Safe and Middle-of-the-Road, Canada’s New Democrats Need a Progressive Re-Fit

The New Democratic Party is in big trouble with a scant 11% of Canadians supporting it.  On Sunday, at its national convention held in Edmonton, Alberta the Party voted 52% in favour of holding a leadership race, a resounding rejection of the current leader Tom Mulcair and his dismal 2015 campaign where Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept the country to form a majority government.

The Liberals are experiencing the sweetest honeymoon in Canadian history, even more robust than Justin’s father, Pierre, enjoyed in 1968 during a political love-in that Canadians still dub “Trudeaumania.”

While the honeymoon endures, Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats continue to disappoint. Canadians are watching the implosion of its resource-extraction-based economy, high unemployment, dramatic dips in the worth of the Loonie, and a Liberal government determined to sign the TPP free trade deal, while the New Democrats dither about leadership rather than policy. The Liberals are now much more popular among New Democrats than their own party.

There has been resistance. During the six months between the federal election and the Edmonton convention, Mulcair fell into disfavour among certain prominent members of the NDP. Their behind-the-scenes re-think and Mulcair’s own shaky performance brought about his eventual demise.

Yet the NDP has not seen the last of Tom Mulcair. Regardless of receiving only 48% of the vote in favour of his continued leadership at Sunday’s convention (after Mulcair stated that he required 70% to press on) he’s still trying to hang on to his position, until the leadership race is decided in two years.

The real problem is that Mulcair and the tone of the NDP is out of step with progressives in the U.S. and the U.K. Unlike Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Mulcair’s NDP struck a safe, middle-of-the-road course during the federal election. It watched its early lead in the polls disintegrate as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals dominated the centre-left with campaign promises of deficit financing.  

In comparison to the Liberals, the New Dems appeared positively Thatcheresque with intentions of balancing the budget while ignoring the critical needs of the working middle class whose top expectations are job creation and fair taxation.

In fact, during a previous incarnation as Environment Minister in Jean Charest’s Quebec provincial Liberal government, Mulcair publically defended his support for Thatcher’s trickle-down economics.

The Party, once the home of radical thinkers and activists, now lacks a core leadership who could animate a comprehensive progressive policy

As the NDP’s popularity fell in the polls, Mulcair didn’t adequately reverse his austerity economic policy, although he did take blame for the Party’s dismal race to the bottom.

At this convention where he was in the political fight of his life, Mulcair did promise increasing taxes on corporations, but not on personal wealth. He didn’t wholly embrace a radical reliance on renewable energy, proposed by the signatures to the Leap Manifesto, nor did he hit other hot-button issues such as the re-call of the Draconian anti-terrorist Bill C-51, passed by the former Conservative government, or the current Liberal government’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Mulcair’s tenure in the NDP was an exercise in leading from above. He appeared uninterested or unimpressed with the party’s base. Throughout this weekend’s convention, Mulcair looked like a fish out of water. With his starched shirt, and suit and tie attire, he stood out from the other attendees, who represent the face of social democracy to Canadians.

Yet it’s not all Tom Mulcair’s fault that the NDP is losing its grip on the aspirations of working Canadians. The Party, once the home of radical thinkers and activists, now lacks a core leadership who could animate a comprehensive progressive policy re-fit for the 21st century. Instead, speakers at the convention in Edmonton relied on social democratic tropes about the villainous nature of the banking system and a myriad of tried and true social injustices, without presenting viable solutions that could dig working Canadians out of the hole in which they find themselves.

The would-be Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyns of the NDP are not sitting in the Canadian House of CommonS

Since the 1970s, the NDP has turned increasingly to the right, starting when the Party expelled the socialist Waffle group and the New Democratic Youth from its ranks. Most of its compelling left-wing thinkers and activists, those who opposed the domination of U.S. directed business unions and American-owned multi-nationals, left the Party when they were asked.  For forty years, the Canadian progressive party, has been strangely lacking in promoting radical solutions to an embattled working middle class, whose real wages have not increased during this time period.

The radicals of the Waffle group, who would now be leadership material, were nowhere to be seen on this weekend’s convention floor. The would-be Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyns of the NDP are not sitting in the Canadian House of Commons. Most have retreated to an academic life where, at the very least, they’re able to share their ideas with the next generation. But academia is no substitute for political movements.

When Mulcair made the rallying cry that “thousands of Canadians are looking to us to stand up for them,” he may be right, but when he continued with “let us stand together to fight inequality, stand for peace, and a Canada that is loving, hopeful and optimistic, where no one is left behind,” he failed to mention how to get there or how to depose the winning centre-left Liberals. Trudeau and his team, during a hard winter, have won the hearts of Canadians by defending wealth distribution tax measures, environmental controls, an increase in the Guaranteed Annual Income for impoverished seniors and a child tax credit for 90 per cent of Canadian families.

The New Democratic Party has two years to revitalize its interest in socialist policy and to re-invent itself as the voice of working families and singles. If it misses the mark once again, and runs a federal election campaign that is right of the Liberals, it risks becoming irrelevant. The NDP won’t be the first national party to disappear and it probably won’t be the last.

Joyce Wayne is the author of the blog Retirementmatters.ca and former head of the journalism program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada.  Her novel The Cook’s Temptation is available online. 

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