On election night in January 2006, Jack Layton declared that Canadians had “voted out of hope for change” and expressed the conviction that the NDP caucus, 29 MPs as compared with 19 in 2004, would help place working people and seniors “at the front of the line” where they belong.

Layton has been proved stunningly, embarrassingly wrong, however. The Harper minority government has turned out to be more insistently, stubbornly right-wing than anyone predicted. On child care, Harper did exactly what he said he would do — he scrapped the national program. On the Kelowna Accord, the Conservatives have scuppered an historic deal that had been years in the making, and that would have provided billions of dollars in development capital for Aboriginal peoples.

On relations with the U.S. and on foreign policy issues, Harper has overtly aligned himself with the countries making up the Anglo-sphere, principally the United States and the United Kingdom. Harper’s priorities are unswervingly clear: cut taxes; increase military spending; impose no environmental regulations that will inconvenience the petroleum industry; decentralize Canada and win the votes of soft Quebec nationalists in the process.

The NDP’s predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), held its founding convention in Regina in 1933 and adopted the Regina Manifesto as the new party’s program. The Regina Manifesto advocated widespread public ownership of key sectors of the Canadian economy. Its clarion call was that “no CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full program of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.”

A cursory glance at the document reveals that the founders of Canada’s social democratic party were prepared to critique capitalism and they advanced a program aimed at making fundamental changes. If none of this seems at all like the mild-mannered NDP of today, there is a reason for that. When the CCF-NDP was founded, there was a creative tension between movement and party. CCFers cared about the long-term struggle to win people to socialism as well as about the short-term effort to elect members to the House of Commons and provincial legislatures. That tension has ceased as a consequence of the total, or near total, victory of the party side of the equation. Socialism, anti-capitalism, and the commitment to a fundamentally altered society have been dropped from the NDP program, and are nowhere to be seen during election campaigns.

Socialism is a kind of friendly ghost that haunts a party whose program and whose outlook are no longer socialist. On one level, what makes this odd is that over the past 30 years, society at home and abroad has grown ever more unequal, and basic inequality was the spur that created a social democratic party in the first place. Globally, the wealth gap between workers in poor countries — many of them women and children, who produce the imports for the first world — and the tiny elite that sits atop the global system, is as wide as was the gap in the pre-capitalist feudal order in Europe. Forget the soft sounding term “neo-colonialism,” often used to depict relations between the developed world and the poor world. The level of exploitation that exists today matches that of colonial times.

Closer to home, a 2007 report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded that the income disparity between the rich and the rest of the population was rapidly widening. By 2004, the richest 10 per cent of families were earning 82 times as much as the poorest 10 per cent. By comparison, in 1976, the difference was 31 times. In the United States in 2007, the relative income gap between rich and poor was wider than at any time since 1929, the eve of the Great Depression. Seventy years ago, the remuneration of a top American corporate manager was 68 times that of a typical employee. Now the top manager makes 170 times as much. The American figures may be somewhat more unequal than ours, but we’re moving in exactly the same direction.

The social democratic critique of the Liberals and Conservatives has been that they are both business parties, the Bobbsey Twins of Bay Street. The critique is not inaccurate, but is altogether too broad a generalization to be of much use except as a rhetorical vehicle. The NDP suffers from Liberal envy. NDP leaders have long wanted to replace the Liberals as a major party to make of the Canadian political system what social democrats have always seen as “natural” — a system in which a major party of the left takes on a major party of the right.

The model social democrats had in mind was that of Britain, where the long-established Liberal Party had shrunk into minor party status, to be replaced by the Labour Party as the alternative to the Conservatives. Nothing has annoyed Canadian social democrats more over the past 75 years than the failure of the Liberals to give up the ghost, which was the original aspiration of people like Tommy Douglas.

In its battle to replace the Liberals as one of the country’s two major parties, the NDP has watered down its socialism almost to the vanishing point. There were two ways in which the social democrats failed to understand the Liberals. First of all, the Liberals had their own progressive roots in the failed rebellions of 1837-38 in Lower Canada and Upper Canada. In those struggles, the reformers and would-be revolutionaries could point to the American and French Revolutions and to the radical British Chartists as being among those from whom they drew political and intellectual inspiration.

They came by the colour red honestly, to the unhappiness of the social democrats who got stuck with orange, having flirted with green before abandoning the colour (much to their chagrin today). For their part, the Liberals have made strenuous efforts to put their radical history behind them, especially in Quebec, where the rouge heritage put them up against the enormously powerful Roman Catholic church.

The other thing the social democrats did not understand about the Liberals was that in the late 19th century, the party managed to reinvent itself as a European-style Catholic Centre party. During the 20th century, the great achievement of the Liberal Party was to make itself the more or less permanent home of Catholic voters, not only of francophones, but of Irish Catholics and later of the post-World War II Catholic immigrants from Europe, notably the Italians. For most of the 20th century, the religion of voters was a much surer indicator of the party they would support than social class, rivalling language and region. In a country that has become nearly 50 per cent Roman Catholic (though not necessarily practising Catholics), this correlation gave the Liberals enormous staying power.

Meanwhile, the CCF-NDP suffered from the fact that among the midwives at the party’s birth were Protestant clergymen. Despite the best efforts of social democrats, they could never succeed in removing the scent of Protestantism that Quebec voters found so off-putting. In the end, Pierre Trudeau, who was attracted to social democracy and was an admirer of the CCF-NDP, decided that if he wanted to have a serious political career it would have to be as a Liberal, a party he scorned until the early 1960s, rather than in the marginal NDP.

If social democrats have never wanted to take a clear look at the Liberals, because they want to replace them, they also have avoided being realistic about the Conservatives, because they’d rather not acknowledge how right-wing their own party has become. Under the leadership of Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, the Conservatives dropped the nationalism and Red Toryism that had been important elements in the party’s past, and opted instead for neo-conservatism.

This meant that the adherents of the Canadian right took on the role of uncritical enthusiasts for the American socio-economic system and for the tightest possible alliance with the U.S. in global affairs. The Conservatives represented the segment of the Canadian population that had little or no fundamental attachment to the idea of Canada as a country separate from the United States, a stance that leads inexorably toward the elimination of basic differences between Canada and the U.S., certainly including the euthanizing of the social democratic tendency in Canada.

The NDP has evolved into a party much like the others. There is little political ferment. Riding association meetings, party conferences and provincial and federal conventions are not occasions for basic debate and education about the state of society and what needs to be done, but rather focus on fundraising, holding raffles and showcasing the leader for the media. The only time when there is genuine democracy in the NDP is during leadership campaigns. At least during these intervals, real debate becomes possible. Once the leader is chosen, however, party policy, decided on at conventions, is ignored. That has been the case for decades. Between leadership campaigns, the leader, surrounded by his or her inner staff and pollsters, determines the political course of the party.

The campaigns of the party establishment to replace the Regina Manifesto with the Winnipeg Declaration in 1956 (which effectively replaced socialism with the humanization of capitalism as the party’s objective), to suppress the Waffle in the early 1970s (to eliminate a grassroots movement that sought to move the party to the left) and to contain the New Politics Initiative a number of years ago were episodes in a decades-old effort to make vote-winning the paramount, almost exclusive, legitimate activity of the party.

The historically successful drive to drain party membership of any real political content and to vest almost all power in the hands of the leader and his or her operatives has had the effect of making the tactics of each election campaign the only thing that really matters. And since the success of leaders is judged almost wholly by how many seats they win, ambitious NDP leaders have reached the not surprising conclusion that the party will tolerate virtually anything as long as it promotes the winning of more votes and more seats.

In the 1930s, social democrats believed that they needed to nurture a political culture and an intellectual climate in which socialist ideas would be embraced. CCF meetings were serious occasions for learning, discussion and debate. Under the aegis of the League for Social Reconstruction, socialist thinkers wrote books on the future course of Canadian social and economic policy. In 1935, the LSR published Social Planning for Canada, a penetrating analysis of what ailed Canadian society during the Depression. Some of those active in the LSR were F.R. Scott, Frank Underhill, King Gordon, Graham Spry and Leonard Marsh. It’s been a long time since anyone looked to the NDP for ideas. The trouble with encouraging thought and creating a culture where ideas can flourish is that ideas come with controversy and searing debates about what the party stands for and what its tactics should be.

While social democrats believed they could dispense with ideas, the right figured out that they could not. The neo-conservatives buttressed the Conservative Party with the help of media conglomerates and the right-wing intelligentsia. For example, Conrad Black, once described by Margaret Thatcher as the most right-wing person she’d ever met — she meant it as a compliment — established the National Post over a decade ago as a journal of combat whose task was to rally the right, feature its most effective voices as columnists and help bring to power a party that would move Canada sharply to the right. The Aspers stepped in as Black withdrew and now run a media empire that is Canada’s “Fox lite,” committed to shifting the dialogue in the country dramatically to the right.

David Frum, Robert Fulford and — until recently — Andrew Coyne at the Post and Tom Flanagan who used to be at Stephen Harper’s elbow actually care about ideas. They don’t merely want to hold office, they want to change the country (something social democrats used to care about). They are not content to become members of a centre-of-the road Canadian government. J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and David Lewis were also not interested in merely simply sitting at a cabinet table. They were determined to create a Canada in which the power of the capitalists to exploit workers was sharply reduced and the lives of wage and salary earners were dramatically improved. If they had simply wanted to hold office, they could have signed on with Mackenzie King, St. Laurent or Pearson and they would have been welcomed with open arms.

And there is an important difference between those on the right and those on the left who seek fundamental change. The right can achieve crucial changes that are exceptionally difficult to reverse because they speak for the leading elements of the business class. When the members of the Mulroney government, with the overwhelming support of business, signed a trade deal with the United States, they locked measures into it that meant that no future Canadian government could reintroduce the elements of the National Energy Program without seeking the repeal of the FTA and NAFTA.

When the left is in office and seeks to legislate basic change, it does so in opposition to the power of the business class. The classic example was the implementation of medicare by the Saskatchewan CCF government in the summer of 1962. Tommy Douglas, who had led the CCF to its fifth consecutive electoral victory in 1960, had pledged that he would regard re-election as a mandate from the people to introduce a universal, comprehensive medical care program to cover every person in the province.

After passing the required legislation, the government announced that medicare would come into force on July 1, 1962. (By then, Douglas, who was elected leader of the newly founded federal NDP the previous summer, had been replaced as premier by Woodrow Lloyd). On July 1, a large majority of the province’s doctors went on strike to combat medicare. The strike, watched closely across North America, had the full support of the Canadian and American Medical Associations, the continental insurance industry and most of the wider business community, plus the backing of the editorial pages of almost all of the continent’s daily newspapers.

Three weeks later the strike ended and the doctors returned to work, and within a few years, the federal Liberals had offered funding to any provincial government that agreed to sign onto the principles of medicare. All of them did. Medicare changed Canada. Even though right-wing governments have tried to undermine the public health-care system by opening the door to private hospitals and clinics, they have not been able to challenge medicare head on.

With this campaign, Canadian social democrats achieved what American liberals during the Clinton administration and the Obama administration never could. They had presided over a profound change in the political culture, and they did it because the Saskatchewan CCF was a genuine people’s party. Few members were business executives, and not many were direct owners of small businesses, with the exception of family farmers (and these were a small minority of the Saskatchewan party membership by 1960). While the business community could put external pressure on the CCF government in the province, as it could on any government, the party itself was quite impervious to its coercion and that made the CCF very different from the Democrats in the United States and the Canadian Liberals.

Not accidentally, the medicare breakthrough came in at the high point of the progressive era of the postwar decades. In Canada, the United States and in Western Europe, this was a time when trade union membership was on the rise, social programs were being established and access to higher education was widening. Europe was the most advanced in this process, followed by Canada, but these were also the great years of the American Civil Rights movement, as well as the Great Society programs.

In today’s neo-conservative environment, it is dauntingly difficult to achieve social policy breakthroughs — for instance the establishment of a universal, comprehensive early childhood education system beginning at age two, along the lines of the system that has existed for many decades in France. There is a strong movement in Canada that has struggled for many years for such a program and the NDP supports this aim, but the NDP and the forces that seek such a basic reform have never really worked together in a major campaign to see their goal to fruition.

The NDP is a becalmed political party that has lost the combative edge of the social democrats of earlier decades. For tactical reasons, the NDP prefers to see the Conservatives and Liberals as parties that share common values. The NDP leadership fears that if it critiques the Harper Conservatives as significantly to the right of the Liberals this will drive social democratic voters into the arms of the Liberals. Indeed, one is more likely to get a sweeping assessment of the implications of neo-conservatism from the Liberals than from the NDP.

The consequence of the NDP’s tactical stance is that the party ends up as just another liberal party, operating from a somewhat more left-wing vantage point. The lack of a compelling vision has left the NDP looking much like the other parties, which is why so many people who are searching for something genuinely different are opting for the Green Party.

There have been moments in the history of the NDP when the party has stood on principle, leaving shabby tactics to the side. One came during the October Crisis of 1970. After cells from the Front de Liberation du Quebec kidnapped James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner in Montreal, and a few days later kidnapped Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte, the Trudeau government proclaimed the War Measures Act and dispatched soldiers to the streets of Montreal. The next day, the body of the murdered Laporte was discovered in the trunk of a car.

The draconian powers of the Act allowed the government to arrest people and hold them for weeks without charging them. The night the Act was proclaimed, the Montreal began rounding people up. Never charged, several hundred people were arrested and held. The Act also allowed the government to censor the media. In the course of a few days, the government acquired dictatorial powers and public opinion polls showed that about 90 per cent of Canadians approved.

When David Lewis and Tommy Douglas decided in the autumn of 1970 to oppose Pierre Trudeau’s blatant disregard for civil liberties when he proclaimed the War Measures Act, in Quebec these NDP leaders were not thinking about votes. Polls showed that 90 per cent of Canadians were on Trudeau’s side. In the short run, what Lewis and Douglas did bled support away from their party. In the long run, however, the NDP not only took a stand for civil liberties when it was crucial that someone do so, but the party gained respect and reinforced the view of the NDP as an institution to which Canadians looked for leadership.

During the 2006 election campaign, many trade unionists and social activists were furious with Jack Layton and the NDP for failing to critique the consequences of a Conservative victory in the election. They were angry that the NDP chose the late fall of 2005 to join the Conservatives and the Bloc in bringing down the Martin government and precipitating an election. They believed that this decision put in peril a number of reforms to which the Martin Liberals had agreed, including a national child-care program. The 2006 federal election “badly tested the relationship” between social movements and the NDP, wrote Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford in the Globe and Mail a few days after Harper’s election victory.”

NDP strategists precipitated the election, sensing a moment of opportunity to win more seats. But their decision was made over the explicit objection of many progressive movements. They had used the Liberals’ fragile minority position to extract impressive, important gains (child care, new legal protections for workers, the aboriginal deal, and others); they wanted to solidify those victories, and win new ones.” Leaders from these progressive constituencies “all wanted the election later, not sooner.”

The most visible sign of division was Canadian Auto Workers’ president Buzz Hargrove’s campaign to stop the Conservatives by supporting New Democrats in ridings where they were likely to win and Liberals elsewhere. Three weeks after the election, the Ontario NDP executive suspended Hargrove from the party; its president, Sandra Clifford, explaining that the sum of the union leader’s actions led to the suspension. “It was appearing with the prime minister….hugging him. Saying that he wanted a Liberal minority government,” Clifford said. In effect, the party had decided that it was an expellable offence for members to advocate strategic voting. While many insiders wanted Hargrove to “Buzz off,” others were just as concerned about the decision to bring down the government; still others, viewing the entire NDP campaign as strategic, thought Hargrove’s dismissal deeply ironic.

Still smarting over Martin’s successful 2004 last-ditch appeal to NDP supporters to vote Liberal to stop Harper, Layton’s campaign team was determined not to let history repeat itself. Polls indicated that NDP supporters were the most worried about a Conservative government and, the thinking went, many again would vote strategically (for the Liberals) in the event of a successful campaign to demonize Harper. So, as revealed by NDP press releases, campaign literature, and Layton’s speeches, to prevent erosion of NDP support, the party concentrated its fire on the Liberals, barely mentioning the Conservatives in their attacks.

The most memorable NDP television advertisement depicted Canadians giving the corrupt Liberals the boot. This kind of messaging set the tone, and Maude Barlow, Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, for one, said she felt pressure “not to critique Harper,” and that the top priority was “to win more seats for the NDP.” During the election, the Council was involved in the Think Twice coalition, made up of groups that came together to warn Canadians about Stephen Harper’s record.” Barlow said: “if the NDP was not going to talk about Harper’s record, we felt we had to.”

In the eyes of many social activists, in the 2004 election, and much more overtly in 2006, exhibiting a penchant for short-term fixes over long-term party-building, Jack Layton became a servant to the proposition that what was good for working people and for the left was more seats for the NDP, no more, no less.

In the 2006 election, Layton helped frame the central issue as Liberal scandals. The Canadian Election Study (CES), published just after the election, suggests this issue was responsible for the Conservative victory. It showed that outside Quebec, the proportion of people rating Liberal scandals as salient jumped from 19.7 per cent at the conclusion of the 2004 campaign to 30.4 per cent at the end of the 2006 election. The proportion of people rating Harper positively actually declined slightly from 48.8 per cent to 46.7 per cent, over the same interval. The share of people who believed that Harper “is just too extreme” barely budged, down from 49.1 per cent to 48.3 per cent of those interviewed.

But this did not matter. While the NDP’s prospects improved, its strategy clearly helped install the Conservative minority government. Analysts agree that the major turning point in the campaign came in late December with the RCMP’s letter to NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis informing her that a criminal probe was being launched about possible leaks in Ralph Goodale’s finance department on income trusts. Wasylycia-Leis had written to the RCMP to request an investigation and when the Mounties, in a questionable move during an election campaign, wrote her back, she released the letter to the media. The Liberals never recovered.

In the last week of the campaign, Layton advocated strategic voting, urging traditional Liberals to “lend” the NDP their vote, while the Liberals went into the “repair shop” for refitting. To cap it off, in what was billed as his last statement as an MP, Ed Broadbent thundered that power “should be taken away” from the Liberals, that the party “no longer has the moral authority to deserve people’s votes.”

In the advanced world, Canada is that rare case where a centrist party was dominant for many decades, borrowing ideas from the left and the right, whichever was opportune. Rarely innovative, always adaptive, the federal Liberals have been the bane of their opponents, detested by NDP and Conservative insiders for their lack of principle. Under Layton, NDP strategists have resumed the search for the Holy Grail: the realignment of Canadian politics around the centre-left pillar of the NDP through the marginalization of the Liberals. For the dream to become reality, the NDP will have to move even further to the centre, and to abandon its half-remembered social democratic aspirations.

Here’s a way to measure just how far the NDP has journeyed from the left to the centre in the aftermath of the implementation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1989. When it held the balance of power from 1972 to 1974, led by David Lewis, the party pushed for the creation of a national oil company. Having won back its majority, Trudeau’s Liberal government completed the launch of Petro Canada as a publicly owned petroleum company in 1975. Though no longer under effective NDP pressure, the Liberals aggressively built Petrocan, which acquired the assets of foreign-owned oil companies in Canada in the process. Within a few years, Petrocan grew into a vertically integrated company that operated in all aspects of the oil business, from exploration and production to retailing. Petrocan’s purpose was clear: to establish a public window on an industry controlled by global oil giants that regularly altered estimates of Canadian oil and natural gas reserves to suit their purposes.

Along with Petrocan, Ottawa froze the price of domestic oil well below the world level while exporting to the U.S. at the world price. The policy sheltered Canadian consumers from the full impact of the quadrupling of world oil prices between December 1973 and the summer of 1974. Ottawa collected the difference between the domestic price and export price as an export tax. This under a Liberal government. If this all sounds terribly radical — and to oil companies, horrifying — it’s simply a sign of just how far Canadian economic policy has shifted since the free trade election of 1988. Today, Layton’s NDP wouldn’t dare advocate such policies, and not just because a two-price system would violate NAFTA rules. It would represent too much interference with the operations of the market.

During the 2008 federal election campaign, the NDP adopted a stance that was similar to the one it took in the campaign of 2006. Nothing in the campaign pointed toward the dramatic events that followed it when the NDP and the Liberals proposed to defeat the Conservatives in the House of Commons and to install a Liberal-NDP coalition, with the support of the Bloc. That initiative collapsed when Michael Ignatieff, installed as interim Liberal leader in December 2008 decided to support the Conservative government’s budget in January 2009.

In March 2011, the NDP joined the Liberals and the Bloc to vote No Confidence in the Harper government. For the NDP, the federal election of May 2, 2011 was the breakout party insiders had been hoping for since the party was founded 50 years earlier in the summer of 1961. For NDP supporters, the 2011 election will always be remembered with a mixture of joy and sadness: joy because the party won 103 seats, 59 of them in Quebec (later reduced to 58 when one of the members left the NDP to join the Liberal caucus in the House of Commons) and formed the Official Opposition for the first time ever, and sadness because the architect of the breakthrough, leader Jack Layton, died less than four months after voting day.

Both the breakthrough in Quebec and the vault to Official Opposition status were transformative. In Quebec, the NDP’s triumph marked the first time since 1988 that a federalist party had won a majority of seats in the province. Throughout the nearly eight decades since the CCF had been created, social democrats had longed for the day when their party would replace the Liberals as one of the country’s two major political formations.

With the death of Jack Layton, the NDP was unexpectedly cast into a leadership campaign that consumed much of the first year of the party’s position as the Official Opposition. While other candidates ran effective campaigns, two of them dominated the race, which culminated in the selection of the new leader on March 24, 2012. Without a seat in the House of Commons, Brian Topp, who had occupied top bureaucratic positions in the NDP in Saskatchewan and at the federal level and had served as federal party president, threw his hat in the ring. Appearing at his side at the press conference in Ottawa where Topp launched his campaign in September 2011 was Ed Broadbent, who had led the party from 1975 to 1989. With the backing of Broadbent and other major party figures such as Roy Romanow, the former premier of Saskatchewan, Topp was the closest thing in the race to an establishment candidate. He presented himself as a social democrat who would preserve and act on the traditional and historic values of the NDP.

This stance grew in importance as a counterpoint to the campaign of Thomas Mulcair, the MP for Outremont (in Montreal), the eventual winner. Mulcair, who had previously served as Minister of Sustainable Development, and Environment and Parks from 2003 to 2006 in the Quebec cabinet of Liberal Jean Charest, left the Quebec Liberals and contested a federal by-election in the riding of Outremont in 2007 as the NDP candidate. In the leadership campaign, Mulcair ran as the most prominent member of the NDP’s newly minted caucus from Quebec. Mulcair presented himself as a potential leader who would bring the centre of the Canadian political spectrum to the NDP. In other words, he planned to woo Canadians to the left, not push the NDP to the right.

In the latter weeks of the campaign, prior to the NDP convention in Toronto, with Mulcair seen as the front-runner, Ed Broadbent publicly called into question the Quebec MP’s commitment to NDP values. In an effort to reinvigorate the campaign of Brian Topp, in a newspaper and a television interview, Broadbent praised Topp’s dependability as a social democrat while stating that he was not really sure where Mulcair stood. Broadbent’s foray dominated the final days of the leadership race. In the mainstream media and on activist blogs, those who agreed with Broadbent reinforced the case that Mulcair would lead to the NDP away from its traditional stance to the centre. They charged that he was personally abrasive and unable to work effectively with other people. Prominent social activist Judy Rebick, although not a member of the NDP, took up the cudgels against Mulcair, charging that he was authoritarian in his leadership style, that he was patriarchal and that he was particularly unable to maintain effective working relationships with women.

Others (myself included) rejected the attacks against Mulcair, and supported his candidacy. On March 24, 2012, in an election in which all NDP members could participate, mostly through online voting prior to the convention, Thomas Mulcair was elected federal NDP on the third ballot, winning 57 per cent of the vote. Runner-up Brian Topp won 43 per cent of the vote. For the first time in the history of the party, the NDP had a leader who had emerged from the furnace of Quebec politics. It remained to be seen where he would lead the party.

This article was first posted on James Laxer’s blog.