Ed Broadbent Kept the Flame of Social Democracy Alive in Canada

Ed Broadbent, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party for nearly 15 years, died last month at age 87. He was one of North America’s most important champions of social democracy.

Ed Broadbent addressing a crowd gathered to hear US senator Bernie Sanders talk about Canadian health care at the University of Toronto, October 29, 2017. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Ed Broadbent, the longest-serving leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), passed away on January 11, 2024, at the age of eighty-seven. Widely respected among Canadians, Broadbent led Canada’s social democratic party between 1975 and 1989 and was a recipient of the Order of Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau granted him a state funeral — an honor usually reserved for prime ministers, governors general, and cabinet ministers — which took place on January 28.

A political theorist as well as a practitioner of politics, Broadbent was at the center of debates about social democracy over the past fifty years. Over the course of his life, he stood for a principled, traditional understanding of social democracy, even when most social democratic parties started trying to “modernize” by embracing neoliberalism.

Early Life and Education

Broadbent was born in the automobile manufacturing community of Oshawa, thirty miles east of Toronto. His father Percy was a grocery salesman who later worked at General Motors, and his mother Mary was a homemaker; Broadbent credited his mother — an “intuitive egalitarian” — for his “socialist instincts.”

Broadbent grew up during World War II and the immediate postwar years. In his memoir, Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality, he described the Oshawa of his era as “working class but by no means poor” where “the benefits of a strong union — in this case the United Auto Workers — was readily apparent.” A beneficiary of the social mobility and broad prosperity of the postwar “golden age” of capitalism, Broadbent was the first in his family to attend university, which shaped his appreciation of the welfare state.

Broadbent entered the University of Toronto in 1955, where he studied philosophy as an undergraduate. He then did a PhD in political science, where he studied with Canadian political theorist C. B. Macpherson, who sought to develop a liberal democratic theory that incorporated the insights of Marxism and rejected the notion that liberalism was synonymous with capitalist market relations; Broadbent credited Macpherson for “showing how capitalism was, by definition, exploitative.”

Broadbent received a Canada Council scholarship, which allowed him to spend a year at the London School of Economics; while there Broadbent immersed himself in the works of John Stuart Mill. From his academic studies, Broadbent embraced two commitments that he championed throughout his political career: to equality, and to decommodification.

Entry Into Politics

The NDP was created out of a merger between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress to create a more viable political vehicle for social democracy. The merger strengthened the party’s links to organized labor while trying to better appeal to the liberally minded middle classes; the hope of its founders was to displace the Liberals as Canada’s main center-left party.

Broadbent became a professor of political science at the newly created York University in suburban Toronto in 1965 but soon became involved in electoral politics. In the 1968 election, Broadbent ran for Parliament with the NDP in his hometown of Oshawa, where he narrowly defeated a long-serving Conservative MP by just fifteen votes.

This was the year of Trudeaumania, when Pierre Trudeau, the wealthy and charismatic law professor and former justice minister (and father of the current prime minister) led the Liberals to power. Trudeau was popular in the liberally minded academic and professional milieu, thwarting the NDP’s hopes of a breakthrough with middle-class liberals.

Broadbent, however, was skeptical, seeing Trudeau as an economic conservative and essentially an advocate of the status quo in spite of his progressive image. In his first term as MP, Broadbent wrote a book called The Liberal Rip-Off: Trudeauism vs. the Politics of Equality, which critiqued Trudeau’s economic policies.

Broadbent first ran for the NDP leadership in 1971, coming in fourth place; David Lewis, a founding figure of the CCF-NDP, prevailed. The 1972 election saw the Liberals reduced to a minority in parliament and the NDP holding the balance of power for two years. The 1972–74 parliament brought in several progressive reforms, including the creation of state-owned gas and oil company Petro-Canada, investments in social housing, and electoral financing reforms.

The Liberals were the electoral beneficiary, however, and returned with a majority government in 1974; the NDP lost half of its seats. Lewis, himself defeated in the election, resigned shortly afterward. Broadbent was caucus chair during the minority parliament and became interim leader, and was encouraged to run for the leadership by Lewis and Charles Taylor.

Broadbent Becomes NDP Leader

When Broadbent became leader in 1975, the world had fundamentally changed. The “golden age” of capitalism and postwar compromise that had accepted Keynesian economics and the welfare state had come to an end, and in the 1980s politics underwent a decisively conservative turn. Yet even in this context, according to the late historian Joe Levitt in a biography of Broadbent, the latter’s main political priority was “to fight for government action to ensure full employment.”

Broadbent had a different vision than the founding generation that had been part of the CCF. Saskatchewan premier and first NDP leader Tommy Douglas had been inspired by the Social Gospel, but Broadbent brought what he saw as a different vocabulary and rhetorical style that was more in tune with modern, urbanized Canada.

Broadbent looked internationally for inspiration and was influenced by the model of Swedish social democracy, with its comprehensive welfare state and public services, equally viable private and public sectors, and cooperation between business and labor. Broadbent accepted a role for markets but maintained that core needs like health care, education, and childcare needed to be taken out of the market as rights of citizenship.

Broadbent was explicit in his desire to form an NDP federal government, stating in his memoir, “From the outset, I set out to make the NDP the governing party of Canada. That pursuit was not corrupting. I viewed it as a moral imperative.” Under Broadbent’s leadership, the NDP adopted modern campaign techniques and hired professional pollsters.

In Broadbent’s first election as leader in 1979, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals were defeated and replaced by a minority Progressive Conservative government led by Joe Clark. In that election, the NDP won twenty-six seats and 18 percent of the vote, recovering from the 1974 defeat.

In 1980, Canadians again went to the polls after the fall of the short-lived Clark government; the NDP received thirty-two seats and 20 percent of the vote, its highest support to date, but Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals back to a majority government.

Trudeau, who wanted to shore up national support to pursue constitutional reforms and a national energy policy, invited Broadbent to serve in a coalition government where the NDP would have at least five or six cabinet members, including those in major portfolios. Broadbent was skeptical, as he did not want to betray the social democratic movement, and Trudeau did not depend on the NDP’s support. After consulting with caucus members, Broadbent turned the proposal down. He was strongly supportive, however, of a new charter of rights and the partition of the constitution from Britain.

The NDP in the ’80s

Yet Trudeau was initially unable to secure support from the premiers for his constitutional initiatives, including from Saskatchewan NDP premier Allan Blakeney, who was concerned about provincial jurisdiction over resources. In addition, NDP research director James Laxer authored a report critiquing the party’s “outdated” Keynesian policies. Media got a hold of the report before it could be evaluated by the caucus, and the NDP entered the 1984 election at around 10 percent in the polls.

Put largely on the defensive to maintain the NDP’s presence in Parliament, the party developed a populist strategy that focused on the “ordinary Canadian.” With the Liberals and Conservatives both led by corporate lawyers, John Turner and Brian Mulroney, Broadbent successfully portrayed the two leaders as interchangeable representatives of the big business elite, nicknaming Turner and Mulroney the “Bobbsey Twins of Bay Street.”

A strong campaign by Broadbent and the NDP reversed their decline, and the NDP returned with 19 percent of the vote and thirty seats. Mulroney meanwhile led the Tories to victory in one of the greatest electoral landslides in Canadian history, and the Liberals received just forty seats — giving them a caucus only slightly larger than that of the NDP.

In the mid-1980s, the press began to give equal treatment to Broadbent and the NDP alongside the Conservatives and Liberals. In 1987, the NDP was leading in national polls and even reached 25 percent support in Quebec. The party held its convention in Montreal, and membership in Quebec spiked from a few hundred to ten thousand.

By the outset of the 1988 election, the NDP’s lead had subsided, but the party still had a strong 25 percent in the polls. Broadbent stated in his memoir that he went into the 1988 election with the personal expectation that the NDP would win Official Opposition and displace the Liberals, which would more closely reflect the left-right split in European countries.

The NDP ran its most professionalized and centralized campaign to date. But the party failed to obtain its hoped-for breakthrough. The election became a referendum on the proposed free-trade agreement that Mulroney had negotiated with the United States. Labor, leading intellectuals, and cultural figures and civil society mobilized against the deal.

Corporate Canada, meanwhile, strongly backed the deal. Traditionally split between the Liberals and Tories, the corporate sector this time gave overwhelming support to the Tories.

Although the NDP had spoken out strongly against the free-trade agreement in Parliament, it deemphasized it in the election campaign. The party had hired an American pollster, Vic Fingerhut, who maintained that voters supported the NDP on social welfare issues but were skeptical of the NDP on economic issues — hence making free trade a central focus would primarily benefit the Liberals. Instead, the party ran on the issue of economic fairness and emphasized Broadbent’s personal popularity.

Initially, the strategy appeared to work, and the NDP rose to 30 percent in the polls, ahead of the Liberals. But the tide turned after the national leaders’ debate, when Liberal leader John Turner ripped Mulroney for selling out the country. The Liberals surged in the polls, moving into second place. With the Liberals and Tories differing on the key campaign issue, the attempt to repeat the 1984 strategy of painting the Liberals and Tories as interchangeable parties of Bay Street fell flat.

The NDP received just over 20 percent of the vote and forty-three seats. The Tories returned with a reduced majority, and the Liberals more than doubled their seat count. Although this was the party’s best showing to date, it fell far below expectations. Following the election, party supporters and allies criticized the campaign for betraying traditional principles and allowing polling to guide strategy.

But Broadbent rejected such criticisms and maintained that the party’s handling of the free trade issue was sound. For Broadbent, the main disappointment was the failure to win any seats in Quebec, where the party had made serious efforts; for this reason Broadbent resigned as leader in 1989.

The NDP’s Fall and Efforts to Rebuild

After resigning as leader, Broadbent served as the first president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, an independent, nonpartisan group funded by the Canadian government that promoted human rights and economic development, a position he held until 1997. The group was later dismantled by the slavishly pro-Israel Stephen Harper government after it took part in the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in 2009.

By the 1990s, Canadian social democracy was in crisis, and the very survival of the NDP was in question. Initially, the NDP’s prospects looked bright. In 1990, it won a stunning victory and formed a government for the first time in Ontario.

The Ontario NDP had initially prioritized the fight against unemployment over reducing the deficit and was vehemently opposed by the business elite. But midway through his tenure, Premier Bob Rae made a U-turn, moving toward neoliberalism and angering the labor base by unilaterally enacting the Social Contract (which imposed a wage freeze and unpaid days off on public sector workers as a means to save jobs).

Meanwhile, the party leadership’s support for the “yes” side of the Charlottetown Accord (an attempt to amend the Canadian constitution by Mulroney and provincial premiers) alienated supporters in Western Canada, where the accord was deeply unpopular and led many to see the NDP as part of the political establishment. The 1993 election result was catastrophic: the NDP won just nine seats and 7 percent of the vote, losing official party status.

The NDP would struggle to rebuild over the next decade. After a partial recovery in the 1997 election — twenty-one seats and 11 percent of the vote — the NDP again fell to 8.5 percent and thirteen seats. It was clear that the party needed to change course.

During the rebuilding process, Broadbent played an important stewardship role. After the 2000 election, there was strong support for the proposed New Politics Initiative (NPI), which called for the dissolution of the NDP and the creation of a more radical party connected to social movements (the NPI proposal had the support of 37 percent of delegates at the 2001 convention). Others called on the party to try to emulate the success of the Third Way pursued by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. Broadbent rejected both the NPI because of what he saw as its disdain for markets and the Third Way for its abandonment of traditional social democracy and acceptance of neoliberal economics.

In the 2003 leadership race, Broadbent endorsed Jack Layton for the leadership of the NDP over personal friend and longtime caucus member Bill Blaikie. Broadbent was impressed by Layton’s record as a municipal councilor in Toronto and his political pragmatism, and he believed he was best positioned to revitalize the NDP. Layton won the leadership as a “unity candidate,” supported by both the Left and the party establishment.

The NDP’s Neoliberal Turn

While strongly supportive of the Layton leadership, Broadbent opposed an attempt by some party modernizers at the 2009 convention to drop “New” from the party name and rename the NDP simply the Democratic Party, trying to capitalize on the personal popularity of Barack Obama in Canada. For Broadbent, this represented a departure from the party’s social democratic roots and identity.

Yet under Layton, the NDP moved to the political center; its 2011 platform departed significantly from the traditional social democratic positions it had taken in the past. Still, party members overwhelmingly trusted Layton and were impressed by his revitalization of the party.

Layton led the party to its best-ever result in 2011, where it won more than three-quarters of the seats in Quebec, nearly tripled its national seat count, and replaced the Liberals as Official Opposition. Tragically, Layton — who was diagnosed with cancer — died just two months after the election.

Many in the party saw Thomas Mulcair as best positioned to replace Layton. Layton had recruited the former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister to the party in 2007 to a successful run in a by-election; Mulcair was soon appointed deputy leader and became the party’s main spokesperson in Quebec.

Broadbent was skeptical. Mulcair did not have roots in the social democratic movement and had been a cabinet minister in a neoliberal government. He was not even seen as part of the Quebec Liberal Party’s left wing and had gone so far as to praise Margaret Thatcher in a 2001 speech. Yet many New Democrats remained unaware of or unmoved by these concerns.

In the 2012 leadership race, Broadbent instead endorsed Brian Topp, a key adviser to Layton. He publicly questioned Mulcair’s social democratic credentials and objected to Mulcair’s criticism that the NDP had insufficiently modernized. “It would be a central mistake for us to move in a calculating way to the center,” Broadbent said.

Broadbent’s warning proved prescient. At the onset of the 2015 election, the NDP led in the polls, but Mulcair’s tacking to the right on balanced budgets and taxation allowed a revitalized Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau to better capture the desire for change.

The NDP had squandered a historic opportunity to win government and instead fell back to third place. The party’s center-right positioning in the 2015 election, Broadbent noted in his memoir, “represented not just a serious mistake, but a dangerous one for the NDP’s identity as a social democratic party.”

Broadbent was pleased with the leadership of Jagmeet Singh, who became NDP head in 2017. Broadbent felt that the new leader took the party back closer to a traditional social democratic position. “He is a happy warrior and I would love to see him become prime minister,” he stated in his memoir.

Broadbent survived his wife, the great Marxist theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood. The two had taken part in public debates contrasting the Marxist and social democratic perspectives. They were in strong agreement in their criticisms of the neoliberal project, though Broadbent maintained a faith in social democracy’s potential and disagreed with Wood and other Marxist critics of capitalism that social democracy had reached its limits.

Broadbent founded a social democratic think tank, the Broadbent Institute, following the 2011 election. The Broadbent Institute’s stated mission is to “champion change through the promotion of democracy, equality and sustainability and the training of a new generation of leaders.” The Broadbent Institute also runs PressProgress, a progressive news site that seeks to counter the rise of right-wing populist media.

As mainstream politics has drifted rightward over the past four decades and social democracy itself underwent a Third Way realignment, Broadbent remained a steadfast advocate for traditional social democracy. With the passing of Broadbent, the North American social democratic movement has lost one of its leading figures.