Parallel to Liberal decline the NDP by the late nineties was beginning to achieve new growth. Alexa McDonough gave the NDP a major breakthrough in Atlantic Canada in 1997 when the party won eight seats in the region, strength retained federally to the present day. The NDP now holds four of thirty-two federal seats including representation in three of the four Atlantic Provinces, and was elected to government in Nova Scotia last year. By 2008 the NDP had increased its Commons representation from a low of 9 in 1993 to 37 with MPs from all provinces except PEI and Saskatchewan plus one from the Northwest Territories.
Jack Layton currently has the strongest approval rating of the three national party leaders and the NDP is potentially poised to win the next election if the Harper government falters between now and then. It appears at the moment that the NDP is one transformational moment or issue away from winning. It may not happen – Michael Ignatieff could still wind up as the next Prime Minister - but the potential is there for the first time. The NDP has occasionally had the illusion of winning prospects before (during World War II and the late eighties) but they had no strength east of Ontario at that time so they were forced to concentrate their hopes on Canada west of the Ottawa valley. Today the party is far more regionally balanced and actually has one seat each in Alberta and Quebec. Layton has been working at winning over Quebec with some success. You can see that in this poll (tables on page 12) more BQ voters (and therefore more Quebec voters) cite the NDP as a second choice than any other party including the Liberals.
Liberal weakness today stems from important internal failings as well as bad luck. Post-Trudeau the party was divided between factions led respectively by Chrétien and John Turner, whose 1980s faction would be taken over by Paul Martin in the nineties. The Martin government was then done in by a Chrétien-era scandal.
During the Chrétien period the Liberals did a poor job of recruiting future leaders, for example, in Ontario, where they won all but a few seats over the course of three elections. The Ontario-based leadership hopefuls from Ontario elected first in the eighties and nineties and early 21st century were Ken Dryden, Sheila Copps, John Manley, and Alan Rock, an unimpressive group. Despite the enormous size of the cohort of MPs that came into Parliament in 1988 and 1993, these hopefuls were all that the party could muster from Canada’s largest province. There is a substantial measure of chance in this. The NDP’s weakest leader, Audrey McLaughlin, came from its largest ever caucus. The entire field of 1989 NDP candidates (who were all weak) came from the same federal caucus. In the 21st century this phenomenon has been visited upon the Liberals.