The New Democrats turn the big 5-0

June 17th marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the NDP. Looking forward and reflecting back will be the themes on the agenda of the federal party meeting in Vancouver at its June 17-19 convention. The main order of business is how to stop the majority Harper government from making life a lot more difficult for Canadians. As well, the party will celebrate the election of 59 MPs from Quebec last May 2, and the NDP status as Official Opposition.

The NDP was the child of the Diefenbaker Conservative sweep of 1958, which wiped out most of the CCF representation in the House of Commons. In 1961 Canada was about halfway into a 30-year period of postwar growth and prosperity. New, better times called for a New Party (the first choice for the name) to take over from the CCF, which was born in the 1930s Depression.  

Canada already had two business-dominated parties, though that was not how they introduced themselves to the voting public. The Liberals were the party of Catholics and of Quebec; the Conservatives appealed to Protestants and were based in Ontario.

The New Party was a creation of the Canadian Labour Congress, as well of the CCF which it replaced. The idea was to bring workers together with the prairie populists who had governed Saskatchewan since 1944.

New Democrats thought a two-pronged approach would create more wealth, and widen the distribution of prosperity. Using Keynesian economic management, the federal government could promote economic growth and limit the severity of economic downturns. The welfare state would ensure Canadians against the normal risks of growing old, losing a job, getting sick, falling on hard times, and provide financial support for families with children, and for education.

What Canada was able to achieve in the 1960s was substantial, especially viewed from today. Medicare, a national safety net, the Canada/Quebec pension plans were the fruit of minority parliaments (1963-65, 1965-68) where Liberal Lester Pearson worked with NDP leader T.C."Tommy" Douglas. Inside the Department of Finance able leadership was provided by A.W. Johnson, a former deputy minister of finance in Saskatchewan under CCF governments led by Tommy Douglas.

The 1965 election of Pierre Trudeau from Quebec, along with his close associates, trade unionist Jean Marchand, and newspaper editor Gérard Pelletier, set the NDP cause back considerably. Named leader in succession to Pearson, Trudeau grabbed public attention as no postwar prime minister before, or since, has been able to do. Backed by a strong social liberal delegation from Quebec that included Marc Lalonde and Monique Bégin, the Trudeau Liberals were able to keep the business side of the party from exercising control.

The 1972-74 Liberal minority, supported by the NDP under leader David Lewis, created a national petroleum company (Petro-Canada), and began to screen foreign ownership proposals looking for benefits for Canadians. The left-of-centre policies also led Imperial Oil chief W.O. Twaits to organize CEOs to form a new all-powerful lobby (the Business Council on National Issues, known today as the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.)

With guidance from the BCNI/CCCE, governments elected after 1975, and not needing NDP support to govern, ensured the end of progressive postwar economic and social policy in Canada. It was only in 2005 that Jack Layton was able to negotiate social-spending initiatives (and postpone over $4 billion in scheduled corporate tax reductions) with the Paul Martin Liberals.

Under Ed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin, Alexa McDonough, and Jack Layton the party always mounted a valiant defence of the Canadian welfare state, particularly Medicare. In the 1988 election, business leaders supported the Conservatives under Mulroney, and when he disappeared, in 1993 turned to Liberal Jean Chrétien who did not disappoint.

Faced with waves of economic troubles beginning in the 1970s: inflation, stagflation, the 1981-83 great recession, the early 1990s slump, the 30-year stagnation of wages, and growing economic inequalities, the NDP was unable to develop a coherent, believable economic narrative.

Over the years, social activists from a variety of movements looked to the NDP to take up their issues. Tension between social democrats, populists, feminists, trade unionists, environmentalists, and other social activists was sometimes healthy, and just as often led to bad feelings. Was the NDP a party or a movement? It was easier to answer "it was both," than to make it a reality.

The context that saw the creation of the NDP bears little resemblance to conditions facing Canada today. In 1961, American capitalism appeared forever bountiful, the Cold War was going strong, and Canada was committed to the UN and peacekeeping. Today, American capitalism is undeniably in the midst of a crisis. Canada has been engaged in two hot wars, and has undertaken a colossal arms build-up in preparation for even more war making. Support for the UN, peace-keeping, international development, and multilateral economic institutions is not taken seriously by the Harper Conservatives.

The need for a strong, progressive Canadian political party has never been greater. The threat to daily life and democracy represented by the alliance of the very wealthy, corporations, and the Conservative government (facilitated by the media, including the CBC) is difficult to under-estimate, yet does not get nearly enough attention.

For its supporters, the NDP holds out hope for a better Canada, and a better world. Its business-based adversaries will attack the party unceasingly, and expect the Conservatives to beat back and intimidate any New Democrat who criticizes the corporate direction for Canada.

The main obstacle the party faces is widespread indifference to what politics is about, and what government means for the quality of life, joined to open disdain for the formal political process of parties and elections. Overcoming apathy, ignorance, inattention, and non-participation has to be the principal task confronting New Democrats as they look ahead to the next 50 years.

Duncan Cameron writes a weekly column about Canadian political and is the president of rabble.ca.

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