Thomas Mulcair finally did it.
After years of speculation from left-wing activists and even the mainstream Canadian media, the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) was quoted comparing the party’s approach to that of Tony Blair and New Labour.
This hardly comes as a shock to those of us who watched the NDP change its constitution’s preamble at its 2013 convention, with the required two-thirds majority voting for the alteration. The previous preamble from the mid-1980s, which called the NDP a democratic socialist party and called for social ownership of the economy, was replaced with a more conservative declaration that rejected social ownership and relegated democratic socialism to merely a “tradition.”
Even the eighties preamble is a far cry from the Regina Manifesto of the NDP’s predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Formed in 1933, the CCF proclaimed:
No CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.
While one could argue that the CCF-NDP has been constantly moving to the center since the replacement of the Regina Manifesto by the Winnipeg Declaration of 1956, the party once managed significant social democratic reforms at the provincial level in Canada. But that doesn’t mean the NDP hasn’t flirted with the third way before. Its trajectory today is not unlike other social democratic parties around the world.
During the federal party’s nadir in the 1990s, the idea of moving to the center was floated by the party leadership only to be attacked by the rank-and-file membership as a betrayal of the party’s principles. Under the leadership of the late Jack Layton from 2003–11, the NDP moved towards the center year after year. Longstanding policies like withdrawal from NATO and renegotiation of NAFTA were quietly dropped or downplayed.
Layton was given room to move to the center for two reasons. First, he came from the left wing of Toronto’s city council and had championed issues like LGBT rights, preventing violence against women, and sustainable development since the early 1980s. He appeared at anti-war protests. He had left-wing and activist credibility.
Second, he took the NDP from fourteen seats at the beginning of his leadership to 103 seats, making it, for the first time, the second largest party in the Canadian House of Commons. He was seen as the leader who would finally decimate the centrist Liberal Party and realign Canadian politics at the federal level along the two party left-right spectrum similar to that of the UK.
But for Mulcair to go on a Canadian equivalent of a US Sunday political talk show to embrace Tony Blair’s approach is new territory. When Mulcair, the former Quebec Minister of the Environment in a center-right Liberal government, launched his leadership campaign in 2011, his supporters in caucus denied that he wanted to take the NDP towards the third way. We were told that because there was only one major federalist (that is, anti-Quebec sovereignty) party in Quebec, the Liberals, progressive federalists had to coexist within it at the level of provincial politics.
Mulcair’s public embrace of Blairism combined with the NDP’s recent disappointing results in the Ontario provincial election, where it ran on a campaign of pocketbook populism and accusations of corruption against the governing Ontario Liberals, has only yielded more and more denunciations of the party by longtime supporters.
Many of the dissenters focused on how the NDP refused to discuss issues related to poverty. The Ontario NDP’s platform called for a $12 per hour minimum wage indexed to inflation by 2016, while a broad campaign backed by the labor movement is calling for $14 per hour indexed to inflation immediately. Fourteen dollars per hour is above the poverty line in Ontario; $12 is not.
But the NDP’s turn to the right can’t be blamed solely on individuals within the party. The current malaise of the party goes back to the neoliberal turn of social democratic parties across the developed world since the Cold War.
The Saskatchewan NDP that came to power in 1991 under Roy Romanow closed hospitals and fired nurses in order to close the massive deficit and provincial debt run up through the 1980s by the Saskatchewan Progressive Conservatives.
This was ironic given the history of the CCF and NDP in Saskatchewan. Under the legendary Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan CCF was the first socialist government elected in North America in 1944. It was the first province to introduce universal health care. The Saskatchewan NDP in the seventies under the leadership of Allan Blakeney also built a system of publicly owned companies like the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, SaskTel, and SaskOil which were used as economic development tools. Now, in the early nineties, it became one of the first NDP governments to enforce neoliberalism (though hardly the only one).
Ontario’s only NDP government, led by Bob Rae, came into office in late 1990 and tried to use traditional Keynesian deficit spending to counteract the early nineties recession which hit Ontario manufacturing particularly hard. The Rae government eventually opted for austerity and forced public sector workers to take two weeks off without pay. These attacks on Ontario workers laid the groundwork for even harsher attacks from the Progressive Conservative government that was elected in 1995.
The Manitoba NDP, which had once introduced progressive reforms throughout the seventies and eighties, was elected in 1999 under the leadership of Gary Doer. The Manitoba NDP also pursued third way policies like free trade, cutting the small business tax to zero, and continuing to allow a balanced budget law that was introduced under the previous Progressive Conservative government.
Doer became Canada’s Ambassador to the United States in 2009, where he now shills for Canada’s resource industries. The Manitoba NDP still remains in power fifteen years later.
Canadian Dimension publisher and Winnipeg resident Cy Gonick explains how the Manitoba NDP managed to stay in power despite its neoliberal stance.
In general terms, the secret of NDP electoral success here has been to do just enough to sustain support from the province’s working class and poor, while avoiding major confrontation with its business class that would scare off large numbers of middle-class voters.
But as Labour has learned in the UK, a party can only count on that working class support while pursuing neoliberal objectives in government for so long. The most recent example of NDP disappointment while in government was the case of the Nova Scotia NDP (NSNDP), which formed a government in that province for the first time from 2009–13.
They, much like the Ontario NDP was in 1995, were relegated to third place in seats in their respective provincial legislatures. The NSNDP had received much criticism for increasing the province’s sales tax, ending rent control, privatizing unionized public sector jobs, and giving very generous subsidies to big business. Not surprisingly, their Liberal successors have ramped up the attacks on public sector workers.
The radical left in Canada has long critiqued the NDP for its reformism. The NDP itself has been subject to serious attempts to pull it to the left in the past that have failed. But the disaffection this time is different. Much of the NDP’s success as a third way force came at a time of a growing economy. Since the Great Recession and the global challenges to austerity, many on Canada’s Left are beginning to see the NDP’s inadequacy.
There is a realization that the NDP is unable to propose serious solutions to Canada’s long-term problems. Through free trade, Canada’s once strong manufacturing sector has been decimated. It’s not uncommon to hear Southwestern Ontario referred to as Canada’s Rust Belt.
Canada’s major wealth generator is now resource extraction, including the climate time bomb that is the Alberta tar sands. The country’s housing bubble is arguably the biggest in the world. Youth unemployment and consumer and student debt remain high. Though our economy has not been battered as badly as the US’s in recent years, there is a pervasive sense that it might fare similarly in the near future.
The NDP is still backing a number of policies supported by progressives. It’s the only major federal party in Canada to reject Keystone XL. It promises to introduce electoral reform to change Canada’s parliament from a “first past the post” system to mixed-member proportional representation, the system the German Bundestag uses.
But even on these issues, the NDP’s record is decidedly mixed.
Electoral reform is the issue the party is best on. But its rejection of Keystone XL is based mostly on economic nationalism — they support other pipelines that keep oil in Canada. The NDP lacks the courage to say that Alberta tar sands will have to stay in the ground to avoid a climate crisis; instead, they discuss these other pipelines as part of achieving “sustainable development.” This does not deal with the real threat of climate change.
The party also supports some free trade agreements (though, to its credit, they reject a Honduras agreement because of human rights concerns), voted to support the NATO bombing of Libya, and refuses to take bold stances on Canadian foreign policy.
Once upon a time, Layton rejected the Iraq War and called for Canadian Forces to be pulled out of Afghanistan while trying to move the party to the center. Mulcair has been far more hawkish; he was quoted as saying, “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances.”
This move to the center has not helped the NDP’s electoral prospects. It finds itself in third place in the polls nationally, behind the Liberals in first place and the governing Conservatives.
How can the NDP’s rightward drift be reversed? Some of the NDP’s weaknesses obviously come from a weak Left, and a labor movement with a confused strategy. There are signs, however, that a militant labor movement is reconstituting itself in Canada. And social movements like Idle No More and the Quebec student strike of 2012 have galvanized activists across Canada.
In these movements, the NDP has been AWOL. Mulcair did not meet with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during her hunger strike. The entire federal NDP remained silent during the Quebec student strike.
The broad left movements in Canada also have something to look forward to: the upcoming People’s Social Forum meeting in Ottawa this August. The goal of the PSF is to unite social movements across the country to build a broad strategic alliance against neoliberalism and colonialism in Canada.
The only electoral project with a connection to social movements has been Quebec Solidaire (QS).
QS has gone from one seat in the National Assembly of Quebec in 2008 to three in 2014. While the numbers seem modest, the party has slowly but surely built itself up. It is an explicitly anti-neoliberal party that resembles many of the new European left parties, with strong commitments to feminism, free higher education, and the elimination of fossil fuel use in Quebec. QS supported the student strike from the beginning.
The Canadian Left is on the move. Whether the NDP will be forced to move in response remains to be seen. But given the track record of social democratic parties in the developed world, don’t expect much. Social democratic parties in the UK, France, Greece, and Germany have furthered neoliberalism and austerity when in power at the national level. Provincial NDP wings have also been guilty of this.
There is little proof the federal NDP will reject austerity if confronted with a budget deficit while in power. With the success of SYRIZA in Greece and the growing vote share for parties of the radical left in Europe, the global trend suggests new parties of the Left will have to be forged out of today’s mass struggles. It is the responsibility of the Left in Canada to seize that moment.