Image: Facebook/Canada’s NDP / Le NPD du Canada

In their final leadership debate, the four NDP candidates were asked what differentiated their party from Liberals. Good question. They had to be nimble, since it was the lightning round. The NDP is always up-to-date with last year’s, or last decade’s, fad.

At any point in the 50 years after its founding in 1932 (as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF: which contained the answer in its name, unlike “New Democratic Party”), that question would’ve been easily answered. “Unlike Liberals, we are democratic socialists, we’ll demolish or at least tame the scourge of capitalism” — a view grown mildly resonant again, after 2008.

The responses were feeble. The difference is following through (Charlie Angus); we mean what we say and say what we mean (Guy Caron); we seek power to enact our principles, Liberals just want power (Jagmeet Singh); principles (Niki Ashton), but then she was cut off. It was the lightning round.

In other words, we’re morally superior. In other other words: the NDP has become another identity in the carnival of identity politics. You are what you are, then you seek reasons to be proud of that. Sometimes it works and sometimes, not so much. In the case at hand: we’re better people than Liberals because we have principles we stick to. Got that, voters?

The problem is, it’s manifestly false. Two examples: in 2004, under Jack Layton, the NDP voted to kill a transformative national child-care program, which the Liberal government had enacted, but which died as a result, giving us nine years of Harper conservatism. The NDP has never apologized for that, which would at least show they remember what their principles once were.

Then in 2015, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair promised to run no deficits if elected, after the Liberals promised to do so, effectively swapping principles. Self-congrats are less in order here than self-criticism, if not self-loathing.

But this is what happens when you lose touch with your raison d’être. You start flailing around for purposes and, inevitably, gimmicks. It began after Ed Broadbent’s resignation in 1988. He’d been a liminal figure between founders like Tommy Douglas and the current flailers. Suddenly you heard NDPers saying things like, “It’s time for a woman.” They never said that before; it was always time for socialism. The two women leaders they tried didn’t work out.

Then came Jack. At the convention that chose him, venerable NDPers said embarrassing, dated (if faddish) things like: Jack thinks outside the box. As if that had anything to do with anything or, for that matter, were true.

Of the current crop, Jagmeet Singh is clearly the gimmickiest, their latest quick ticket to power: GQ spread, martial arts, colourful headgear. It’s not that he has no ideas. He’s actually the most Liberal on the roster, as Niki is the most CCFish. He’s even in favour of means testing, which he calls income testing, for pension support and other areas. I mean, if you’re gonna means test pensions, why not health care: if you can afford it, you pay for it — then presto, no more cross-class support for public health care, and you’re back in the 19th century.

It’s a way of breaking down v.s. building up social solidarity, by separating the benevolent haves from the needy, petitioning underclasses. In fact, it puts Singh close to Tories, such as Brian Mulroney, who tried killing off universality in the 1980s but reneged after massive allergic reactions.

Singh’s lawyerly stress on individual rights is strongly Liberal too; if anything’s distinguished the NDP, it’s been backing collective rights, such as medicare, unions etc. With Singh, it’s really a question not of what differentiates the NDP, but: Why aren’t you a Liberal? Maybe he wound up at the wrong meeting, the night he decided to get involved.

The irony is, it’s Liberals who’ve seized on left populism as the obvious way to go. Justin Trudeau’s the one saying, regarding his tax reforms, “The current system favours the wealthy.” I assume he’s enjoying the attacks from rich doctors and lawyers while donning the populist garb long cultivated by Harper Tories. It’s tricky, since Liberals also adore free trade deals, a wholly owned corporate initiative. That leaves them vulnerable, though they’re more ambivalent than malevolent.

But aren’t these words that the NDP — who don’t support the tax reforms — should be saying, rather than Love and Courage, Singh’s Obama-esque slogan?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Facebook/Canada’s NDP / Le NPD du Canada

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.