You don’t need to look any further than the current makeup of the Saskatchewan Legislature to see how far removed the NDP is from rural Saskatchewan.
Of the 58 current seats (soon to grow to 61 in 2015), 27 are located in the four major cities and two more represent the northern ridings.
The remaining 29 seats are what we call rural seats, although some may question whether ridings representing Yorkton, North Battleford and Swift Current should really be called rural.
Nevertheless, of those 29 rural seats, all are represented by Saskatchewan Party MLAs. Most of these seats were won by the Sask. Party in 2011 by majorities of 70 per cent or more. (In fact, of the 49 seats the Sask. Party won in 2011, only two — both urban seats — were won with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote.)
The magnitude of how badly the NDP did in rural Saskatchewan last election was somewhat shocking, but we have come to expect the NDP to do poorly in rural Saskatchewan.
The NDP only had one rural seat prior to 2011 — Len Taylor’s The Battlefords riding.
And in 2003 while still in government, the NDP only won Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan Rivers and The Battlefords.
One would have to go back to Roy Romanow NDP wins of 1991 and 1995 to find the last time we saw anything vaguely resembling an actual rural NDP caucus. Really, the NDP rural base ended with Allan Blakeney’s huge loss to Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives in 1982.
So why haven’t the NDP done well in rural Saskatchewan? Well, it’s likely more than one single thing.
Even before Devine, the NDP had already grown out of touch with a changing rural Saskatchewan, no longer dependent on pools and co-operatives and today more dependent on resource commodities like oil and potash and the free marketing of grain.
One can also point to NDP government policies like closing rural hospitals in 1993, ripping up the GRIP contracts with farmers in 1991, allowing unfairly high education taxes on agricultural land, or even calling an election in the middle of harvest in 1999.
But the real NDP problem in rural Saskatchewan goes back even longer than that and it begins at the top. It hasn’t had a rural-based leader in half a century.
Biggar’s Woodrow Lloyd was the last NDP leader to represent a rural riding. That was 50 years ago. In fact, Lloyd and Tommy Douglas were the only NDP leaders who represented rural ridings.
Dwain Lingenfelter was once a young farmer and Shaunavon MLA. But he left rural Saskatchewan for the safety of a city seat a quarter century.
In fact, the only recent NDP leadership hopefuls who could claim to be rural-based candidates were Maynard Sonntag and Nettie Wiebe. Other NDP leadership hopefuls could only claim to having been born or raised in rural Saskatchewan.
For example, the candidate closest to having rural credentials in this past leadership race was Dr. Ryan Meili who was raised on a Moose Jaw-area farm.
By contrast, the Sask. Party has never had an urban leader or leadership candidate.
New NDP leader Cam Broten goes into his new job without a rural background and without any rural caucus members. And with the new electoral boundaries preserving rural seats, the NDP has no hope of forming government any time soon.
Rebuilding the NDP’s rural base after 40 or 50 years will be that much more difficult, given that the surviving NDP rural membership is getting older.
Broten will simply have to find another way to connect with rural Saskatchewan _ no easy task for a leader whose connections to the rural areas are tenuous at best.
He is hardly the first NDP leader to suffer this problem.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.