Almost since he was elected NDP leader in 2003, Jack Layton has mused about replacing the Liberal Party as the official opposition. He was roundly ridiculed for this apparent fantasy and can now, if he chooses, let us all know that he told us so. But for the NDP and the country it could turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Just what does it mean for Canadian politics for the NDP to replace the Liberals?
It could be easily argued that to replace the Liberals you have to, more or less, become the Liberals. That is, if the NDP ever has a hope of governing ? and even with the perverse first-past-the-post system that means 40 per cent of the popular vote ? they will have to moderate their policies to get that extra 15 per cent. Indeed, it is more like an extra 20 per cent outside Quebec. The NDP, after years of moderating its policies under Layton, was still, going into the election, hovering between 16 and 19 per cent.
If the NDP wants to govern ? or share governing power ? as a social democratic party, then its current situation presents a dilemma. Given the media in this country and the perception of the NDP that it relentlessly creates and recreates, it has two choices. It can either hope to build on Jack Layton’s evident popularity over the next four years and tie trust in him to trust in social democratic policies. Or it can take the easy road and gradually moderate its policies, acquiescing to the inevitable media onslaught against any policies that Bay Street finds offensive ? a very long list.
The prospects for a centre-left government are not encouragingation. A divided “left” with a severely weakened Liberal Party could well mean a very long dominance of the Conservative Party with Stephen Harper governing for as long as he chooses to.
The prospect for a merger between the Liberals and the NDP is virtually zero. Neither party will ever put the country ahead of their own narrow interests. This is simply the perverse nature of party politics. Their entire reason for being is to get as many seats as possible: full stop. They are constitutionally and culturally incapable of any other goal. Efforts before the 2008 election to get the Greens and the NDP to co-operate by strategically withdrawing from some ridings to help defeat Conservatives got absolutely nowhere. Layton’s triumphalism, on election night ? speaking to a country (not only his own party) facing the most destructive government in its history ? just reinforced the point.
The Liberals and the NDP will do what parties do ? they will keep trying to score the most points, oblivious to what it means for the country. We can moan and complain all we like, as presently constituted that is what they will do.
That being the case, what do progressive Canadians, labor, social movements and civil society groups do? We have no control whatever over what the Liberal Party does ? it is dominated by business Liberals and they will decide its future course.
Extra-parliamentary groups are at their weakest state in twenty years and rebuilding them will be a long term project. Should progressives individually join the NDP and try to keep it on the straight and narrow social democratic path? If the party remains an electoral machine with no presence in communities there seems little point. It would not change the political culture and the parliamentary caucus is, in any case, not bound by resolutions passed at party conventions.
Should those outside the party focus on keeping the pressure on the NDP to be true to its philosophy and Canadian values ? doing what we can to counter the inevitable fire-storm of criticism the party as the official opposition, will face from the media? This is not really an option ? it is a necessity. When Bob Rae won unexpectedly in Ontario, the left there ? inexperienced with NDP governments ? decided to implement a sort of honeymoon period during which time they did not criticize the government.
It was a fatal mistake. The media and business groups launched a merciless attack. What Bob Rae needed was thousands of unionists, anti-poverty activists, women and youth in the streets demanding progressive change ? a force he could point to, to justify keeping his promises. But there was no one. While not wishing to give Rae a pass on his policy failures (backing away from public auto insurance being the biggest), the left helped drive him to the right by failing to demand he keep to the left. The honeymoon ended in divorce.
Before Jack Layton was elected leader there was a unique political effort that suggests a third direction for social and environmental activists. It was called the New Politics Initiative (NPI) and its aim was to bridge the gap between civil society movements and the NDP. Founded by activist Judy Rebick and NDP MP Svend Robinson, it was also intended to recreate the NDP in the image of its predecessor, the CCF ? a party/movement that would transform the NDP from an electoral machine dominated by its parliamentary caucus, into a party as movement. That is, the NDP would be active between elections in communities across the country, wherever it could, building on Canadians’ progressive values to create a progressive political culture ? working on an equal basis with civil society groups of all kinds.
The NPI was disbanded after the 2003 NDP leadership convention where its proposal for radical changes in the party received (if memory serves) the support of about 40 per cent of the delegates. It was felt that Jack Layton was sympathetic to the notion of bridging the gap between party politics and social movement politics. He was and he made genuine efforts in that direction. But it turned out, in hindsight, that disbanding the NPI was probably a mistake. The forces perpetuating the NDP’s machine culture needed a powerful and permanent counterpoint if there was to be any hope of it changing.
Conditions have changed in ten years, but maybe we should consider reconstituting the NPI. Its role might be even more important now.
Murray Dobbin, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years. He has been a columnist for the Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press, contributes guest editorials to the Globe and Mail and other Canadian dailies and now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and rabble.ca. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org