NDP leader’s promise of prairie breakthrough not as audacious as it sounds

On the face of it, Thomas Mulcair’s vow that he can revive NDP fortunes on the Prairies in 2015 seems implausible.

The NDP leader is a crusty Montreal lawyer and academic, critic of western resource development, a two-term NDP MP and a leader with little obvious connection to the Prairies or rural Canada.

Is he really the answer to the NDP’s 25 year drought on the Prairies?

Actually, without predicting a massive prairie voter migration to the NDP from the Conservatives in 2015 when the next election is held, there is reason to predict he may be partly correct.

More about that later.

First, a bit about the federal NDP leader who was the most successful on the Prairies in the party’s 50 year history.

No, it wasn’t that Baptist preacher from Weyburn, Sask., who was Sask-atchewan premier for 17 years, the first NDP leader when it was formed in 1961 and lionized as a Canadian hero.

Tommy Douglas bombed as leader on the Prairies.

In 1962, he lost his own Regina seat and the NDP was shut out of Sask-atchewan through three elections until a breakthrough in 1968 when six MPs were elected, making the Prairie total nine.

It wasn’t Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin, who despite her rural background didn’t get the party beyond six seats on the Prairies.

And it wasn’t Jack Layton, who led the party to a massive Quebec breakthrough in 2011 but never snagged a Saskatchewan seat in his four elections as leader and never more than five prairie seats.

Instead, the most successful federal NDP leader on the Prairies was a tweedy Toronto university professor who held a heavily urban and unionized seat in Oshawa, Ont.

Ed Broadbent led the party from 1975 to 1989, and during those years, it achieved an historic 14 prairie seats in 1980 and an historic 10 seats in Saskatchewan in 1988.

Broadbent’s leadership played an unknown role in those results, but it happened under his watch — an un-prairie guy who nonetheless had candidates and a campaign that connected.

The point is that being a central Canadian academic politician in no way need be an impediment to winning prairie seats for the party.

So what about Mulcair’s dream of ending the four-election seat drought in Saskatchewan?

The good news for him is that a mandatory redrawing of federal riding boundaries before the 2015 election means Saskatchewan will have several urban-dominated ridings that in the last two elections would have elected New Democrats if the boundaries had been the same.

Besides, the party is making a concerted effort to connect with western voters through the Lethbridge Declaration process of consulting.

Little of this relates to the rural Prairies that have been overwhelmingly Reform and Conservative since 1993. The opportunity seems to lie in the growing urban and immigrant populations of the West.

Still, veteran Winnipeg New Democrat Pat Martin makes a good point. Voters get tired of being taken for granted with their votes added to the party total before the vote is called.

It happened on the Prairies in 1993 when upstart Reform swept away a Tory stranglehold that had existed since John Diefenbaker’s day.

In 2011, the NDP swept away the Bloc Québécois that had dominated the province for 18 years.

Those examples give the NDP some hope for 2015 on the Prairies.

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