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Canada's socialist "third party": The NDP's influence in Canada

By Mark Wegierski
web posted January 20, 2003

The Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP) is now engaged in a federal-level leadership selection process and period of major renewal (after the resignation of federal leader Alexa McDonough in mid-2002) where different options are being considered for the future of the party. Some want to take the party in a more moderate direction (similar to Tony Blair's strategy in Britain), while others want to re-emphasize the party's focus on the left. The national meeting and federal leadership convention is slated to take place January 24-26, 2003, in Toronto. Of the six candidates, Toronto's Jack Layton probably has the highest profile. However, the NDP has usually been a setting where the party as a whole and its ideals are more important than any individual leader.

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. Currently holding fourteen seats in the federal Parliament (and two provincial governments -- Saskatchewan and Manitoba) the official NDP would appear to be a comparatively minor force in Canadian politics. In May 2001, the NDP in British Columbia was annihilated in one of the most lopsided defeats in Canadian history. There has also been talk that the 1990s was a triumph of neoconservatism in Canada, which would make the situation even more difficult for the NDP.

The facts are that the NDP possesses an unusual degree of ideological strength and depth not seen in any of the other parties, and so has had more real influence, never holding the federal government, than, for example, the federal Progressive Conservatives. Though never elected federally, 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 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 Preston Manning's 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 at large, 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. This has meant that the Liberals have largely carried out NDP policies. There was also two years of political collaboration with the Bill Davis P.C.s in Ontario -- with obvious influence on social and cultural policies throughout the entire Bill Davis era (1971-1985). Furthermore, the NDP was able to set policy directions in Ontario in the coalition with Liberal David Peterson (1985-1987), and finally held power in 1990-1995.

The turning of the Ontario electorate to Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservatives in 1995 and 1999 has not seen any major, neo-traditionalist social and cultural shifts -- indeed, many important social sectors of the province appear to be in near-permanent revolt against Harris's policies -- and those of his more moderate successor, Ernie Eves. The Liberals in Ontario have currently absorbed much of the tactics and rhetoric of the NDP, thus making the New Democrats politically redundant there. At the same time, the NDP maintains powerful strongholds in municipal governments and their extensive bureaucracies, most especially in the city of Toronto. The strength of the left in urban regions is also attested to by the November 2002 triumph of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) in the Vancouver municipal elections.

Federally, the NDP appears to be in retreat today, with the triumph of free trade and fiscal or economic conservatism. However, it could be argued that the perception of a right-wing triumph today is highly misleading.

The facts are that social conservatism (focussing on upholding notions of traditional nation, family, and religion) is very weak in Canada. Most people embrace multiculturalism, high immigration, feminism, and gay rights. To a social conservative the triumph of fiscal conservatism or neoconservatism is all-but-irrelevant when compared to the cultural, social, moral, spiritual, and religious crises of late modernity.

Ironically, old-fashioned socialism or social democracy (such as that represented in Canada by the NDP's precursor, the C.C.F. -- the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) could be seen as largely socially-conservative. While ferociously fighting for the majority 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 majority of working people 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. Such cutting-edge theorists as Frantz Fanon raged against the traditional working class.

It could be said that the current-day, "managerial-therapeutic regime" consists of a capitalist, managerial "right-wing," and a therapeutic, bureaucratic "left-wing" -- both of which are, to a social conservative, equally at war with the sense of "the truly social."

George Parkin Grant, Canada's leading traditionalist philosopher, wrote "...the directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats." Both current-day capitalism and left-liberalism are seen as equally hostile to the notions of true community and true nationhood. Our current-day society is largely based on exalting (to borrow the terms from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World) -- a combination of "Our Ford" and "Our Freud."

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 the province of 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 the social body as the capitalism, consumerism, and globalization which it sometimes quite aptly criticizes.

Regardless of today's apparent return of fiscal or economic conservatism in Canada, the NDP has 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. Its outlooks have triumphed in social and cultural matters. At the same time, it has partially continued the C.C.F. 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, for better or for worse, the NDP has, in the last three decades, been Canada's most influential and idea-generating party.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher, published in Alberta Report, American Enterprise, American Outlook, Books in Canada, Calgary Herald, New Brunswick Reader, Review of Metaphysics, Telos, and The World & I, among others. An article of his about Canada was reprinted in Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99 (Dushkin/McGraw Hill, 1998).

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