In the 1970s, Social Democracy Was in Retreat. British Columbia’s NDP Fought for It, Anyway.

Dave Barrett’s NDP government in British Columbia was one of the most impressive examples of social democracy in action during the twilight of the Keynesian era. But the BC NDP lacked a proper strategy to deal with the power of capital, which eventually forced it into retreat.

Dave Barrett was the premier of British Columbia from 1972 and 1975. (Getty Images)

In 1972, British Columbia’s New Democratic Party won a majority for the first time in the province’s history. Due in part to BC’s strong tradition of labor militancy, its electoral system had been purposefully designed to block the prospect of a left-wing government. In the past, this had prevented both the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the NDP’s precursor) and the NDP from gaining power.

Led by Dave Barrett, the BC NDP government was characterized by its breakneck legislative speed. In its “legislation by thunderbolt,” the Barrett administration demonstrated that social-democratic parties could still carry out progressive reforms in the late Keynesian era. But the breakdown of the Keynesian order — alongside the limits of the NDP’s approach — meant these strategies were ill-equipped for the coming neoliberal backlash.

The Socialist Threat Contained, 1941–1972

The CCF had emerged as British Columbia’s official opposition in 1941 with 33 percent of the vote. Support for the party remained high, with 37 percent of the vote in 1945 and 35 percent in 1949.

After the 1941 election, the Liberal and Conservative parties formed an electoral coalition dedicated to containing challenges from the Left which lasted until 1952. The BC CCF did not conceal its radicalism. In 1943, party leader Harold Winch gave the following pledge:

When we become the government, we will institute socialism immediately, and the power of the police and the military will be used to force those opposed, to obey the law. . . if capitalism says “no,” then we know the answer — so did Russia.

However, both the provincial and national wings of the CCF sought to moderate their image in the postwar boom of the 1950s. Having formally united with the forces of organized labor, while softening their radicalism, they reconstituted themselves as the New Democratic Party in 1962. BC’s governing Liberal-Conservative coalition, meanwhile, had been replaced by the Social Credit (Socred) Party, fashioned after the neighboring Alberta Social Credit Party. They governed for twenty years, winning another five terms in government, and relegating the CCF/NDP to the opposition benches until 1972.

“The Economy Should Serve the People, Not People the Economy”

The BC NDP’s electoral win in August 1972 was unexpected. The Socreds, aided by their media allies, had campaigned with dire warnings of the socialist menace to British Columbia. The outgoing premier, W. A. C. Bennett, didn’t publicly acknowledge the change of government for over two weeks and left office without even greeting his successor.

Legend has it that Dave Barrett, at his first cabinet meeting, took off his shoes and slid sock-footed across the polished table, shouting, “are we here for a good time or a long time?” The BC NDP proceeded with a flurry of reforms, based on a strategy to “advance on all fronts.” Barrett summed up their political philosophy with an aside during his 1972 budget speech: “The economy should serve the people, not people the economy.”

One still-popular piece of legislation froze speculative development on agricultural land. With just 5 percent of the mountainous province suitable for agriculture, farmland had been steadily eroded by subdivisions and commercial development. Barrett froze the conversion of agricultural land, permanently protecting the most fertile soils in the country — and preventing the upzoning of these lands for profit.

Barrett’s legislative program was extensive. Changes included a guaranteed senior’s income, a minimum wage increase, public auto insurance, a labor code overhaul, public transit investments, a ban on corporal punishment in schools, a review of indigenous policy, expansion of the (relatively new) national medicare system, and corporate tax hikes to finance it all. Public spending expanded significantly, with BC’s 1975 budget 50 percent larger than it had been when the NDP took office.

Housing was declared to be a basic right, with curbs on the powers of landlords and monthly grants to tenants. By making investments in social housing, the BC NDP doubled the province’s stock of affordable housing by 1976.

Announcing that “the day of the rip-off is over,” Barrett signaled that BC Tel (telecommunications), Inland Natural Gas, and Westcoast Transmission (pipelines) were potential targets for nationalization, and that his government would penalize resource extraction firms if they did not invest in secondary processing within the province. Apart from some targeted interventions in forestry, talk of nationalization mostly remained just that. But Barrett was willing to publicly spar with corporate executives, threatening to go after their assets when they threatened layoffs.

The BC NDP also introduced expansive new human rights legislation and gave the commission in charge of that legislation substantial powers. The broad definition of discrimination allowed for LGBT rights to be successfully tested in court. Gender and racial discrimination were now actively punished, contributing to significant pay hikes for women, particularly in the public sector.

The Good Times End

Faced with enormous hostility from the media, Barrett’s government nonetheless passed over four hundred pieces of legislation. Members of the press gallery had written speeches for the previous Socred government to make extra cash. It was therefore unsurprising that the BC media should have been so brazenly antagonistic, running stories accusing Barrett’s government of a range of nefarious deeds, often without seeking comment from the government.

While the early years of Barrett’s term coincided with economic growth and a favorable climate for BC’s exports, the boom came to a halt in 1975 when the crisis hit Canada. Inflation rose by 13 percent and growth flatlined.

Inflation eroded workers’ wages, which led to a greater number of strikes. Workers demanded pay increases to keep up with the rising cost of living. Private employers, facing a profit squeeze, banded together to oppose the demands. By the fall of 1975, over fifty thousand private-sector workers in a range of industries were on strike. Pressure grew for the government to resolve the labor unrest.

On October 7, 1975, Dave Barrett’s BC NDP government tabled the most sweeping back-to-work legislation in Canadian history. Shocking both organized labor and business, it ordered fifty thousand union members back to work. The strikes rapidly collapsed. Hoping to seize the momentum gained by this measure, Barrett called a snap election for December.

The NDP leader had caught the Socred opposition by surprise, but he was unprepared for the level of hostility that would become apparent in the course of a deeply polarizing election. Barrett received Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) protection because of threats.

The opposition campaign spent twice as much as the NDP, and the Socreds coordinated an anti-NDP “free enterprise” vote to prevent vote-splitting losses to Liberals and Conservatives. Although the NDP’s vote share only declined by 0.4 percent, the right-wing vote consolidated behind the Socreds.

This left Barrett’s party with 39 percent against 49 percent for Social Credit, which more than doubled its number of seats. The NDP would not govern British Columbia again until 1991.

The Limits of Social Democracy

Social democracy in the context of a Keynesian economic order involved sharing the fruits of stable, predictable growth. When the Keynesian arrangement could no longer produce these conditions, forcing politicians to choose between squeezing profits or squeezing workers’ wage demands, even social-democratic governments like Barrett’s sided with capital in the hope of temporarily resolving the crisis.

Confronting the business class during the last gasps of the postwar social contract was an inadequate prelude for the battles to come. Opposition to Dave Barrett — and, at the national level, Pierre Trudeau — spurred the formation of the Friedmanite movement that would formulate neoliberal policy in Canada. Deregulation, privatization, and a war on organized labor made things even harder for Canadian social democrats.

After the defeat of Barrett’s NDP administration, British Columbia went through a rightist readjustment that lasted almost a decade. Then, as now, the development of a socialist politics that rejects the constraints of neoliberalism and austerity remains an elusive goal in Canadian politics. But it’s time to break through this impasse.