If the polls are to be believed, Tom Mulcair and the NDP have a legitimate chance of achieving what was once thought to be impossible: forming a federal government. True, the NDP has won elections in several provinces and the party is currently in power in Manitoba and (surprisingly) Alberta. But forming a national government is something else entirely. Were the results of the 2011 election that made the NDP the official Opposition a one-time phenomenon, or was it the first phase of a political transformation?
The NDP's journey from a third-party outlier to recognition as a real choice for millions of Canadian voters has been a long one. Eighty-two years ago, a group of left-wing intellectuals, socialist farmers and labourites dissatisfied with the inadequate response of the traditional parties to the crisis of the Great Depression met in Regina.
There they created a new political party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation or CCF, with Winnipeg labour MP, J.S. Woodsworth as their leader. With a nod to Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto, their guiding principles were set out in the Regina Manifesto in which they promised to put "human needs" above "the making of profits."
It was the last line of the manifesto, however, which defined the party for the next three decades: "No C.C.F. government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth."
At the time, that kind of language was more than a little disconcerting. Memories of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and the perceived threat of a Soviet-style revolution were still fresh. And communism, regarded as a renunciation of Christian tenets, was something to be feared.
In the federal election of 1935, the first one the CCF participated in, the party received nine per cent of the popular vote and won seven western seats. One of the Saskatchewan MPs elected was Rev. Tommy Douglas, who left a lasting legacy on the party. The low results were the pattern for many elections that followed. By the late 1940s, in the midst of the Cold War, the CCF's political future was caught up by the Red Scare.
At the provincial level, the party had more success. In the Ontario election of 1943, it came in second and formed the opposition. And then a year later in Saskatchewan, Douglas, the new provincial leader, led the party to power in a victory that received headlines across North America. He remained the premier until he jumped back to federal politics in 1961 when he became the leader of the New Democratic Party, the revamped CCF, a party supported by the Canadian Labour Congress. Freeing itself from left-wing radicalism, the NDP led the fight for "moderate socialism with government planning and public ownership."
Until the federal election of 2011 and its remarkable breakthrough in Quebec, the party usually remained a distant choice behind the Liberals and Conservatives. The NDP had to be content with forming governments, first in Manitoba under Ed Schreyer in 1969 and then in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia and most recently with Rachel Notley's victory in Alberta this past May. Several of these various administrations had their ups and downs and in Ontario daunting memories of Bob Rae's troubled tenure from 1990 to 1995 still linger.
At the same time, the CCF and the NDP have been Canada's social conscience. While old age pensions, unemployment insurance and medicare were brought in by Liberal governments (though medicare was first introduced by the NDP in Saskatchewan in 1962), it was the CCF and NDP that led the battle for these now quintessentially Canadian social programs. Tommy Douglas never became prime minister, yet in 2004 he was the popular choice for the CBC's "Greatest Canadian" TV show.
With many voters weary of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives and uncertain whether Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is ready for power, Mulcair has run a smart campaign. He has moved the party as close to the middle of the political spectrum as it ever has been and to the right of the Liberals on many issues. He insists an NDP government will balance the budget — rather than raising personal taxes and spending lavishly — and be more transparent. Mulcair's economic calculations have been challenged and his foreign policy pronouncement about taking Canada out of the fight against Islamic State and promoting peace in the Middle East have been questioned. As prime minister he might be just as autocratic as Harper, but perhaps not.
For close to 30 years, I told my Canadian history students the NDP would never win a federal election, not in my lifetime, nor theirs. But the world of politics is always in flux, dependent on dozens of factors and periodically altering course in ways we could never have imagined. I may well have been wrong.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.