Canada’s Leftists to the NDP: “Turn Down the Suck, Turn Up the Good”

In the last few decades, Canada’s New Democratic Party has moved away from socialist politics and grassroots democracy. The party is now languishing. But turning back to its socialist roots could help revive the NDP.

Tom Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party from 2012 to 2017, at a rally in Montreal, Canada, 2015. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)

As Canada and the world face growing and intersecting crises, one might wish to say of the country’s New Democratic Party (NDP) that they are at a crossroads. But when haven’t they been? Since the party emerged in 1961 from a merger between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress, the NDP has faced struggles over ideological and strategic considerations. The party has forever been faced with competing pressures from internal and external factions. Those tensions have resulted in a skepticism from the electorate, which is often unsure what to make of the professed aims of the left-wing party. This situation makes for a frustrating electoral reality, a fascinating history, and an uncertain future.

In From Layton to Singh: The 20-Year Conflict Behind the NDP’s Deal with the Trudeau Liberals, Matt Fodor writes an accessible, gripping, and critical history of the party. Fodor focuses most of his time on the era spanning from the late Jack Layton — party leader from 2003 to 2011 — to current leader Jagmeet Singh, but he takes care to place the last two decades in a historical context that touches on the 1960s through to the end of the 1990s.


Fodor’s history is premised on a cogent critical thesis. The NDP professionalized during the Layton, Tom Mulcair, and Singh years, moving toward the political center during the tenure of the latter two leaders and moving back toward the Left under Singh. Under Singh’s stewardship, however, the party has not returned to the radical socialist roots from which it emerged.

If the party did look back at its own radical origins, such contemplation seems to have played little part in its slight shift to the Left. Growing left movements around the world, particularly in the United States, put pressure on the party. Writing of Singh’s 2019 platform A New Deal for People, for instance, Fodor notes that it “represented a shift from Third Way to soft left” in a move “to incorporate the major demands of the progressive movement that had taken off south of the border.”

As Fodor tells it, the professionalization of the party over the last two decades included the centralization of power in the leader and their office and came at the expense of grassroots party democracy and the influence of social movement politics. The process is reminiscent of changes adopted by other federal parties. For instance, the Liberal Party went through a similar change. Under the tenure of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of current prime minister Justin Trudeau, the Liberals centralized and “rationalized” their operations both as a party and a government. That process, too, came at the price of diminished grassroots politics.

Taking the Wrong Lessons From the “Orange Wave”

It is not by accident that the decline of party democracy and rise of professionalized governance in the NDP coincides with the party’s centrist turn. In a bid to appeal to more voters in the hopes of forming Canada’s national government, which the party has never done, the NDP insiders moderated policy and tone and placed power in the hands of the few. This required instituting message discipline, disempowering riding associations and the broader membership, and more and more reliance on pollsters and consultants. The goal was discipline in the name of results.

In 2011, the NDP managed to become the Official Opposition upon the (temporary) collapse of the Liberal Party. Against all odds, the party won 103 seats to the governing Conservative Party’s 166. In that election, under Layton, the party won 59 seats in Quebec alone. It was a stunning, if short-lived, achievement the party was unable to replicate in 2015 under Mulcair — or since, under Singh — as it returns to its historical average performance.

Fodor suggests that the 2011 “Orange Wave” was an historical aberration. It was. And party officials, members, elected representatives, and observers who took it as an indication that the centrist shift was working learned the wrong lesson.

The professionalized, centrist logic that some suggest pushed the NDP into the Official Opposition might have cost them a chance at governing. The 2015 election, which produced a Liberal majority government led by Justin Trudeau, was the NDP’s best shot at winning a federal contest. However, under Mulcair, the party was particularly scared of its own left shadow. In what Fodor calls “the most top-down, centralized campaign in its history,” the NDP “sought to extinguish any trace of the ‘old NDP’” in its bid to win the center.

What did it get for running from itself? As Fodor concludes, “a message of steady, experience leadership and fiscal conservatism failed to inspire Canadians.” Indeed. Fodor observes, as have many others, the Liberals outflanked the NDP on the Left. The orange side ended up back in third place in the House of Commons. Today, they sit in fourth place, behind the Liberals, Conservatives, and Bloc Québécois.

Repudiate the Orange Liberals

Despite the subtitle, From Layton to Singh spends little time on the spring 2022 confidence and supply agreement between Trudeau and Singh that is set to keep the governing Liberals in power until the scheduled 2025 election — perhaps because of the timing of the deal and the book’s publication date. The deal, which isn’t the first such bargain in NDP history, is a product of decades of party machinations that are far more interesting than the agreement itself.

More valuable than a history of the present is Fodor’s insight that the NDP is increasingly fighting electoral battles on the Liberal Party’s ideological terrain. Driven by the received wisdom of New Democrats he calls “Orange Liberals,” the party’s left-activist and grassroots base have become marginalized. Indeed, instead of pretending that the party is no longer ideological, one ought to understand that they are as ideological as ever. Their ideology is liberalism.

It is beyond Fodor’s remit in From Layton to Singh to dive into the future of the party, but his history of the party and analysis pave the way for several questions worth asking, starting with: What role should the NDP play in contemporary federal politics in Canada? Or in short: What’s the purpose of the NDP? Is it to be the conscience of Parliament? A lefty policy farm for the Liberal Party? Is it to try to set the political agenda? To move enough toward the center to hope for another chance to wrong-foot the Liberals? Or catch them off guard at the right time, and form a centrist left government some day?

There are half a dozen books to be written on the quagmire from which the party must extricate itself. We could use them. Fodor ought to write one. It would be a welcome follow up to his excellent history and assessment of the NDP of the last twenty years. In the meantime, Fodor’s history and assessment of the party ought to serve as a rallying call to return the party to its socialist, grassroots origins. Of course, if the book and a subsequent call to action can play any part in the party’s left and working-class constituents taking back the party, these other prospective titles would not need to be written.