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Ed Broadbent: Canada’s most iconic social democrat?

Few have done more to advance the cause of social democracy than the former NDP leader


Ed Broadbent, now 87, was the first NDP leader widely regarded by the Canadian public as a possible prime minister. Photo by Jeff Goode/Toronto Star Archives.

As neoliberalism enters its fifth decade, many of us have taken to looking backwards to dream forwards. One of the frequent reference points for leftists is the mid-century heyday of social democracy, which for a time looked like it was going to replace the more possessive and competitive forms of capitalism with variants at least minimally committed to the wellbeing of all.

It is of course very easy for those of us who admire social democracy to fall into the trap of nostalgia while forgetting its many flaws. These included the dependence of Western social democracies on the exploitation of much of the developing world, the fact that even admirable figures like Tommy Douglas could advance some noxious views on issues like eugenics, and above all the ultimate failure of social democratic politics to defeat or even contain the neoliberal counter-offensive that broke out in the 1970s and swiftly conquered. But as Samuel Moyn observed in his recent book Liberalism Against Itself, whatever you say about it, the welfarism of social democracy brought many societies closer to genuine freedom and equality for all than any other alternatives. This alone entitles its luminaries to ongoing respect, even from the radical left.

In Canada, few have done more to advance the cause of social democracy than Ed Broadbent. Born into humble circumstances, and trained as a political philosopher by the great C.B. Macpherson, Vice-President of the Socialist International, Broadbent is still best-known as one of the most popular NDP leaders. He led the party between 1975 and 1989, chalking up some impressive electoral wins and becoming one of the more beloved and trusted Canadian politicians of the era. Now 87, it is the ideal moment to celebrate this extraordinary Canadian progressive through an in-depth analysis of Broadbent’s theories, convictions, and of course political activism. The lovely new book, Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality, sets out to do just that.

Ed Broadbent, the political theorist of social democracy

Seeking Social Democracy has an eclectic structure. It jumps between autobiographical recollections by Broadbent himself, transcripts of academic speeches and lectures, and lengthy interviews led by co-authors Frances Abele, Jonathan Sas and Luke Savage. These move in chronological order, recounting everything from Broadbent’s early days in Oshawa through his pursuit of education and political activism. What comes to the fore about Broadbent’s earlier life is the extent to which his thinking on socialism was stamped by an unusual combination of personal experiences witnessing the importance of labour activism in his hometown, and as auspicious an education as one can receive in some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. Throughout Broadbent conveys the sunny, but grounded, optimism that was his signature political style:

Growing up in that period and in that town against a backdrop of broadly shared prosperity played a huge role in shaping my political outlook well before it became something I could articulate in detail. Oshawa was working class, but by no means poor. The south end of the city where I grew up was the lower-income part of the town-the doctors, lawyers and other professionals lived in the north. But in the southern neighbourhood where I lived, the direct economic benefits of a strong union-in this case, the United Automobile Workers-were readily apparent, as was the deeper sense of community the union fostered (I still remember the big annual picnic on Lake Ontario in which they gave away cars on draws to lucky numbers). All of this gave me a deep-seated belief that anything was possible.

This “backdrop of broadly shared prosperity,” emblematic of the post-war boom, probably contributed to Broadbent being the first person in his family to attend university. Originally trained as a political theorist, much of Seeking Social Democracy focuses on Broadbent’s abiding concern with economic or industrial democracy. This is an ideal Broadbent traces back to John Stuart Mill, the great liberal socialist who later in his life called for a transition to cooperative forms of economic production. In Broadbent’s terms industrial democracy is defined by two “qualities.” First, that the “opportunity for self-realization is equally available to all,” and second, “a fully developed democracy requires… that the average citizens should possess direct or indirect control over all those decisions which have a serious effect on his day-to-day life.”

Broadbent is undoubtedly right to praise social democracy for “progressive taxation” and to note that “socialized medicine, pensions unemployment insurance and other innovations of the welfare state… were all hugely important, and there can be no doubt that they significant improved the average person’s quality of life.” These social democratic reforms did indeed go a long way in creating the conditions where opportunities for self-realization are available to everyone.

Unfortunately, Broadbent’s second quality of economic or industrial democracy—establishing conditions where the average citizen possesses direct or indirect control over economic and workplace decisions that effect them—has seen less movement and even regression. In many parts of Canada and the broader developed world, even minimal forms of economic democracy such as unionization were in decline until very recently. Whether that trend will continue given recent labour victories is an open question. What remains clear is that contemporary proponents of industrial democracy have a long way to go in reversing this trend and getting the project back on track.

Is social democracy here?

Of course, the lion’s share of book is taken up by discussing Broadbent’s time in office, where he was at the forefront of the parliamentary struggle for democratic socialism in Canada as the leader of the NDP. As with any political memoir Seeking Social Democracy moves between juicy gossip, auto-biographical and personal reflections, policy discussions, and ruminations on major historical events. Between 1975 and 1989, when Broadbent was leader, Canada went through many transformative changes. These included the first Québec independence referendum, the 1982 patriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the crushing twin victories of the Mulroney Conservatives, and of course the fall of the Soviet Union. While discussing all these transformative events Broadbent is always a sagacious and wise guide, peppering his memories with colourful anecdotes that add texture and humanity to the material. This includes his often humorous observations on well-known political luminaries. Typically as polite as a Canadian must be, Broadbent takes a surprising amount of pride in being able to heckle manor-born Pierre Trudeau for not knowing the price of staples like butter and bread.

As depicted in Seeking Social Democracy, Broadbent takes a dim view of Trudeau the elder, whose progressive bonafides he takes to have always been more optics than substance. Indeed, he points out how, throughout the Trudeau years the Liberal Party in many ways perfected its electoral strategy of campaigning from the left and governing from the right. This contradiction provokes more than a little acid from the typically jovial Broadbent. Interestingly his account of Mulroney comes across as considerably less frosty. Broadbent stresses how, in spite of their deep disagreements, Mulroney was often willing to be friendly and cooperative on issues like human rights and democracy. They say politics make strange bedfellows, but the idea of Canada’s most well-known socialist and the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party getting along seems like material for a Netflix sitcom.

The book ends by discussing Broadbent’s decision to leave Sisyphean party politics behind for the world of NGOs, think tanks and public intellectualism. The affect that comes across is a man content with his life and confident about his efforts, but still hungry to see his vision of a better world come to fruition and worried we are moving in the wrong direction. Ending with a postscript on “The Good Society” Broadbent writes that if we “look at Canada or abroad, the various sources of insecurity are similar: the rising cost of living for ordinary people and extreme concentration of wealth at the top; the breakneck pace of technological change and damage to the global environment on an industrial scale; racist attacks on the principle of multicultural pluralism and the related demonization of immigration as the source of societal ills.”

These are indeed grave problems that may only become worse if environmental decay is allowed to continue, or Donald Trump is re-elected to office in 2024. The question one is left with at the end of Broadbent’s memoir is whether social democracy (or democratic socialism if you prefer) is still the answer to our problems. I think that it is, with suitable qualifications. Broadbent spent decades struggling for economic democracy, welfarism and environmental reform on many fronts. It is easy for some on the left to look back at social democracy’s victories as pyrrhic and the defeats as crushing. But this forgets that being on the left will never be easy given the forces we confront, and that pessimism of the intellect must be fused to optimism of the will. Few understood this as well as Canada’s perennial optimist Ed Broadbent, and that is why Seeking Social Democracy is an inspiring read.

Matt McManus is a lecturer at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). Follow him on X @MattPolProf.


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