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The NDP is a spent force in Canadian politics

Progressives need to begin the process of organizing a new political movement

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (far right) at a campaign rally in May 2023. Photo from Twitter.

Canadian progressives need to begin the process of organizing a new political movement, one that will either reorient the NDP to re-establish it as Canada’s principle progressive social democratic party, or create a new party to replace it.

Let me be clear: the NDP has now lost two key elections, one against Doug Ford, and another against Danielle Smith, two of the worst premiers in Canadian history. The NDP should have trounced both, not campaigned so ineffectively that reactionary, populist arch-conservative governments would win majority governments.

While some may argue that it is important to distinguish between the provincial parties and the federal NDP, I see any distinction as inherently problematic. If the provincial iterations of the NDP are so different from the federal party they can be considered separate parties then they ought not to use the NDP brand.

The new national progressive movement we need ought to be a total force, active at every conceivable level of government, active in unions and on campuses across the nation, and all pulling in the same direction.

How is it that the conservative movement—one that advocates for the supremacy of individuality and the sovereignty of the provinces above all else—is more unified than the progressives who advocate broad solidarity?

If the federal leader of the party is so unpopular they’re of no help to the provincial leadership candidate, this a problem. If the provincial leadership candidate is proposing policies and programs at odds with the mainstream of the party, this too is a colossal problem.

We need a more unified national progressive alternative, one where the national party and its provincial wings work together, particularly in mobilizing its support base and fundraising. This is not the NDP we have right now, and this is not the case of progressives more broadly speaking. As our side has become more fractured, arch-conservative, retrograde elements in our society tighten their stranglehold on power.

And the longer they remain in power, the more damage they do to the social safety net, the more they pull apart the bonds that have held Canada’s working classes together for generations.

The NDP, in both its federal and provincial iterations, has struggled in no small part because of a misguided notion that it should move to the centre to improve its electoral prospects. This has so far proven disastrous for the party.

The bulk of the NDP’s success in the last two decades came under the avowedly progressive leadership of Jack Layton. This led to the passing of what’s been termed ‘Canada’s first NDP budget’ in 2005. Layton developed the NDP from a 14-seat political has-been in 2004 to official opposition in just seven years.

Layton’s accomplishment was no fluke.

Canadians respond well to progressive policies, not watered down centrist alternatives. Progressive populism has a deep history in our country, in all regions, and appeals to the broad working class. Layton understood this. His appeal to Québecers made this abundantly clear.

Ed Broadbent knew this too when he led the NDP to its best showing in the 20th century, during the 1988 federal election. Broadbent opposed free trade for a simple enough reason: it hurt Canadian workers. It still does, and causes a wide variety of other problems, but you’d be hard pressed to find a NDP leadership hopeful take a strong stance against it these days.

And even though Broadbent didn’t make the NDP the official opposition in 1988, the party’s popularity soared, taking seats across western Canada at the expense of the Tories, and later forming governments in Ontario and British Columbia.

Though both Tom Mulcair and Jagmeet Singh have included some genuinely progressive ideas in their election efforts, they have nonetheless moved the party to the centre. As a consequence, the party has been reduced to a quarter of the seats it had a decade ago, and is once again in fourth place.

Worse, arguably, is that the NDP has offered de facto unconditional support to the Trudeau government for little more than a watered-down dental care plan. The confidence and supply agreement is notably not a coalition, did not permit for NDP input on the federal budget, nor include cabinet posts.

Giving a party sufficient support such that it can form a government without obtaining any of the aforementioned as a prerequisite provided far too much in return for far too little. It is perhaps the best overall indication of the NDP’s continued slide not only to the centre, but to its own obsolescence.

How will the NDP make any gains in the next federal election after providing the Trudeau administration with such unconditional support?

How will Singh effectively argue what distinguishes him as a leader, and the party he represents, when he agrees to keep his opponent in power despite what are supposed to be obvious differences in policy and values?

Perhaps the only way the party could have made gains while involved in the confidence and supply agreement would have been to direct its resources to shoring up its provincial wings, but this has evidently not occurred.

Former NDP strongholds in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the birthplace of progressive prairie populism in Canada, are mere shells of their former selves. The nominally NDP BC governments of John Horgan and David Eby haven’t been nearly as progressive as needed, particularly on environmental issues.

The same can be said of Rachel Notley’s version of the NDP in Alberta, which was still advocating for an oil and gas sector in the midst of both a climate catastrophe as much as the industry’s terminal decline (and this despite its gluttonous consumption of public subsidies and wildfires rampaging across the province).

Across a nation reeling from increasing environmental and ecological devastation, provincial NDPs have been slow to pick up the cause of fighting climate change.

Across a nation still reeling from the gross incompetence of conservative provincial premiers who more often than not exacerbated the pandemic with contradictory messages, a total lack of coordination and cooperation with other governments, and a propensity to engage in culture war politicking, the party that claims credit for creating public health care has missed every opportunity to champion its cause.

It boggles the mind. Not only has the NDP lost fights it should have easily won, it has lost fights against some of the very worst people to ever claim the title of leader in the entire history of Canadian politics. In its post-election analysis, the Ontario NDP correctly identified the key problems: failure to engage with and interest voters, and failure to mobilize its support base. The same could be said for the Alberta NDP. In either case, the provincial wings of the party likely would have done much better had they simply taken a bold progressive stance on any of the major issues of our day.

Appealing to the centre was pointless, as it not only failed to convince anyone to switch sides, the very idea of centrism insists against the bold plans, programs and policies that might actually have both broad appeal and galvanize the traditional support base. There’s probably no better demonstration of this aversion to bold stances and bolder ideas than the BC NDP’s inconceivable disqualification of Anjali Appadurai for the apparently heinous crime of recruiting thousands of new members to the party.

For years now, the NDP seems to have become increasingly disconnected from mainstream Canadian progressives and the global progressive community. Perhaps this is the inevitable conclusion of all political parties, wherein they eventually become more focused on preserving jobs for the party bureaucracy and whatever small amounts of power they’ve accumulated than winning elections with broad public support.

I fear the NDP may be beyond saving. If this is the case it is imperative a true progressive alternative be created, as soon as possible, to hasten its demise.

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montréal. In addition to writing regularly for Canadian Dimension, he contributes to the Toronto Star, Jacobin, Cult MTL, The Maple, DeSmog, and the Montréal Review of Books, among others. He holds an MA in Public History from Duquesne University and has worked on the restoration of playwright August Wilson’s childhood home. He is also a frequent contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia, and once debated several Canadian prime ministers at once on matters of foreign policy.

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