At heart and in its history the NDP is the party of labour

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Who does the New Democratic Party represent? The impending leadership campaign is a time for that big question: Agree about who you are for and finding answers to the "What do you stand for?" question becomes a lot easier.

One good way to understand who the NDP represents is to look to its past. Born in 1961, the NDP was a creation of its forerunner, the CCF, and of the Canadian Labour Congress. The implicit bargain was that the NDP would become what the CCF had not been, a national presence in Canadian politics, able to represent working people across the country, including Quebec. With New Democrats as a serious political alternative, the CLC could organize in the field to deliver the labour vote.

The election of minority Liberal governments in 1963, and again in 1965 -- which depended on NDP support to survive -- saw the adoption of progressive social policy: Medicare, the Quebec and Canada Pensions, a national safety net (the Canada Assistance Plan, Regional Equalization, and Federal-Provincial co-operative financing of Post-Secondary education). After its first decade of existence the NDP and its labour movement partners at the CLC could fairly say they had delivered major achievements for working people through the extension of Keynesian welfare state measures in minority parliaments. Party people had grounds to believe the balance of political forces favoured the left.

Political competition from the NDP to its left influenced the Liberals, undoubtedly. But it was the postwar economic boom that provided funding for welfare state programs. As unemployment fell (three per cent in 1966), the economy grew (six per cent in 1966) and governments' revenues increased. What the Liberals did was provide a social dividend paid for by good economic times.

Unfortunately, the five years of Pearson Liberal government were the progressive high point in the history of Canadian government. The four decades after 1971 showed what happened when the capitalist economy turned sour. Despite some gains under the brief Trudeau Liberal minority of 1972-74 (Petro-Canada, a national oil company, was created) the federal NDP became a ritual presence, defending the achievements of the 1960s, and failing to break out of its small base in English-speaking Canada.

In the 1970s, price inflation and economic stagnation dominated the world economy, and capitalists turned against the democratic welfare state. Over eager to leave behind its Depression-era CCF critique of capitalism, the NDP had moved to a better-social-manager-of-capitalism approach to the economy, just as big capital was making it clear it would not accept democratic state management.

Lacking political force, the NDP was a poor partner for labour. In 1988, the NDP failed to join the labour campaign against free trade with the U.S. By putting its own fortunes ahead of those of the country, the party lost both the support of many labour and social movement people, and the moral high ground in debate. Despite hard work by leaders Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough and their small but effective caucuses, it was not easy to rebuild bridges to party constituents.

The 1990s saw a resurgence of the Liberal Party, and a decline in support for the NDP. Worse for the country, the Liberals decided to become the party of big business, and in the 1995 budget undid many of the welfare states measures adopted 30 years earlier.

The first decade of the new century saw big capital de-legitimating itself in the eyes of the public as never before. Grotesque executive compensation packages for financial capitalists continued despite the public being put on the hook for massive bailouts. Overall, 40 years of big capital domination of politics had produced massive social inequalities, persistent under-employment, and unemployment, and little appetite in the public for more of the same. Capital has little credibility when it attacks government today.

In the May 2011 election, the NDP campaigned to fulfill basic human needs: for doctors and medical services, for environmental protection, for more generous income security for seniors, and for repealing corporate tax cuts to pay for the measures. That breakthrough election -- 59 seats won in Quebec -- had its tragic dénouement, the death of leader Jack Layton, leaving the party uncertain about its future.

One-half of its founders' dream came true, even if it took 50 years to achieve: the NDP has a strong presence in every region of Canada, and is the dominant party in Quebec. What remains is see the other half of the dream become reality: make the NDP the champion of working people, happy to be known as the party of labour.

The current leadership race is about offering an economic vision that makes sense to people who work for a living, have worked for a living, will work for a living, or would like to work for a living. That would be just about everybody.

There is no point in attempting to save capitalism from itself, and much to be gained by imagining better ways for people to work together to meet each other's needs, which is what the economy does.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics.

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