number of New Democrats eligible to vote is about the same as in 2012, but 16,000 more of them are from Ontario. The province that is MPP Singh’s base is home to 42 per cent of eligible NDP leadership voters. British Columbia accounts for another 26 per cent.

Singh’s campaign claims it has signed up 47,000 new members, including 30,000 in Ontario.

It would be simplistic to portray the leadership dilemma the New Democrats face this fall as a choice between keeping Quebec in the fold or breaking into the multicultural communities of Canada’s big cities.

Recent history shows it is always risky to prejudge a leadership candidate’s potential, in Quebec or elsewhere.

It was not so long ago that pundits were predicting the Liberals under a leader whose last name is Trudeau would never make a comeback in francophone Quebec. More than a few Quebec Liberals used to believe that. In 2015, the current prime minister beat Stephen Harper, Mulcair and Gilles Duceppe to bring his party to first place and 40 seats in his home-province.

If the past decade has demonstrated anything, it is that no voting pattern is cast in stone, especially in Quebec. But by the same token, it is reductive to assume that an NDP leader issued from a visible minority would necessarily do better in the ethnically diverse quarters of urban Canada than his predecessors.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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