After Sixty Years, Canada’s New Democratic Party Must Embrace Class Struggle

NDP provincial governments have some achievements to their credit, but the party’s recent history has been a travesty of what its founders hoped for. Without a bold change of direction toward socialist politics, its future will consist of inexorable decline.

The rhetoric adopted by British Columbia premier John Horgan in the face of the pandemic and the recent heatwave is symptomatic of how far the NDP has moved away from its original approach to politics. (Rich Lam / World Rugby via Getty Images)

This week, the New Democratic Party (NDP) celebrates its sixtieth anniversary. It’s an opportunity to look back over the party’s history to see what it can still offer the Canadian left.

Although the NDP has always struggled at the national level, it has formed twenty-six provincial and territorial governments, including the current administration in British Columbia. As well as one-term governments in Nova Scotia (2009–2013), Ontario (1990–95), and Alberta (2015–19), it has also formed multi-term administrations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Yukon, and British Columbia.

At their best, NDP governments have implemented progressive policies that materially improved the lives of working Canadians. Too often, however, the party has acted as an ideological weather vane, embracing fiscal austerity and reactionary rhetoric while censuring (and occasionally purging) left-wing critics for undermining the supposedly “progressive” electoral option.

Hits and Misses

We can divide the NDP’s governmental record into three broad periods. The first era of NDP provincial governments was typified by figures like Ed Schreyer (1969–1977) and Howard Pawley (1981–88) in Manitoba; Allan Blakeney in Saskatchewan (1971–1982); and Dave Barrett in BC (1972–75). These premierships were late expressions of the postwar belief in the capacity of elected governments to reshape society for the benefit of all. They boasted forthright and ambitious programs of reform.

Coinciding with the last gasps of the Keynesian welfare state in Europe and North America, Allan Blakeney’s “new deal for people” program in Saskatchewan contained important advances in social programs, such as Pharmacare, subsidized housing, dental care for children, and income supplements for the elderly. Blakeney also fostered the development of a state-led resource sector, which included creating the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and SaskOil. These public enterprises became an obsession for Blakeney, and his technocratic approach distracted him from taxation policy, women’s rights, and labor law, where broader changes were needed.

The Schreyer government in Manitoba was unwilling to use power quickly and radically to transform the existing order in the province. According to political scientist James McAllister, the actions taken by Schreyer amounted to half measures:

automobile insurance taken over by the government, but not life or accident or illness insurance; pharmacare, but not a government-run pharmaceutical company; a mineral exploration firm owned by the government, but not a government take-over of the province’s mines; unification of municipal governments in Winnipeg, but no progressive reform of the municipal tax system.

For their part, right-wing provincial governments typically showed far more energy in rolling back existing reforms than NDP administrations did in carrying out new ones. Ontario’s Mike Harris in 1995, BC’s Gordon Campbell in 2001, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister in 2016, and Alberta’s Jason Kenney in 2019 all assumed office after ousting NDP governments. They rapidly unraveled much of the positive work done by the previous administrations. The Canadian left could badly use some of that single-minded and unflagging brio.

There seems to be one main exception to the rule. Dave Barrett’s BC premiership in the 1970s was the most ambitious NDP government elected to date. His proactive reformism, articulated in the famous quote “Here for a good time, not a long time,” resulted in the passage of 367 bills over the course of his term.

In just four years, Barrett’s premiership increased state control of the forestry, natural gas, tourism, and auto-insurance industries. It introduced Pharmacare, a minimum income for seniors, and province-wide kindergarten. The NDP government also decentralized community services, raised social assistance rates, created the Agricultural Land Reserve to protect against urban sprawl, and formed an innovative new labor relations board.

However, Barrett’s government also displayed some of the NDP’s typical flaws. Its relationship with organized labor ran hot and cold — in 1975, it passed legislation to drive striking workers back to work. As neoliberal ideas began their rise to dominance, Barrett promised to be even more hawkish on spending than the right-wing, reactionary Social Credit Party that displaced him in the next election.

Canada’s Third Way

This early impulse to concede ground to the neoliberal playbook became predominant during the second era of NDP governments, with premiers like Ontario’s Bob Rae (1990–95), Manitoba’s Gary Doer (1999–2009), Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow (1991–2001), and BC’s Mike Harcourt (1991–96) and Glen Clark (1996–99). They all embraced the Third Way politics of the age, associated with politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. In practice, this meant implementing brutal austerity agendas in their provinces.

In Ontario, Rae reneged on his promise to introduce public car insurance, passed legislation to override collective agreements, and imposed wage freezes. In BC, after initially investing in social assistance programs, Harcourt quickly changed gears in response to criticism from the Right, promising to crack down on welfare “cheats, deadbeats, and varmints.

Manitoba balanced its budget every year that Doer was in power by limiting government spending. In Saskatchewan, Romanow claimed to have no choice but to cut health care, education, and other social programs because of the province’s dire financial circumstances. However, the austerity measures he implemented continued even once the books were officially balanced.

These premiers all espoused the rhetoric of social democracy while in practice flouting its central ideological tenets. As a result, their governments alienated core supporters such as labor unions, social movements, and farmers. The Romanow era saw a two-thirds decline in party membership and a 25 percent drop in voter turnout, which heavily impacted the NDP. It was a bruising experience from which the NDP in Saskatchewan has never fully recovered.

The Here and Now

Over the last decade, NDP governments could only offer a supposedly more moderate approach to the crushing austerity that was being implemented across the country. In Nova Scotia, Darrell Dexter (2009–2013) balanced the province’s budget by increasing the regressive harmonized sales tax and cutting health spending. In Alberta, Rachel Notley (2015–19) developed an industry-friendly climate plan while failing to challenge the dominance of fossil fuels or reduce the province’s reliance on resource royalties.

In BC, John Horgan’s NDP administration has slightly increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy and implemented some positive measures around access to childcare. However, it has also abandoned the environmental priorities it originally set out, doubling down on the Site C dam project begun by the previous Liberal government and pursuing destructive forestry policies.

After leading the province to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Horgan’s government sent in the RCMP to enforce the construction of a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory. During the pandemic, Horgan’s NDP introduced a landlord subsidy and scrapped a ban on evictions of tenants.

The rhetoric adopted by Horgan in the face of the pandemic and the recent deadly heatwave is  symptomatic of how far the NDP has moved away from its original approach to politics. When the leader of a putatively social-democratic party scapegoats young, precarious workers for the rise in COVID-19 infections, something is clearly amiss. Horgan went on to describe the deaths of citizens in the heat wave as “part of life,” and even suggested that the victims bore a “level of personal responsibility” for their own deaths.

Current and recent NDP governments may engage in the theater of progressivism, touting their moral superiority over their opponents. But they do not actually engage in progressive politics or implement policies that would fundamentally improve the lives of ordinary Canadians.

Polling in Canada routinely shows broad public support for ambitious social reforms like a just transition and a wealth tax. Indeed, the Liberals often claim to be in favor of such policies to get elected, before abandoning them as soon they form a government.

Unless the NDP embraces bold, socialist politics, it will have nothing substantial to offer voters — just a team of benevolent technocratic managers to oversee environmental decay and corporate dismemberment. The party’s only hope lies in a radical change of course.

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Roberta Lexier is an associate professor and the member engagement officer for the Mount Royal Faculty Association. She is a member of the Alberta Advantage and Forgotten Corner podcast teams and sits on the board of directors for the Harbinger Media Network.

Patrick Corbeil is an adjunct professor of history, a member of the Alberta Advantage podcast team, and serves on board of directors for the Victoria Tenant Action Group.

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