Robin V. Sears

The NDP has been Canada’s per­pet­ual brides­maid party, for­mu­lat­ing so­cially pro­gres­sive pol­icy for the Lib­er­als to re­pur­pose for im­ple­men­ta­tion in gov­ern­ment. Vet­eran strate­gist Robin Sears, who spent decades ad­vis­ing NDP lead­ers on both pol­icy and strateg

Policy - - In This Issue - Robin V. Sears

Prin­ci­ple or Power? The NDP’s Eter­nal Strug­gle

When it comes to opin­ing about New Democrats or the Lib­eral Party, the Globe and Mail can usu­ally be re­lied on to be snarky to one or the other. Their lead ed­i­to­rial on May 31, 2017 man­aged to of­fend both.

“Kath­leen Wynne is a Great NDP Pre­mier” was their sneer­ing re­sponse to the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment’s don­ning an or­ange po­lit­i­cal dis­guise, steal­ing NDP poli­cies on labour rights, the min­i­mum wage and hous­ing. It did, how­ever, neatly sum up the love/ hate re­la­tion­ship be­tween Canada’s two centre-left po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

From the day Macken­zie King agreed to cre­ate Canada’s first na­tional pen­sion plan—af­ter years of cam­paign­ing by the CCF’s leg­endary leader, J.S. Woodsworth—un­til to­day, the CCF and the NDP have acted, to their fre­quent cha­grin, as the Lib­er­als’ best think tank from which to steal pro­gres­sive ideas.

Wynne’s Hail Mary con­ver­sion—as she strug­gles to re­gain a pos­si­bil­ity of re-elec­tion—to the wis­dom of a de­cent min­i­mum wage, came af­ter years of dis­miss­ing An­drea Hor­wath and her cau­cus’ ha­rangues that it was an ob­scen­ity in a prov­ince as rich as On­tario to claim that a fam­ily could be sup­ported on an an­nual wage of less than $23,000 a year. But it is a pol­icy theft in a long and hon­ourable po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion.

In­deed, it is hard to think of a sig­nif­i­cant piece of pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion that the Lib­er­als did not first at­tack and then snatch in the past cen­tury. Af­ter pen­sions came women’s right to vote, then the first Labour Code, then Medi­care, then OAS/GIS, then PetroCanada, elec­tion fi­nance re­form and the list could run for lit­er­ally pages. It has been frus­trat­ing for Canada’s so­cial democrats on two lev­els. First, ob­vi­ously, is the use of their pol­icy vi­sion to elect an­other po­lit­i­cal party. Less self-in­ter­est­edly, it is be­cause the Lib­er­als rarely do the im­ple­men­ta­tion well.

It took from 1962 to 1980 and the pas­sage of the Canada Health Act for suc­ces­sive Lib­eral gov­ern­ments to even par­tially im­ple­ment Tommy Douglas’s vi­sion for a uni­ver­sal health care plan from coast to coast. Labour laws went through half a dozen re­vi­sions be­fore they achieved any­thing like real pro­tec­tions for Cana­dian work­ers. And as On­tario New Democrats and pun­dits have ob­served about Wynne’s at­tempt at a sur­vival strat­egy, it’s less than half a loaf as well.

The On­tario Lib­er­als ducked on mak­ing it eas­ier for work­ers in small busi­nesses and the ser­vice econ­omy to join a union, again. They failed to tackle the fic­tion of ‘self-em­ploy­ment’ be­ing used in­creas­ingly by em­ploy­ers to es­cape obli­ga­tions to an em­ployee,

It took from 1962 to 1980 and the pas­sage of the Canada Health Act for suc­ces­sive Lib­eral gov­ern­ments to even par­tially im­ple­ment Tommy Douglas’s vi­sion for a uni­ver­sal health care plan from coast to coast.

Nor did they of­fer any mean­ing­ful pro­tec­tion for work­ers whose bosses can move, add to or can­cel their shifts with less than a week’s no­tice. But the re­ac­tion of many vot­ers, es­pe­cially work­ing class vot­ers, may well be that it is still some­thing to have a more live­able min­i­mum wage; it’s bet­ter than any­thing the Tories might of­fer. And—here is the painful rub for New Democrats—be­cause the Lib­er­als are as seen more likely to be in power, it might ac­tu­ally hap­pen.

This hits the most painful in­ter­nal strug­gle faced by any party of prin­ci­ple of left or right: Is power and its nec­es­sary com­pro­mises more im­por-

tant than prin­ci­ple? Does be­ing right al­ways take prece­dence, even if the price is cer­tain de­feat? I am re­veal­ing my bias: If it’s virtue and ir­rel­e­vance you seek, take a vow of poverty in your favourite con­vent or monastery.

Pol­i­tics is about power: not merely the abil­ity to con­strain or in­flu­ence some­one else’s power, but achiev­ing the abil­ity to de­liver on your vi­sion. Be­ing the “con­science of Cana­dian pol­i­tics”—a phrase that to many Jack Lay­ton-era New Democrats grinds like nails on a po­lit­i­cal black­board—can­not be enough. It is too early to tell whether the power-over-prin­ci­ple choice made by B.C. Greens will al­low them and the B.C. NDP to de­liver a real po­lit­i­cal re­newal in B.C. But they each surely made the right de­ci­sion to try.

Astrong, cen­trist Lib­eral party is an anom­aly in western democ­ra­cies. That the Cana­dian Lib­er­als have been able to cam­paign from the left and gov­ern from the centre-right for most of the past cen­tury is a unique achieve­ment. Be­ing ex­cluded from gov­ern­ing alone is no anom­aly for so­cial democrats in those same coun­tries, how­ever.

Yes, for much of the post-war era in North­ern Europe, so­cial democrats shared power. More re­cently in Mediter­ranean Europe, so­cial democ­racy has flour­ished fol­low­ing the col­lapse of fas­cism, then com­mu­nism. But re­ceiv­ing enough votes to gov­ern alone? Rare.

The mighty Ger­man SPD have held the chan­cel­lor­ship alone for merely 13 of the past 68 years. Yet, even Otto von Bis­marck’s uni­ver­sal pen­sion plan—the world’s first—came as a re­sult of pres­sure from the left. So, this fate of be­ing trusted by vot­ers to give birth to the best ideas but not be­ing granted the sole re­spon­si­bil­ity for im­ple­ment­ing them has a long and broad his­tory.

For some on the left, that is enough. Know­ing that you have blocked ir­re­den­tist, re­ac­tionary, racist re­gres­sion should be an ob­ject of pride. Know­ing that you have gen­er­ated the ideas and the mo­men­tum to drive pro­gres­sive change even more so.

But politi­cians on the left would not be hu­man if they did not bri­dle at the suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of bour­geois par­ties—as the French would call them—so suc­cess­fully play­ing cuckoo bird, peren­ni­ally steal­ing from the their ‘idea nest.’

The fu­ture may be shap­ing up dif­fer­ently in Canada and in­ter­na­tion­ally. The other ma­jor cen­trist po­lit­i­cal fam­ily—tra­di­tional con­ser­vatism or Chris­tian Democ­racy—is be­ing badly squeezed from the pop­ulist right. So­cial democrats’ great­est chal­lenges no longer come from the centre but the hard left, and in­sur­gent Green and “na­tivist” par­ties.

Don­ald Trump is no more a con­ser­va­tive than Hil­lary Clin­ton. But he is a na­tion­al­ist, na­tivist, eth­nic purist, right-wing pop­ulist. He de­feated the Demo­cratic party, yes, but he may de­stroy the con­ser­va­tive tra­di­tion in the GOP as well. In­de­pen­dent Em­manuel Macron crushed so­cial­ist and con­ser­va­tive par­ties alike in win­ning the Élysée Palace. These are strange times in western democ­ra­cies. Cen­turies old ver­i­ties are be­ing chal­lenged on all sides.

How quickly and how well the tra­di­tional Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal fam­i­lies adapt to these new chal­lengers will de­ter­mine not only who gov­erns but what type of Canada we be­queath to new gen­er­a­tions. If An­drew Scheer lives up to the Lib­eral at­tack line of be­ing merely a “Stephen Harper with a more be­liev­able smile,” the Con­ser­va­tive party will be out of power for as much of this cen­tury as it was in the last one.

If, how­ever, he is able to play “Nixon in China” with his so­cial con­ser­va­tives—a more likely prospect, in my view—mas­sag­ing them with­out be­ing ma­nip­u­lated into bad choices by them, he could recre­ate the Mul­roney

Con­ser­va­tive coali­tion. With Maxime Bernier as a strong Que­bec lieu­tenant, and a strong provin­cial con­ser­va­tive party in ev­ery prov­ince from On­tario to Al­berta, he could build a 21st cen­tury Con­ser­va­tive coali­tion, one based on ef­fec­tive and hands-on eco­nomic man­age­ment, ag­gres­sive im­mi­grant re­cruit­ment and in­te­gra­tion, and free of either a parochial or a Pou­jadiste tinge.

The Lib­er­als need to con­tinue to strug­gle against their twin vices—ar­ro­gance and com­pla­cency—to re­main suc­cess­ful. Their re­cidi­vism is, how­ever, leg­endary. It will re­main the main task of ev­ery leader to fight their slow slide into en­ti­tled­ness about their en­ti­tle­ment. But they can al­ways be as­sured of a pro­gres­sive left from which to snatch and re-pack­age their pol­icy agenda in­def­i­nitely.

For the NDP—or at least those who do not see their party as a sec­u­lar monastery and want to win power— the chal­lenge is per­haps the hard­est of all. On the one hand, they must re­sist the eter­nal temp­ta­tion to “move­men­ti­tis.” A po­lit­i­cal party is not a move­ment, it’s a coali­tion of many clans, with shared val­ues knit­ted care­fully into a sus­tain­able po­lit­i­cal quilt, one with suf­fi­cient and broad ap­peal to win. On the other hand, the 21st cen­tury risks rip­ping asun­der the class al­liance among farm­ers, in­dus­trial, com­mer­cial and pub­lic sec­tor work­ers. There is not an ob­vi­ous sol­i­dar­ity be­tween a BC Hy­dro en­gi­neer with an in­dexed pen­sion, a com­mit­ment to build­ing large power plants and a six-fig­ure salary and the woman who serves him coffee each morn­ing at Tim’s. The clash of val­ues be­tween what Amer­i­can so­cial com­men­ta­tor Joan Wil­liams dubs starkly “The White Work­ing Class” and the start-up green tech mil­len­nial, even if to­day their stan­dards of liv­ing are not that far apart, is deep­en­ing. Build­ing bridges be­tween the two has al­ways been a chal­lenge for so­cial democrats. It is an even tougher chal­lenge to­day.

Fi­nally, New Democrats need to elect a new Jack Lay­ton. Par­ties that are coalitions for power only can thrive with­out iconic lead­ers. Par­ties of both prin­ci­ple and power must be led by po­lit­i­cal masters. They must me­di­ate tough in­ter­nal di­vi­sions. They have to lean against the ‘move­ment’ builders with­out push­ing them out of the tent, and they need to ap­peal to enough out­side the tribe of true be­liev­ers to build a win­ning coali­tion. Not easy.

J. S. Woodsworth built the bridge be­tween farm and labour bril­liantly, his suc­ces­sor not so much. Tommy Douglas did it as pre­mier, at the na­tional level less well. David Lewis did it dur­ing the party’s hard­est years, the height of the Cold War, as what we would call the party’s na­tional di­rec­tor, bat­tling Lib­eral-al­lied Com­mu­nists, and Trost­skyites. He served with greater frus­tra­tion later as leader. Ed Broad­bent was the party’s first mod­ern leader, with the ideal pedi­gree for a suc­cess­ful so­cial demo­cratic leader—an ir­rev­er­ent in­tel­lec­tual with work­ing-class roots. His suc­ces­sors each stum­bled.

It was Jack Lay­ton who demon­strated that a new fu­ture was pos­si­ble, re­build­ing a shat­tered party, then a “best in class” cam­paign team, then romp­ing painfully close to vic­tory out of Que­bec. Then the cy­cle re­peated it­self with his suc­ces­sor stum­bling badly.

The Lib­er­als need to con­tinue to strug­gle against their twin vices— ar­ro­gance and com­pla­cency —to re­main suc­cess­ful. Their re­cidi­vism is, how­ever, leg­endary.

So, if you be­lieve that his­tory does fore­tell, the party will choose its next iconic leader in Oc­to­ber. That fig­ure will fash­ion the 21st cen­tury ver­sion of the farmer-labour coali­tion. Their new coali­tion will win the trust and cred­i­bil­ity to not only con­ceive, but to win the man­date to ex­e­cute, a vi­sion for a pro­gres­sive new Canada.

Or, if not, maybe they’ll just help the Lib­er­als fi­nally im­ple­ment the na­tional day­care plan they stole from Jack Lay­ton.

Archives Canada photo Li­brary and

David Lewis and Tommy Douglas at the found­ing con­ven­tion of the NDP in 1961.

Canada photo Li­brary and Archives

CCF Leader J.S. Woodsworth at the time of his elec­tion to Par­lia­ment from Win­nipeg North Centre in 1921.

Wikipedia photo

Jack Lay­ton and Ed Broad­bent at a 2008 cam­paign rally in Toronto.

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