What’s Next For Canada’s NDP?

Published: August 13, 2012

While the NDP has become centrist in terms of popular support and rhetorical style, it remains, in many ways, an unreformed social-democratic organization. If it is to form a future majority government, certain things must change.

Two events are said to mark a turning point for the New Democratic Party (NDP): its May 2011 electoral breakthrough under Jack Layton, and its March 2012 elevation of Thomas Mulcair to the leadership. According to this narrative, the NDP has now replaced the Liberal party as the centre-left political alternative to the Conservatives. But although the NDP has become centrist in terms of popular support and rhetorical style, it remains, in many ways, an unreformed social-democratic organization. The overwhelming presence of social-democratic ideology and its adherents within the party may inhibit its flexibility in the adoption of policies and tactics. It is this kind of pragmatism that underlies successful Canadian governance.

In addition to the NDP’s potential future as a governing party, the potential victory of the social-democratic and separatist Parti Québécois in the Quebec provincial elections on Sept. 4 makes the relationship between the linguistically divided wings of the Canadian social-democratic movement very interesting.

In a previous piece for The Mark, I outlined the organizational network that constitutes the right-wing movement in Canada. That network can be visualized as a multi-level pyramid, including donors, think-tanks, pressure groups, and media outlets. A similar network unites Canadian social democrats. Paralleling the libertarian economic theories that dominate the Canadian right wing, the social-democratic left is united in support of maintaining and extending the welfare state.

A second major characteristic of the Canadian social-democratic movement is its anglophone orientation. Although a strong social-democratic tradition also exists in Quebec, this has been closely linked with provincial sovereignty. As a result, the Canadian and Quebec social-democratic networks are relatively distinct. This organizational cleavage presents an impediment to the continuation of the NDP’s electoral successes beyond the last federal election. Without the greater integration of the Canadian and Quebec social-democratic movements, the NDP is doomed to lose support in the province.

The aforesaid focus on public services is a result of the dependence of Canadian social-democratic organizations on the anglophone labour movement, and especially the unions that represent government employees. About 30 per cent of Canadian workers belong to a union, of which approximately 2/3 work in the public sector. In English Canada, unions representing three million workers are part of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). The public-sector unions (such as Canadian Union of Public Employees, National Union of Public and General Employees, and Public Service Alliance of Canada) have an obvious interest in maintaining and expanding the Canadian welfare state. Although Liberal Protestants and followers of Catholic social teaching, along with environmentalists, are important members of the mainstream Canadian left, it is the labour movement that provides the supporters and funding that sustain it. Unions provide the organizational and financial infrastructure that supports the various media outlets, pressure groups, and think-tanks that constitute the Canadian social-democratic movement.

In 2011, more than half of the NDP’s seats were won in Quebec. Despite the existence of an integrated and diverse social-democratic movement in Canada, this anglophone network has not successfully integrated Quebec’s social democrats, which are based in the province’s trade unions. Quebec’s one million unionized workers are organized into three major labour federations: the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), which mainly represents public-sector workers; the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN); and the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), which mainly represents private-sector workers.

These groups have historically been the foundation of the Quebec sovereignty movement, forming an especially close relationship with the provincial PQ. The federal Bloc Québécois (BQ) also has many ties with the province’s labour movement: Former leader Gilles Duceppe was a negotiator with the CSN before he was elected to the House of Commons in 1990, and many of the BQ’s former MPs worked as unionized civil servants before entering politics. CSN’s Montreal section endorsed the far left Québec solidaire party for the 2007 provincial election, while the FTQ endorsed the PQ. Additionally, a new sovereigntist left-wing party, Option nationale, has been formed by former PQ activists and politicians who are disappointed with the latter’s move towards the political centre and its inactivity vis-à-vis pursuing independence for the province.

Like their anglophone counterparts, Quebec’s trade unions also support a broad network of organizations. This strong social-democratic and sovereigntist movement represents a major obstacle to the long-term success of the NDP in Quebec. Somehow, the party must reconcile the desire of Quebec social democrats for provincial autonomy or sovereignty with the strengthened federalism that its anglophone supporters favour. The NDP must also build up a network of local organizers in the province – these activists can most easily be recruited by the unions. With the next federal election expected in 2015, the party has three years to build up the kind of network it took more than 50 years to create in English Canada.

Likewise, across Canada, the NDP and the social-democratic movement must expand beyond its traditional trade-union supporters. In order to form a future majority government, the NDP will need to appeal to a larger number of Canadians than the labour movement currently represents. But this also anticipates a shift to the centre of the political spectrum, which will entail conflict with the Liberals and a modernization of orthodox welfare-state theory. Like the Conservatives and its allied free-market network, the NDP must avoid becoming immobilized by the very social-democratic activists that have sustained it and finally brought it to the brink of power.