A PROBE poll of Manitobans conducted in early December produced an early Christmas present for NDP Leader Wab Kinew. Only a few months after the results of the 2019 provincial election rolled in, the NDP saw a respectable boost among Manitobans. Its support has increased to 36 per cent.
The NDP still trails Premier Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative Party, which stands at 42 per cent. However, the PCs’ support has declined since the election, whereas Kinew’s support has gone up.
The poll adds to the sense that the 2019 election returned Manitoba to normal competitive politics, which is dominated by the PCs and the NDP but also features two minor parties, the Liberals and the Greens. Brandon University political scientist Kelly Saunders argues the poll reinforced that the "generational shunning" many thought would be brought against the NDP after its resounding defeat in 2016 has not materialized.
Kinew will face a mandatory leadership vote in 2020, but appears confident he can survive it. This confidence is likely justified: there appears to be little grumbling in the party over his performance.
Further, Kinew’s new caucus appears much less restive than the group he inherited from former premier Greg Selinger when he became leader in 2017. Without the need to fight back against leadership challengers or keep his caucus in line, Kinew will be able to focus on tailoring a message and prepping his party organization for a run in the next election.
This will be important, especially if, as is widely expected, Pallister steps down as PC leader before the next election. While a leadership race might create division and open old wounds in the PC coalition, it will also generate excitement and attract interest. A new leader will make it easier for the party to present itself as fresh and reinvigorated when it tries for a third consecutive win in the next provincial election.
Reflecting on Probe’s recent polls, Saunders argued that "the NDP has a good foundation on which to build, especially if they can really carve out their messaging." This raises the question: what kind of alternative will the NDP present in the next election? What is Kinew’s vision for the province?
Effective messaging is a challenging long-term project for modern political parties. Parties must decide where their outreach efforts are to be directed and then develop themes designed to help them reach voters. They then must consistently, relentlessly stick to those themes over time. That means whenever the NDP issues a press release over the next two years, it should speak back in some way to the party’s core themes.
The same is true of question period in the legislature. While it is important for the opposition to hold the government to account, the NDP needs to ensure that the ways in which it grills Pallister’s Tories are consistent with its own goals and aims.
Tory woes in the health-care sector, for example, were a gift to Kinew and the NDP in the last election campaign. Health care was (and will likely continue to be) a winning issue for the NDP, both because of Tory vulnerabilities following the government’s earlier efforts at reorganization and because focusing on health care allows the NDP to effectively target middle-class voters, especially women, in the suburban Winnipeg seats it will have to win in order to form government.
Kinew demonstrated in the last election that he can stay ruthlessly focused on the themes that benefit him. In that campaign, he refused to be distracted from his focus on health care. His advisers are likely to advise him to continue to focus on the themes that benefit the NDP, and Kinew will benefit enormously from being disciplined with respect to messaging.
What about other members of the party? On some occasions since the election, members of the NDP caucus have pursued their own interests, advocating for causes that might very well be worthy of public attention, but which might not necessarily fit in well with the party’s overall strategic efforts.
This is a tension all modern parties have to deal with. We do not elect representatives to simply parrot the party line. Indeed, commentators (including this one) are often critical of parties’ efforts to whip their members and bring them in line with party priorities.
But MLAs and other party people must balance these interests against the biggest reward of all: winning elections, forming governments and being able to take concrete actions. That requires meticulous and consistent messaging, and it may be that NDP caucus members will feel the need to set their own advocacy efforts aside for the sake of being able to pursue them more effectively once the party makes its way back into government.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.