What Canada’s Social Democrats Can Do Now

Despite a disappointing result in Monday’s elections, the NDP has embraced its most socialist program in a generation. To recover and to win, it must continue to offer Canadians an alternative to neoliberalism.

Jagmeet Singh at his annual community BBQ in August 2014, taking place at Wildwood Park in Malton, Ontario. BGM Riding Association / Wikimedia

Following high hopes in recent weeks, Monday’s federal election proved disappointing for Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), yielding an ambiguous result that brought to mind the ghosts of elections past and in many ways resembled a strangely undead version of 2015.

On the heels of a campaign that generated considerable buzz and polling that suggested the NDP might ultimately receive the second-highest vote share in its history, the evening ultimately proved frustrating with the party failing to make necessary breakthroughs in the Maritimes, Ontario, and British Columbia, and losing all but one of its remaining MPs in Quebec thanks to a surge by the sovereigntist bloc.

Amid a fairly bleak electoral picture overall, however, there were a few signs of hope. Short on money and facing poor polling numbers just weeks ago, the NDP campaign pushed a strongly social-democratic message and at the very least averted the historic disaster some observers had predicted. It got an early evening gain thanks to the victory of former Newfoundland MP Jack Harris, who will return to Parliament following his defeat in 2015. In addition, it can celebrate the election of newly minted members like former Hamilton City Councilor Matthew Green and activist Leah Gazan. Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, a twenty-five year old with no prior electoral experience, handily defeated both her Liberal opponent and a former Conservative cabinet minister to become the NDP’s first ever elected-member from the northern territory of Nunavut.

Another saving grace, which has yet to be fully processed by most mainstream commentators, is that the night was very much a bad one for both the Liberals and Conservatives. Justin Trudeau will remain in office for now but emerges from the election a diminished and discredited figure — having received a smaller share of the popular vote than any prime minister in modern Canadian history and coming second to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.

Following the airbrushed euphoria of 2015, Canadian liberalism will now stumble along in zombified form. In no other federal election have both traditional parties of government fared so badly, suggesting that the political status quo has yet to fully reconstitute itself. Meanwhile, the NDP’s disappointing result stems in large part from structuring dynamics of Canadian politics it has never really overcome.

It’s long been clear that the country as a whole suffers from what can crudely but accurately be called an anemic political imagination, the roots of which are more than a century old. Thanks to its unique character as a settler nation-state dominated by regionalism and decades of constitutional turmoil, its politics have almost invariably tilted towards the center and a culture of deference toward elites. (Even populism, certainly no stranger to Canada, has often been circumscribed by regional identity). This, more than anything, accounts for the long-standing hegemony of the Liberal Party: a vehicle for brokering between civil society and business interests, mitigating popular discontent, and absorbing and deflating progressive energy whenever it becomes necessary.

Despite the existence of multiparty democracy, Monday’s election made it abundantly clear that millions of voters are still unable to conceive of a political ecosystem that strays significantly from a US-style duopoly. Moreover, as the NDP’s shutout in Toronto demonstrates all too well, there remains a sizable constituency of what might be called small-p progressive voters whose political identity will simply gravitate towards whatever they believe is the primary nonconservative option. “Strategic voting,” a phrase that almost invariably implies passively casting a ballot for the Liberals, is the idiom through which this outlook is typically expressed.

Incoherent as it is, the persistence of ideologically malleable progressivism over either socialism or social democracy offers millions a drab but attractive psychological compromise: the familiar hand of technocratic centrist government coupled with periodic reassurance that elites are Extraordinarily Concerned™ about issues like racism, inequality, and climate change. These obstacles, while not unique to the NDP, are especially acute in the Canadian political landscape and have persisted for decades. Consider that Charles Taylor, a leading party intellectual in the 1960s, could write the following about the first Trudeau phenomenon almost a half-century ago:

[Trudeaumania] provided the ideal psychological compromise between [two] … contradictory drives. The Trudeau image offered all the excitement of change … while offering the reassurance which the average man could read in the benign reactions of power and privilege – that no serious challenge would be offered to the way things are. The act looked terrific, but everyone knew that no crockery was going to be broken. Everyone could relax and indulge the yearning for change without arousing the fear of novelty.

That the Liberal Party has so dexterously oscillated between progressive rhetoric and center-right governance for decades is a testament to the breathtaking staying power of Canada’s elite center and, until the NDP finally develops a lasting countermeasure, there will undoubtedly be many more 1968s, 1988s, 2015s, and 2019s.

With a popular leader and its most unapologetically social-democratic platform in a generation, the NDP is now better positioned to contrast itself with the Liberals than it has been for many years. With Trudeau making clear his minority administration will pursue tax cuts and continue with an unpopular pipeline expansion in western Canada — a kind of de facto legislative coalition with Scheer and the Conservatives — it will likely have no shortage of ammunition in the short term. But to meaningfully exploit the opportunities ahead the NDP must continue to build on its program and offer a radical alternative to Liberal governance.

Hammering Liberal politicians for their betrayals and their duplicity, while certainly a necessary task, cannot on its own structure or sustain such an alternative. The trade unionists and intellectuals who founded the NDP, after all, intended it to be a labor party in the truest sense: a vehicle for representing the interests of the working-class majority and realigning national politics for good — not, as far too many Canadians have internalized, to be the “conscience” of Parliament or an occasional mechanism for keeping a fundamentally unjust political order “honest.”

Economic, as well as social, democracy, must therefore be a guiding light. This means not only confronting the rich and openly targeting their wealth (as the party did effectively during the campaign with its wealth-tax proposal) but also the constituencies in which their power is ultimately based. Despite its rosy international image — another mythical construct far too many have come to see as reality — Canada remains a deeply unequal country dominated by the viceroys of dirty oil and high finance. Coupled to an unapologetic agenda for racial justice, such a strategy could help the NDP finally create the coalition necessary to realize its long-standing goal of supplanting the Liberals.

In a century of climate change, soaring inequality, and the rising power of multinational corporations, a confrontational left populism is not the enemy of hope, but its natural complement and ally — and unless it can create a new polarity in the electorate and marginalize the elite center, the NDP will be doomed to fall short of its animating (and urgently necessary) purpose. In the days and months ahead, activists should therefore celebrate their victories and look to build on the party’s best platform in years by expanding their demands and enlarging the scope of their ambitions still further.

It’s time, in other words, to start naming villains and welcoming their hatred: the better to give the majority who need a fairer, more humane, and more democratic Canada the hope necessary to finally build one.