This article is part of a series in which CD editors asked NDPers, current and former, to weigh in on the state of social democracy in Canada, and on Avi Lewis’s recent decision to pursue the party’s nomination in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. This is the first component of our coverage in advance of the upcoming federal election in fall 2021.
While we should guard against illusions, there are reasons to be optimistic about the current prospects for the federal NDP and what I have called a “rekindling of democratic socialism” in my recently published book, Fire and the Ashes: Rekindling Democratic Socialism.
Canada is exceptional in that the historic mass parties of European social democracy and communism are now all but dead as their working class base has disintegrated and shifted to the right, and as the affluent, well-educated middle-class have turned away from labour and the traditional left towards Liberal-style, cosmopolitan market liberalism, albeit with a greenish and socially progressive tinge.
The Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn insurgencies marked a welcome revival of the democratic socialist left in the United States and the United Kingdom, especially among youth and the racialized working class. But it is unclear if this left can sustain itself.
Canada has not experienced a similar revival of the left on the surface, but there are deeper currents at play. The federal NDP membership unceremoniously dumped Tom Mulcair for his electorally disastrous turn to the right in the 2015 federal election and replaced him with Jagmeet Singh, who has been steadily polling at a bit under 20 percent since the 2019 election.
The NDP actually leads (at over 30 percent of the vote) among voters under age 35. While the Liberals have handled the pandemic reasonably well, one can hope that the NDP can pick up seats and hold the Liberals to another minority given that the Conservatives pose no serious electoral threat, given Singh’s personal popularity, and considering the prime minister’s propensity to over-promise in inflated rhetoric and under-deliver on progressive policies.
Singh seems to understand that Canada does not need two Liberal parties crowding the mushy centre, and has presented himself quite effectively as the champion of those at the losing end of rising inequality, and more interested in results than empty political posturing.
The NDP could do even better if it moved further left and excited activists and campaigned for fundamental change. There is a major layer of young and diverse activists in Canada in many social justice movements who see the need to engage in electoral politics, while also building a political movement that ensures elected politicians challenge the status quo and deliver the goods. Lessons have been learned from the successes, and failures, of the Sanders campaigns.
As things stand, Singh and the caucus have been major champions of helping the victims of the pandemic, pushing the Liberals to be more generous. They have drawn the links from the experience of the pandemic to the need for the expansion of public health care, including home care and pharmacare, child care, labour rights and reform of Employment Insurance. They have also championed serious tax reform, including taxation of wealth, to pay for a robust public investment program and to counter obscene and growing inequalities.
In short, Singh has embraced a relatively robust social democratic agenda based on redistribution, and is well-placed to differentiate himself from Trudeau whose avowed progressivism is shallow and cosmetic, and who remains highly deferential to corporate interests. The Liberals have even continued major subsidies to fossil fuel extraction.
Singh has not, however, paid as much attention to environmental and economic policy as he has to redistributive politics. The NDP platform for the last election was quite thin and unambitious in the way it addressed and focused on modest subsidies to clean energy and energy conservation rather than rapid decarbonization and just transition.
The decision of Avi Lewis to run for the NDP (with the apparent support of Singh and senior party officials) will be more than welcome for activists in the climate justice movement who want to see the NDP more firmly embrace a Green New Deal marked by massive public investment, strict regulation, a phasing out of fossil fuels, and a just transition for affected workers and communities. Such a bold platform might also attract Green Party voters seeking a new home.
As Seth Klein has argued at length in his book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, addressing the climate crisis will require serious economic planning in place of the normal rules of the liberal economic game, and certainly much more than will be accomplished by a carbon tax plus corporate subsidies.
The concept of a Green New Deal was once opposed by parts of the labour movement and the NDP which feared job losses. But these concerns have abated somewhat as the demise of the fossil fuel economy seems increasingly necessary and indeed inevitable, and as the job creation alternatives become more and more concrete. Most of the labour movement, even in the west, supports real action on climate change, and the federal NDP is polling at above 20 percent even in Alberta.
The NDP seem set to offer a clear left alternative to the Liberals. That is good news indeed, not just in electoral terms, but also in terms of rekindling democratic socialism.
Andrew Jackson is the former Director of Social and Economic Policy at the Canadian Labour Congress. He thanks Emma Jackson for her comments on an earlier draft.