OTTAWA - Federal New Democrats are being urged to dig a little deeper and try a little harder in the wake of devastating byelection losses and inauspicious fundraising results.
"Monday's byelection results are an important reminder that the next 72 seats we need to win to form Canada's first NDP government will be even tougher than the first 103," the party's national director, Anne McGrath, says in the latest pitch for donations.
"Our success in 2011 made our opponents more determined than ever. They're raising more money, training more volunteers and targeting New Democrat seats across the province."
The pitch comes on the heels of a particularly tough week for the NDP.
On Monday, the party lost the iconic downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, vacated by Olivia Chow, widow of beloved former leader Jack Layton, to the Liberals. And New Democrats saw their vote share plunge in three other ridings — falling as far as fifth place in Alberta's Macleod riding, behind the Green and Christian Heritage parties.
Then the 2013 annual financial returns for federal parties were posted by Elections Canada, showing the NDP barely improved its fundraising total over the year before and is lagging well behind both the Conservatives and Liberals.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the 2011 election — when the NDP vaulted into Official Opposition status, snagging a record 103 seats while the once mighty Liberals were left at death's door with just 34 — New Democrats confidently boasted they were poised to take power in 2015.
But despite a solid performance by New Democrats in the House of Commons and rave reviews for Leader Tom Mulcair's prosecutorial style of grilling Prime Minister Stephen Harper, all signs suggest the party is being squeezed back into its traditional third-place role while the Liberals reassert themselves as the alternative to the Conservative government.
The Liberals have led in opinion polls since Justin Trudeau took the helm 15 months ago, increased their vote share, dramatically so in some instances, in byelections and shown the most improvement of any party in fundraising hauls.
Last year, the Conservatives pulled in a cool $18.3 million, up more than $1 million, while the Liberals raked in $11.6 million, up almost $4 million over 2012. The NDP, meanwhile, brought up the rear, increasing its take by just $200,000 to $8.1 million.
Still, McGrath argues the important thing is that the party's fundraising is going in the right direction: up.
"The story for us is that every year we continue to grow. This is a record year for us," she said in an interview.
"We're growing in terms of the number of donors, the average donations and the total donations. And the other thing that's really important is we're debt free, we're building our assets."
Nevertheless, there are other worrying signs in the 2013 financial return for New Democrats.
The party ended last year with an operating surplus of just under $3 million. But that included over $5 million in a per vote subsidy that is being steadily reduced until it is phased out entirely at the end of March next year.
The looming end of the subsidy means the NDP will have to do a lot better than last year's modest, incremental improvement in fundraising just to break even this year. Or it will have to cut expenses, which are already significantly less than the other two major parties as they ramp up for an election next year.
For instance, the NDP reports it spent a paltry $200,000 on advertising in 2013, while the Tories spent more than $1.5 million and the Liberals over $1.6 million.
That the NDP trails the other two parties when it comes to cold, hard cash is not surprising, McGrath maintained. She argued that Conservatives and Liberals have rich friends in big business to pad their coffers and bagmen in the Senate to beat the bushes for donations, at taxpayers' expense.
The NDP, meanwhile, has "a lot of donors who give what they can."
In fact, the average NDP donor gave more ($208) last year than the average Liberal donor ($158) and not much less than the average Conservative donor ($226).
Since 2004, when corporate and union donations to political parties were banned, success in fundraising has depended on the number of individuals a party can persuade to part with small amounts of cash — a game at which the Conservatives have excelled and which the Liberals appear to have finally figured out while the NDP is still struggling.
Last year, more than 80,000 donors gave money to the Tories, almost 72,000 to the Liberals and slightly more than 39,000 to the NDP.
McGrath acknowledged the financial challenge facing the party.
"Which is exactly why we're really kind of updating and modernizing and increasing our fundraising capacity," she said. "We put a big emphasis in our strategic planning for this year on expansion of both digital data and fundraising."
That said, she noted the NDP went into the last election in even worse financial shape.
"Going into the last election campaign we were much further behind and were still able to generate support from more Canadians than ever before and form the first ever NDP official Opposition."
But, as she says in the latest fundraising pitch: "Four years ago, I could never have imagined what I'm about to say but: 2011 was the easy part."
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