Will Canada’s NDP Fight Right-Wing “Pro-Worker” Populism With Actual Class War?

Pierre Poilievre, the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, presents himself as a friend of the working class. Some New Democrats claim they’ll fight Poilievre’s rhetoric with class war, but is the party up for it?

Pierre Poilievre, newly elected leader of Canada's Conservative Party, speaks to a crowd in Ontario, Canada on September 10, 2022. (James Park / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pierre Poilievre is the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. For months, he has been working to own the labor discourse, popping into left territory — aesthetically, not substantively — to argue for working-class affordability.

The message may be money-in-your-pocket populism at a time when few can afford life’s essentials, but the policy behind the messaging is retrenchment, austerity, and power to capital. To the extent that Poilievre has a platform, it is centered on cutting taxes, limiting state spending, and opening market space for big capital — particularly in resource extraction. Any benefits to workers would be incidental, accidental, or temporary.

Fighting on Home Turf

The Left must be wary of Poilievre’s cynical venture into what has traditionally been — and still ought to be — our ambit. He is playing a game. His campaign has been a strategic foray into pro-worker cosplay that will do no good for the folks he purports to care about. Of course, not everyone is fooled by his act. Shortly after Poilievre took the Conservative leadership, with 68 percent on the first ballot, the Canadian Union of Public Employees released a statement from national president Mark Hancock. It did not mince words.

“It’s too bad that, unlike Andrew Scheer, Pierre Poilievre does not hold American citizenship, because he would be right at home as Governor of a state like Alabama,” the statement opened. The union head pointed out Poilievre’s support for the convoy that occupied Ottawa last year and the extremists who made it their home.

Getting to the core of Poilievre’s play, the statement points out Poilievre simply isn’t a friend of the working class, but rather “a career politician who has been collecting a six-figure salary on the public’s dime since he was 24.” And what has he been up to in office? Well, “he’s spent every minute of his time in office fighting against fair wages, good pensions and a better life for working people.” Yes indeed. That is the analysis and tone the Left needs in order to fight back against Poilievre’s incursion into our territory. Poilievre’s attempt to speak for the working class needs to be mercilessly criticized and called out for the sham that it is.

A counter-conservative movement must be broad. It should be led by a party with the guts to own class politics, too. The New Democratic Party (NDP) claims to be prepared to batten down the hatches and neutralize Poilievre’s rhetoric. As Raisa Patel reports for the Toronto Star, the party is “not going to wage a culture war” against Poilievre. Instead, “it will be a class war.” Wouldn’t that be nice? If past is prologue, however, that’s not how this story is going to go.

The NDP Needs to Step Up to the Plate Already

Does the NDP have it in them this time? For years the party has been timorous and ineffective. In 2015, after serving as official opposition and continuing a years-long centrist pivot, the party dropped back to third place in the House of Commons with forty-four seats. That was still a good showing for them. By 2019, the NDP had jettisoned leader Thomas Mulcair, architect of the party’s “pragmatic” rightward drift, and replaced him with Jagmeet Singh in an effort for a new left turn. If the turn materialized, it didn’t translate into much. The party ended the election that year with twenty-four seats. In 2021, they increased their count to twenty-five.

In a minority Parliament, the NDP had a chance to play an outsized role, extracting policy from the Liberals and their minority government. The party has managed to help set the agenda, at least ostensibly, with a summer deal that pushed dental care, housing, and prescription drug care — things the Liberals may have wanted to do anyway. They also claimed to have pushed the government to deliver more to folks as the pandemic emerged, but it’s unclear whether they pushed the Liberals to do anything they weren’t going to do anyway.

The government’s fall affordability package includes a modest dental plan stopgap slated for December. It’s targeted at children under twelve living in households earning less than $90,000 a year, with tiered payments that parents must apply for through the Canada Revenue Agency. The program is meant to expand in 2023 to include seniors, people under eighteen, and people with disabilities. It is then meant to expand again in 2025 to include everyone making under $90,000 a year. The package also includes a one-off rental benefit for those making under $35,000 a year. Finally, it offers a doubling of the goods and services tax (GST) credit.

It’s doubtful the NDP will be able to own credit for these measures, limited — though helpful — as they are. Hopefully this isn’t the class war they’re talking about, because it looks an awful lot like the usual liberal welfare state, means-tested minimum. Either way, the Liberals are likely to get the most credit for whatever gets done, leaving the NDP shouting from the rooftops trying to remind people they helped. That isn’t likely to win many votes, nor is it likely to remake the state and market — and it’s certainly not “class war” as most people understand the term.

A Party Both of and for the Working Class

The NDP’s recent record, not without a few appreciable but insufficient successes, speaks to their incapacity to extract structural changes from the ruling Liberal government. It’s this selfsame incapacity that accounts for the inability to articulate industrial and economic strategy that encourages broad class alignment, consciousness, and mobilization. Now the party has Poilievre as a foil — and a threat.

The rise of Poilievre presents a chance for the party to own a class-based, socialist politics of structural transformation. The NDP needs to seize this opportunity to contrast conservative and liberal logic with a left understanding of worker and state capacity and the need to remake the marketplace in the name of economic democracy.

If the party tries to slap a coat of class-war paint on top of a politics of hedging, liberal-ish, business as usual, they will fail. Poilievre will own more and more of disaffected Main Street — especially young folks — while the Liberals will continue to dominate the centrist progressive, technocrat, and business elite spaces.

To achieve more than rhetorical boldness, the NDP needs to regain the trust of everyday people, particularly young people, while growing a constituency of workers whose needs and interests the party once unabashedly advanced. That may give them a shot at not just successfully courting traditional left demographics but mobilizing them, too — a working-class party ought to be a party both of and for the working class. These changes would ensure an improvement to the party’s policies and priorities. To make any of it happen, however, the party must abandon half-measures, internal divisions, and niche politics. It’s either that or more of the status quo — or worse.