The NDP staggers from election to election, becoming less relevant each time. Why? Because, I suggest, it has become less associated with the ideas that appealed to its base from the beginning, and less successful at selling them to the electorate at large.
Since my dust-up with Bob Rae back in 1993, the entire relationship between labour and the NDP has changed. Many of the unions that disagreed with my criticism of the party and my support for strategic voting have come to recognize that the old model of strict affiliations to the party is out of date, and even the attitude of the Canadian Labour Congress toward the NDP has cooled noticeably.
Some of this change is due to the leadership, or the lack of it, in the party. Much of it, I believe, links back to the NDP's apparent abandonment of long-held principles. Whatever happened to using public ownership as a tool to achieve social goals? When applied with restraint, isn't this an effective means of dealing with the periodic traumas that threaten to shatter raw unfettered capitalism? In fact, given the chaos that has resulted from the current global financial crisis, there is a huge political opening right now to rejuvenate the idea of public ownership. The old assumption that the private sector always does it better than the public sector is in tatters. All we need is creative, inspiring leadership to show that public ownership, in certain areas, can play a constructive and efficient role in rescuing the economy.
A rare example of showing creative leadership to make the most of the political opportunity was shown by all three opposition leaders, including Layton. Just weeks after the 2008 election, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled an incredibly inept economic update that essentially denied the existence of the financial and economic crisis that Canadians could see unfolding around them. Layton, Stéphane Dion and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe seized the opportunity and proposed a coalition government involving all three parties that would seriously address the coming recession. In fact, the CAW had proposed this very idea way back in 2004, after the Liberals' minority victory. We argued it made sense for progressives from all three parties - Liberals, NDP and Bloc - to work co-operatively to advance progressive policies. Unfortunately, Governor-General Michaëlle Jean gave Flaherty and Harper a second chance by proroguing parliament, and the coalition didn't last. But the basic idea of building bridges across party lines to promote ideas of common interest is valid, and is practised regularly in other multi-party democracies. Layton, Dion and Duceppe were on the right track.
Sadly, however, this was an exception. More often, NDP leaders respond too cautiously and conservatively to opportunities to challenge the power of private business and right-wing ideas. For example, time and time again, when I proposed that a provincial or the federal government assume control of a company that chooses to move out of Canada, leaving an entire workforce without jobs and with no pension benefits just so the owners can add a few percentage points to their profit statements, I was told we were beyond that. Socialism of that kind is dead, people lectured me. Sure, it would preserve jobs and help us retain our manufacturing base, but the idea would never fly.
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