When Jack Layton’s New Democrats became Canada’s official opposition three years ago, party members were ecstatic.
The Orange Crush, as Layton’s campaign was unofficially called, swept Quebec, giving the NDP an extra 58 seats.
True, the party didn’t do as well in other provinces. When wins and losses were netted, it had gained only one seat west of Ontario and two east of Quebec.
But the NDP made significant progress in the Toronto area, where it added six more seats to those it already held.
That was 2011.
Three years later, the NDP’s Toronto stronghold is under attack.
In a federal byelection Tuesday, it lost Trinity-Spadina, the iconic downtown riding that had been held by Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow, until she resigned earlier this year to run for mayor.
In the Scarborough-Agincourt byelection the same day, the New Democrats came in a distant third, with only 8.5 per cent of the votes cast.
That’s down from the 18 per cent vote share the NDP won in this east-end riding in 2011.
On their own, byelections are notoriously poor predictors. But Tuesday’s contest came hard on the heels of a provincial general election that saw the NDP lose three Toronto seats to Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals.
Two of those — Davenport and Beaches-East York — were ridings that had just swung federally to the NDP. The third was Trinity-Spadina.
Federal and provincial ridings follow near-identical boundaries in Ontario. So at one level, the NDP loss in Trinity-Spadina is no surprise.
It went provincially to the Liberals on June 12 and federally to the Liberals just under three weeks later.
That is not likely to provide much cheer to New Democrat MPs Andrew Cash (Davenport) and Matthew Kellway (Beaches-East York), both of whom saw their provincial counterparts go down to defeat last month.
There is no single explanation for the NDP’s troubles in Toronto.
Provincially, the party’s decision to veer right cost it Toronto voters. Two of the defeated MPPs have acknowledged that.
In absolute terms, those losses were more than made up for by new voters that the party attracted outside of Toronto (the NDP vote share rose marginally across the province).
In terms of seats, it was a draw. Andrea Horwath’s Ontario NDP picked up enough seats in Oshawa, Sudbury and Windsor to offset those lost in Toronto.
Nonetheless, the party’s Toronto base was unnerved. And that, it seems, bled into Tuesday’s federal byelection.
This week, federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair praised his Trinity-Spadina candidate, Joe Cressy, for working hard.
Indeed, Cressy did run a classic NDP left-populist campaign — at one point attacking his Liberal competitor, Adam Vaughan for supporting heavy-oil pipelines.
But that strategy didn’t work — in part because the NDP also supports heavy-oil pipelines.
The unique factor in the Trinity-Spadina contest was Vaughan himself. A former journalist and city councilor, he’s well-known in the riding
Ideologically, he’s a centre-leftist whose views on public policy aren’t alarmingly different from those of New Democrats Chow, Cressy or Mulcair.
Which brings us to the final strand running through this story — the resurrection of the Liberals under Justin Trudeau.
After their decimation in 2011, the Liberals were in desperate straits. Some analysts wrote them off completely. It seemed inconceivable that they could recover.
But they did. They are back.
In the last century, Toronto found it hard to resist Pierre Trudeau. In this century, Canada’s largest city is being actively wooed by his son Justin.
The deal is far from inked. But already there is stardust in the air.
Mulcair’s NDP, meanwhile, is trying its best to be considered sensible as it searches for the centre ground upon which elections are said to be won.
It’s not clear that this is enough.