- Interview by
- David Moscrop
In July-August 1961, the New Democratic Party held its founding convention in Ottawa as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation merged with the Canadian Labour Congress. Tommy Douglas, premier of Saskatchewan, winner of five consecutive majority governments, and father of Medicare became the party’s first leader.
With a probable federal election this fall, two current NDP members of parliament spoke to David Moscrop for Jacobin on the party’s accomplishments and ideological direction.
Let’s start by looking back. Over the last six decades, what has defined the NDP?
I’m a Stanley Knowles New Democrat. I think about the moment after the Great Depression when the CCF joined with the Labour Congress to form the new party, which is as relevant today as it was sixty years ago. When I look at how the party brought together working-class people, farmers, and organized laborers, I see a compelling model that speaks to the current moment — a pathway to a more democratic economy.
The thoughts of Stanley Knowles about profit and distribution are worth revisiting. He once asked: “What shall it profit us to live in an affluent society if the things that we produce and the ways in which we distribute them fail to contribute to the achievement of human dignity and social values?” We’re having a values conversation in this country right now, coming out of the pandemic, that is similar in kind to World War II
or the Great Depression.
We were historically a very progressive party with very progressive values — values that really force people to think outside of the box. There are strong forerunners to look to: Medicare with Tommy Douglas, the movement support for J. S. Woodsworth’s work on Old Age Security. These events changed the face of this country and helped to support folks that have traditionally fallen through the cracks.
We also have a history of racism like everybody else; we have had some great leaders, but we’ve also had some who were eugenicists. Our party has evolved and changed over time. I think we still are evolving as a party. I’m going to keep pushing for a progressive agenda that reflects our history.
What would founding leader Tommy Douglas think of today’s NDP?
I think that he would recognize our attempts to have a more complete and universal Pharmacare as a continuation of his work. Over the last sixty years, there has been a marked departure from the origins of, say, the Regina manifesto. But I think we are now living through a new left-leaning surge. People increasingly recognize that maintaining profit as the lodestar for our country’s political vision results in wealth accruing to an elite few and economic hardship for the rest of us.
The positions of our membership answer this question. Let’s not forget, it was the membership that voted overwhelmingly to support Palestine. It is our membership that has pushed forward a peace agenda. It’s the members that make the party.
I don’t think the spirit of the membership has really changed that much; I think the membership was progressive then and is progressive now. We have a number of young people in the party that are taking bold positions on critical matters, such as the climate emergency, Indigenous human rights, and re-funding communities.
In 2013, the NDP voted to remove references to “socialism” from its constitution and moved towards the political center. Two years prior, in the 2011 election, it had managed its best-ever performance. Since then, the party has slipped but seems to be gaining ground ahead of the 2021 election.
Where along the political spectrum does the future success of the party rest?
If we’re going to successfully articulate a compelling vision — a more caring, compassionate vision for the country — it has to involve a marked departure from capitalism. We have to move away from extractivism, from the ways in which we have continued to exploit the value of workers and our natural resources to the benefit of a very small minority.
We have forty-four billionaires who amassed $80 billion in wealth in 2020, while the remaining 99 percent of the country were $200 away from insolvency. That’s an indictment of the system. If we’re going to be successful in telling this story, we have to reject the orthodoxies that normalize social inequality.
I’m a very proud socialist. I hope eventually we’ll move towards reinstating socialism as part of our identity as a party. I think there’s a growing socialist movement internationally. Bernie Sanders might not have won the Democratic leadership race, but he certainly shook things up and continues to enjoy a tremendous amount of support. Many Central and South American countries are electing socialist governments. There is growing support for the ideas of socialism.
Does the NDP need to get more serious about public ownership or a public option in certain market spaces? For instance, telecom, air travel, or bus transit?
In terms of structural change, the thing we need to look at most closely is socializing finance. When you look at the Bank of Canada’s paper purchase buyback program during the pandemic, and the creation of quantitative easing and liquidity supports for Bay Street and the banking sector, the routine malfeasance of finance comes into view.
The pandemic provided a window into how finance is used, not to support our social programs, but to overvalue the dividends, returns, and bonuses of the corporate class. While we spent $300 billion on government supports and programs, $750 billion went to Bay Street and big banks.
During the pandemic, we witnessed Canada’s largest ever redistribution of wealth. Through wage subsidies and other government programs and support, we saw a shocking transfer of wealth from the working class to the ultra-wealthy elite.
During the pandemic, people’s access to telecom services was limited. Kids couldn’t stay abreast of schoolwork if they didn’t have access to a computer or the internet. If you look at the party convention, there was a clear push for public ownership.
We’re only as good as our members. I think they’re sending a very clear message, and I listen to members.
What about the wealth tax? Can it raise as much revenue as the party claims? How do you fully account for avoidance and evasion?
The wealth tax we have proposed is a modest one, and I would certainly like to see a more progressive wealth tax. We should consider something along the lines of the more aggressive proposal from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
We lose hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars from tax evasion. We had six thousand audits with not one prosecution or conviction. The rules even provide a legal framework for dodging taxes. The rich are evading social obligations to the country by moving their money offshore.
There is a false argument that increasing wealth and capital-gains taxes will lead to more offshoring. In fact, they’re already offshore if they can possibly manage it, and we need to be aggressive in closing tax loopholes.
I support the wealth tax, 100 percent. We need to go after offshore tax havens and change tax laws so you don’t have multi-millionaires getting away with not paying a cent in taxes. But we also need to redistribute wealth. Our problems go beyond just a wealth tax.
Look at how much government spending takes the form of multi-billion corporate bailouts. During the pandemic, money went to big oil. They don’t need bailouts. Not only do we need to change the tax system, we also need to redistribute wealth in this country.
A jobs program is central to your 2021 election platform, and part of that plan includes a “Buy Canadian” element. Is that a response to Biden’s “Buy American” program? Is the party considering a jobs guarantee?
While it’s true that many supply chains are integrated across national borders, we do need to look at ways of socializing our finance and having public ownership. For example, if we’re talking about retrofitting homes for a Green New Deal, that should come with a jobs guarantee that allows people to make that transition.
To do the type of work that will be necessary, we have to make polluters pay. If we take the subsidies that have gone to the oil and gas sector and direct them towards workers instead, we can take care of their families as we transition away from non-renewables.
I’m not sure where that will land, but I can tell you this: one of the things that I pushed for was a guaranteed, livable basic income for all. We need a UBI program that is not dependent on work or participation in education. And there’s a reason for that. Capitalist systems devalue all kinds of work — care work, first and foremost.
There are many people with mental health and trauma issues who are unable to work and live in poverty. We need to move beyond things like job guarantees towards redefining what work is and how traditional jobs, mostly held by women, have historically been totally devalued and unpaid.
The Liberals will be claiming a pandemic victory in the upcoming election. How can the NDP distinguish itself from the governing party? And how will the NDP highlight its own accomplishments in the forty-third parliament?
The Liberals will benefit from the short-term euphoria of international vaccine hoarding, which allowed us to acquire, along with nine other developed countries, the vast majority of the global vaccine supply. But until the entire world is vaccinated, we’re not going to be out of this. In the decade to come, much of my work as a legislator should be about ensuring this sort of thing never happens again.
The Liberals want to claim victory for losing only 27,000 people to COVID-19 to make up for the fact that their initial response was abysmal. They chose not to re-establish Connaught Labs as a publicly owned enterprise to help revamp our domestic vaccine facilities. Instead, they shoveled money into the global corporation Sanofi. They closed down our national emergency strategic stockpile. They refused to mandate paid sick days and invoke the Emergency Act or the Public Health Act, which would have facilitated a federal, nationalized standard for our pandemic response.
I don’t know how they will spin these decisions as effective leadership. Maybe they’ll get away with it in the short term. But I believe that history will not look kindly on their refusal to heed recommendations from experts.
I’m knocking on doors right now, checking in on residents to see how they’re doing. I think people know the hard work that the NDP did in the last parliament to try to ensure worker benefits and COVID-19 supports.
I’d like to see our party move more to the left, but I do still think that there are very clear differences between the Liberals and the NDP. I’ll give you the most recent example: in spite of our party’s efforts, the Liberals just cut $800 a month from support payments. Having us present to fight for people, to ensure that support is available, is critical.