Canada’s NDP Should Return to Its Socialist Roots

Canada’s New Democratic Party, which was founded as a democratic socialist organization, is currently little more than the ruling Liberal Party’s “conscience.” It’s time the NDP changed course and finally recommitted itself to socialist politics.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), speaks during an NDP election night event in Vancouver, Canada, on September 20, 2021. (Taehoon Kim / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Canada’s Conservative Party has a new leader. The Liberal Party governs in a minority parliament. Crises abound at home and abroad. Political observers hang on each and every poll, interpreting them — as such observers are wont to do — through lenses of hopes and dreams, anxieties and nightmares. Same as it ever was. And all the while, the New Democratic Party (NDP) sits off in the distance, imagining their future just over the horizon, with their vision for the country caught between ambition and an ever-narrowing conception of what is possible.

A recent poll from Abacus Data saw the Conservative Party nudge ahead of the Liberals, rising to 35 percent in vote intention, with the Liberals at 30 percent and the NDP at 17 percent. A Leger poll from around the same time had the NDP much higher, at 23 percent compared to 28 percent for the Liberals and 34 percent for the Conservatives. The Liberals remain a favorite to form a government because of where they get those likely votes from. What this tells us is that the pieces on the political chessboard are moving as they always do, but few New Democrats are talking about the rules of game itself — or even changes to how they play the game. But they should be. They should be considering how members of parliament are elected, how the political agenda is set, and what concepts, lenses, and frames are acceptable in the political mainstream.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, columnist Robyn Urback asked the perennial question: “What is the point of the NDP?” She framed the query in a familiar way, wondering what the party would look like decoupled from the Liberal Party. While the question is fresh enough, linked in the context of the two parties’ supply and confidence agreement, it’s also an old question — one that should be asked of the NDP irrespective of their current ties to the ruling Liberals.

Pragmatism as Alibi

“If, one day, the NDP morphed from its current role as the figurative progressive flank of the Liberal Party, to the literal progressive flank of the Liberal Party — would anyone notice?” Urback asks. Looking back, she cites Liberal policies drawn from NDP “territory” as examples of shared affinities, including the legalization of cannabis, carbon pricing, and affordable daycare. The fact that the question and her framing will resonate with so many people is an embarrassment to the NDP. The idea that the Liberal Party (an unabashed small-L liberal party, individualist and market-oriented at its core) and the NDP (a party that has its origins in the unrepentantly socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) could be credibly thought of as aspects of the same entity is an indictment of the center left.

In the aftermath of Pierre Poilievre becoming leader of the Conservative Party, NDP insiders said they would respond with class war. Who believes that? It almost sounds preposterous. The party has shown little inclination for class war — indeed, they seem terrified of it. They appear horror-struck at the prospect of dismissal from the Ottawa cocktail circuit or of being panned on one of the country’s handful of pundit-driven panel shows. Instead of bold politics, they focus on a mix of identarian issues and insufficient liberal social programming.

New Democratic leadership has decided to fight for, and on, Liberal territory, preferring to try to woo soft and disaffected Liberals rather than try to effectively mobilize new or alienated voters and transform others into supporters of a working-class leftist movement. They justify their tepid positions as practical, reasonable, within the realm of possibility. It’s a testament to the evermore frayed legacy of bygone NDP forcefulness that people still bother calling out the party for its alibis of “pragmatism.” In Ontario, the provincial wing of the party was chastised for abandoning working-class Ontarians in the recent election. The exact same criticism applies to the federal party.

Even so, the NDP is caught in a system that serves it poorly. That is not an excuse for their failure to pursue a working-class movement politics, but it is a reality that conditions their efforts. The rules of the game privilege some and penalize others — the rules aren’t neutral. Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system produces incentives for the party to gravitate toward fighting over centrist voters with the Liberals, hoping to edge it out in competitive ridings. But the party rarely rises toward the plurality vote count required to form a government.

The Liberals know they can win with a modest percentage of a modest turnout, and they work toward that end — and not much else. In 2019, Canadian prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party Justin Trudeau managed a minority government with 33 percent of the vote and fewer votes than Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives. They did it again in 2021, with 32.6 percent compared to Conservative Erin O’Toole’s 33.7 percent.

There Is No Try — Only Do

Electoral reform in Canada has been a struggle. Securing proportional representation federally is a long shot. The argument for the system is that it more accurately translates voter intentions into seats and thus into a parliament that matches the preferences of the electorate. It is assumed that this setup ensures a partisan advantage for the NDP, but watching it in a minority parliament under the current system disabuses observers of this belief. What proportional representation might do, however, is incentivize the party to self-define in a new way — or, rather, an old one.

Imagine that Canada had proportional representation federally. Would the NDP use the new rules to decouple itself from liberalism and return to its left-wing roots? Would it pursue left voters — not center-left, not center, but left — while building a working-class movement to mobilize and transform the electorate? Would it be both for and of the working class? It seems more likely, given that a potential voter base would be freed from having to make strategic concessions at the ballot box. The pressure for a voter to vote for a Liberal they might not prefer as a first choice — to keep out a Conservative or Green or Bloc Québécois candidate they oppose — would no longer be a problem.

But let’s take the proportional representation thought experiment and ask the same questions in the present context of first past the post. In the current paradigm, it is unlikely the NDP will form a government. At best, it seems destined to operate within the framework of the Liberal Party — pulling it toward the center-left and keeping it more or less honest. But this is hardly a reason to get out of bed in the morning — it’s no raison d’être for a left-wing party worth its salt.

Putting the Paper Tiger to Bed

If the NDP accepts it can’t form government under the current arrangement (and it should accept that), and if one accepts that softer liberalism is insufficient (and likely of limited use, since the Liberals often adopt broadly similar policies anyway), why shouldn’t the NDP commit to a proper left, working-class politics, define itself that way, and fight on its own terms?

Following this strategy, it may achieve the effect of pulling the Liberals left anyway through bold agenda-setting. More to the point, it can fight to redefine class politics, norms, and expectations. Perhaps forming a government as a fearless socialist party is itself a long shot — at least in the current climate. But it’s already a long shot as a Liberal-lite party. Who needs two of those?

It’s far better for the NDP to embrace a left movement politics that sets it apart from an old liberalism looking increasingly untenable in the face of several drawn-out crises than to struggle along as a lefty think tank and parliamentary rubber stamp for the Liberals.

There’s even a model for the party, if it’s concerned about what a contemporary working-class socialist politics might look like rising from the ashes of the failed Third Way experiment. The Nordic Model, cogently advanced by former Danish member of parliament Pelle Dragsted, is sitting right there. The NDP should pick it up and run with it. There isn’t much time left to lose.