"Third parties" in Canada – a reassessment (Part Four)
By Mark Wegierski
In the 2011 federal election, the NDP won 103 seats, thus becoming a "second party" – the so-called Official Opposition. The Liberals were reduced to 34 seats, about the lowest number they have ever held in the federal Parliament. However, in the 2015 federal election, the Liberals came roaring back with a majority, and the NDP were reduced to 44 seats.
In light of the 2015 federal election campaign, a partial reassessment of the role of the NDP in Canadian politics may be called for. They were certainly more "centrist-tending" in the 2015 federal election than the Liberals – particularly under the leadership of Tom Mulcair – who promised a balanced budget – unlike Justin Trudeau, who said he was quite willing to run a deficit.
While the NDP may have in earlier decades been the "ice-breaker" for left-liberalism and the so-called "progressive" agenda – it is actually the Liberal Party (particularly today) that is carrying out that agenda to ever greater degrees.
Nevertheless, one of the biggest illusions of Canadian politics is that the federal and provincial New Democratic Parties – and the extra-parliamentary left-wing coalition groups that often work with the NDP -- are comparatively weak, and rarely able to significantly exercise power. Until the breakthrough federal election of 2011, when they won 103 seats (59 of them from Quebec), the NDP had held only about 25 to 30 seats (out of a total of about 300) in the successive federal Parliaments. In the 2015 federal election, they were reduced to 44 seats. Currently, they hold one provincial government (unexpectedly, Alberta). However, they have great influence on municipal politics, especially in Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Until the federal election of 2011, the official NDP might have appeared to be a comparatively minor force in Canadian politics. There had also been some talk in the 1990s of the supposed triumph of free-market neoconservatism in Canada – which would appear to make things more difficult for the NDP.
The facts are that the NDP possesses an unusual degree of ideological strength and depth rarely seen in any of the other Canadian parties, and so has had more real influence, never holding the federal government, than, for example, the federal Progressive Conservatives. Though never holding the federal government, the NDP was able to effect such major, transformative changes in the Liberal and federal P.C. parties (especially in social and cultural areas) that it hardly needed to be in power.
The NDP has counted on the support of tens of thousands of university and college professors, journalists, civil servants, dedicated social activists, and teachers – all of whom wielded a far greater amount of influence on politics and social life, than the large number of more "average" people who supported the centre-right Reform Party in the 1990s, or the federal Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s and before.
And, quite apart from the gradual percolation of their social and cultural ideas into Canadian society, the NDP has been able to enter into highly advantageous political collaborations with the Liberal Party, at critical junctures in Canadian politics. The NDP has often been able to put significant political pressure on the Liberal Party. They also significantly influenced the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario during the Bill Davis era (1971-1985). This has usually meant that the Liberals (or sometimes, P.C.'s) have largely carried out NDP policies.
Until the 2011 election, the NDP had appeared to be in retreat, with the apparent triumph of free trade and fiscal or economic conservatism. Even with the NDP's breakthrough in 2011, the Conservatives were, after all, able to win a strong majority. However, it could be argued that the perception of a right-wing triumph in Canada in 2011-2015 is highly misleading. Indeed, the Conservatives were decisively swept away in the 2015 federal election, without having accomplished much.
The facts are that social conservatism (focussing on upholding notions of traditional nation, family, and religion) is very weak in Canada. Most people embrace the latest variants of multiculturalism; high immigration; feminism; and gay rights. To a social conservative, the triumph of fiscal conservatism, is all-but-irrelevant when compared to the cultural, social, moral, spiritual, and religious crises of late modernity.
Ironically, old-fashioned social democracy, such as that represented in Canada by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – the much-different precursor to the NDP -- could be seen as largely socially-conservative. While ferociously fighting for the working class, and for social programs that benefited the broad Canadian majority, it largely supported traditional notions of nation, family, and religion.
What has occurred since the 1960s, however, is the transformation of old-fashioned social democracy into left-liberalism. While becoming ever more conciliatory to capitalism and fiscal conservatism, it at the same time took increasingly hostile outlooks towards traditional notions of nation, family, and religion. Its claim to represent the working-class majority became less and less credible. The savants and elitists who represented the leadership of the New Democratic Party realized that they could exercise meaningful power within the structures of current-day capitalism.
And the things they increasingly cared about was not the well-being of the working-class majority, but rather the trendy new issues of multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights, which had been of comparatively little interest to traditional social democracy. Indeed, such cutting-edge theorists as Frantz Fanon raged against the traditional working class.
Today, one sees the NDP wrapping itself in the cloak of compassion, decency, and concern for "average, ordinary people" – when it could be argued that it has acted largely against the working majority of Canadians for over three decades. In those places where it has avoided the excesses of left-liberalism (for example, in Saskatchewan), its success has been largely congruent with the remnants of social conservatism. However, the typical impact of the NDP in Canada, when deployed in support of the excesses of left-liberalism, appears in its own way as damaging to society as the consumerism and globalization which it sometimes quite aptly criticizes.
Regardless of the recent, partial return of fiscal or economic conservatism in Canada, the NDP had earlier been able to fundamentally transform the social and cultural ideas and policies of the Liberal Party and most of the P.C. Party (and thereby of most of the country) away from social conservatism. It could therefore be argued that its outlooks have triumphed in social and cultural matters. At the same time, it has partially continued the CCF traditions of fighting for a more generous welfare state – whose universality is now being undermined not only by fiscal conservatism but ironically, also by the NDP-led social and cultural directions of promoting "designated groups" – rather than the commonweal.
It could be argued that the NDP has, in the last four to five decades, been Canada's most influential and idea-generating party.
The history of the NDP in Canada on the left, and of the Reform Party on the right, may be of some interest to those who would wish to study whether it is possible that a relatively successful, "third party" movement could ever get underway in the United States – and what its potential impact on the U.S. polity might be.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.