Idealists, realists coexist in the NDP
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The central theme of author Matt Fodor’s recently published book From Layton to Singh: The 20-Year Conflict Behind the NDP’s Deal with the Trudeau Liberals is that national and provincial wings of the New Democratic Party have sacrificed social-democratic principles by becoming centrist parties.
They have done this by moderating their policies, centralizing power in leaders’ offices at the expense of internal party democracy and employing slick marketing tactics, all in pursuit of winning office.
The Manitoba NDP under leader Gary Doer, who spent a decade in opposition before becoming premier for a decade (1999-2009), is identified as the leading example of the party adopting a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to campaigning and governing.
Public intellectuals on the left and activists within the party accused Doer of adopting the controversial “third way” approach to politics, which was most famously practised in the U.K. by Labour prime minister Tony Blair.
Rivers of ink have flowed over the meaning and implications of the third way. For current purposes, it will simply be described as a set of beliefs, policy approaches and political tactics that do not fit neatly within the traditional left-versus-right debates over the role of government in society and the conduct of party affairs.
The accusation that the NDP — and its predecessor, the CCF party from 1935 to 1961 — watered down its commitment to socialist principles to gain votes and seats is not an entirely persuasive argument for this non-partisan commentator.
The CCF/NDP has always been a hybrid political entity, part social movement that sought to challenge the dominant ideas and interests within society, and part competitive political party intent on winning elections. The tension and balance between these two aims has shifted over time.
Criticizing NDP politicians for seeking popularity in order to achieve electoral success seems inappropriate. Presumably, we want parties to be responsive to the concerns of the public, especially those segments of the population whom they claim to represent.
Being in office gives the NDP a much better chance to deliver on its promises. Even just being a political force to be reckoned with can give the NDP leverage, such as pushing Liberals to adopt more progressive policies or making Conservatives pay a political price for far-right policies.
Of course, leaders and parties should not simply pander to public opinion; they should also seek to educate and lead the public toward new understandings of policy issues. In an era of permanent campaigning, when there is heavy reliance on polling, politicians can become timid and may exaggerate the constraints they face.
In order to be relevant, however, parties must pay attention to the political acceptability of their policies. Having the “right” policies is insufficient; convincing the public to support those policies is also essential.
For this reason, and because of other factors, most policy change tends to be incremental. This is especially true in a smaller, “have less” province such as Manitoba, where bold, transformational policies clash with a moderate, mainstream political culture.
Leaders and parties must be prepared to rethink their policy approaches in response to changing conditions and new knowledge about which policy instruments work.
Left-wing parties were created to advance the interests of working-class and low-income people. The postwar development of the welfare state, and the related success of the union movement, did not eliminate income inequality.
However, during the second half of the 20th century, many citizens enjoyed rising standards of living. In that political context, it made sense for the NDP to drop its more strident class-warfare rhetoric from earlier decades. More recently, widening economic divides have brought to NDP messaging a renewed focus on inequality.
To remain competitive in the evolving communications environment, the NDP had to professionalize and modernize its operations. One result was the emergence within the NDP of influential strategists and communications professionals, who promoted the use of modern marketing approaches. Campaign managers and other experienced staff moved around the country to support the NDP cause.
The NDP has followed other parties in centralizing power in and around the leader, who became the focal point of its appeals to voters. Involvement of rank-and-file members in NDP policy development has declined, with the party elites carefully filtering ideas coming from the constituency level.
These developments resemble broader trends among all parties. Approximately four per cent of Canadians belong to a political party. Most are not ardent policy entrepreneurs; rather, they simply identify with the party, more loosely than in the past, and enjoy the camaraderie of belonging.
Tension and conflict within the NDP, if channelled constructively, can be a source of learning and policy innovation. The party needs both “idealists” and “realists,” recognizing that applying these labels in a changing world is not straightforward.
Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.