The confidence vote last Wednesday was a marked departure from the NDP’s strategy of trading support for concrete objectives in government legislation. It could signal the beginning of Jagmeet Singh’s push to differentiate the NDP policy platform from the Liberals in advance of the next election.
The vote itself was well framed by the Liberals. Knowing the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois wouldn’t support the government on the confidence vote, the Liberals sought to box the NDP into an awkward choice: force Canadians to the polls for an election during a pandemic or side with the government. Jagmeet Singh admitted as much when he said at a press conference before the confidence vote that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hadn’t even tried to negotiate for a promise of NDP support. Despite that, the NDP voted against the Conservative motion, avoiding an election.
Singh presented his choice to avoid a snap election as a valiant attempt to protect public safety and keep Parliament working. He also pointed out that it wasn’t the NDP who made the opposition day motion into a matter of confidence. Whether or not there actually was an agreement between the two parties before the vote, Singh’s comments sounded like appeasement — a concession of principles based on an aversion to conflict. So why didn’t the NDP want to step into the ring on October 21?
The New Democrats know that they may well determine when the next election happens, and it puts the party in an interesting place, especially if the government continues to stonewall them on confidence negotiations. While holding the balance of power in Parliament when the government is willing to negotiate can be an effective way for an opposition party to advance its policy agenda, it also risks the party losing the defining features of its platform and brand. If the NDP continues to support the government to avoid going to the polls, the party could get the space and time it needs to set and promote its own policy platform before the next election. The strategy of voting to keep Parliament functioning while harshly criticizing the government’s policy response to the pandemic could help to differentiate the NDP from the leftish Liberals before Singh—or someone else—pulls the plug on the 43rd Parliament.
The NDP could pick the confidence motion following the fall economic update as the right time for that strategy to culminate. John Ivison reported that Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is using public concern over government spending to manage expectations around the Cabinet table ahead of the economic update. There could be an opportunity for the progressive party to draw a line in the sand and criticize a lack of investment in some long established NDP policy objectives like pharmacare, childcare, support for vulnerable people, or a wealth tax. It could be seen as an opportunity to differentiate the party’s brand from the governing Liberals, having succeeded in pressuring the government to adopt its own objectives, from sick leave to matching the amended Employment Insurance system to Canada Emergency Response Benefit payment amounts. However, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has signalled his party is focused on the forthcoming Liberal budget, expected in early 2021. This could be the opportunity for the NDP to take up new fights, adding big ideas to its policy agenda.