Diverging Paths? Why Manitoba Still Likes the NDP, and Saskatchewan Doesn't

Article excerpt

In 2007, New Democratic Party governments in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan faced their electorates, and the two elections produced different outcomes. The results in the party's historical heartland have much to say about where the NDP has come from, and where it might be going.

Electoral successes for social democrats have occurred chiefly at the provincial level and in western Canada. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the precursor to the NDP, achieved its first major electoral breakthrough in the 1944 Saskatchewan provincial election by winning 53 per cent of the vote and 47 of 52 seats. (1) In his groundbreaking study Agrarian Socialism, Seymour Martin Lipset demonstrated that the party was a direct outgrowth of wheat-growing agrarianism and the cooperative movement. Its supporters believed that progress, whether it consists of building local schools or gaining marketing control over farm products, is best achieved when individuals work together as a community rather than in competition. (2)

With support from farm communities across the province, the CCF held power in Saskatchewan until 1964 when it was defeated by Ross Thatcher's Liberals. In contrast, a much more urban-oriented CCF-NDP in Manitoba had to wait until 1969 and the advent of its new leader Edward Schreyer to make an electoral breakthrough. It did so by winning support among working-class voters in Winnipeg and reaching into comparatively less prosperous rural regions and the province's northern hinterland.

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In both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the NDP has achieved a record of success in recent decades that is unmatched by any other party. By 2007, the Manitoba NDP had held power in 23 out of 38 years since it first took power in 1969: the Schreyer years of 1969-77, the Howard Pawley years of 1981-88 and Gary Doer's administration since 1999. Similarly, in Saskatchewan since 1971, when Allan Blakeney and the NDP took back power from the Liberals, the NDP governed for 27 out of 36 years: the Blakeney government of 1971-82, the Roy Romanow years of 1991-2001 (Romanow retired while holding office) and the Lorne Calvert administration of 2001-7.

With its shift to relying on votes in Regina and Saskatoon, the Saskatchewan NDP has come to resemble the Manitoba NDP more closely by becoming a much more urban party. And as in Manitoba's rural farmland regions where voters support the Progressive Conservatives en masse, Saskatchewan's rural voters now chiefly elect right-of-centre Saskatchewan Party candidates to the legislature. (3) Since the early 1990s, rural electors in both provinces (except those in the northern hinterlands) have also been sending Reform Party and Conservative Party candidates to the House of Commons in Ottawa. An examination of recent polling data casts light on who supports the NDP in both provinces and the shifting nature of young voters and women within the two provincial electorates.

Boom times

It is common wisdom that governing parties are reelected when times are good and lose power when times are tough. Manitoba, with positive economic numbers in 2007, appeared to follow this rule. The province's mining, agriculture and energy sectors were generally doing well, as were both the service and manufacturing sectors. During the month prior to the May election, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Manitoba was at 4.8 per cent compared to the national figure of 6.1 per cent, while residential building permits for the months of January to March (based on year-over-year numbers), had increased by 20 per cent compared to the national growth rate of 7 per cent. (4) According to a 2007 Probe Research/Myers Norris Penny/Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce poll conducted a few months after the election, even the business community was upbeat. The results revealed that 57 per cent of senior business leaders in the province believed that their companies would be performing better in the coming year, while 35 per cent said things would remain the same and only 7 per cent reported that their business would get worse. …