What kind of party is Canada's NDP?

Canada's New Democratic Party (NDP) scored a breakthrough in federal elections in May, winning 30.6 percent of the vote and becoming the main party of opposition against the governing Conservative Party. The NDP was founded as a social democratic party with links to the labor movement. But it also has a record of adapting to neoliberalism in recent decades.

Murray Cooke--a member of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, the New Democratic Party and the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly--looks at the history of the NDP and what its recent gains mean for the left.

NDP leader Jack Layton (Matt Jiggins)NDP leader Jack Layton (Matt Jiggins)

THE NEW Democratic Party (NDP) celebrated its 50th anniversary at its federal convention on June 17-19 in Vancouver. This comes in the aftermath of its historic election results in the May 2011 election. It's a useful time to reflect on the history of the NDP. So here are nine theses on the NDP at 50.

1. The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was transformed into the NDP during a period of social democratic revisionism.

The Cold War and the post-war economic boom encouraged social democrats in Canada, as elsewhere, to revise their tactics and goals. Social democrats everywhere were downgrading the importance of public ownership and embracing Keynesian fiscal policies, the welfare state and a mixed economy.

Revisionist social democracy was typified by the publication in Britain of Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism in 1956, the battle over Clause Four of the British Labour Party's constitution (which committed the party to "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange") and the German Social Democrat's program of 1959.

The radicalism of the CCF in the 1930s is a matter of debate, but it is clear that in the right-wing ideological climate of the 1950s, the CCF was becoming an increasingly moderate, or revisionist, social democratic party. As the CCF's National Chairman Frank Scott told the 1950 federal convention, "socialists everywhere are taking stock of their position in the light of post-war experiences." The CCF's revisionism led to the development of the moderate Winnipeg Declaration, passed in 1956 to displace the more radical Regina Manifesto.

The transformation of the CCF into the NDP was an attempt to present a new, more modern image of the party, but it was more the culmination of this process of revisionism than the beginning of it. It's notable that Hugh Gaitskell, the revisionist leader of the British Labour Party and opponent of Clause Four, was a guest speaker at the founding convention of the NDP.

2. The NDP's new relationship to the labor movement was highly ambiguous.

A major factor in the formation of the NDP was a new, closer relationship with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) which had been created in 1956. However, the CLC's role in the creation of the NDP was not due to the politicization of a labor movement through a process of mobilization and radicalization. This was a cautious and pragmatic labor organization, and the partnership with the revisionist New Party was driven by the moderate labor and party leadership at the top.

Furthermore, at the same time that the NDP was solidifying its relationship with the labor movement, it was becoming a catch-all party reaching out to "liberally minded individuals." While the CLC's part in the formation of the NDP was an important development in working-class politics in Canada and fundamental in making the new party different from the other two parties, the NDP was hardly a new class-conscious, working-class party.

3. Despite the previous two points, it's still accurate to say that the newly formed NDP was a social democratic party.

It wasn't an anti-capitalist party. It didn't envision a transition to socialism by parliamentary means, but sought a significantly reformed capitalist economy, a capitalist economy with elements of economic planning and an expanding welfare state. In fact, its leadership thought this process of transforming capitalism was well under way with the increasingly interventionist role of the state in the economy. And, as noted above, this was a party that had forged a close relationship with the labor movement.

4. The radical movements of the late '60s and early '70s, including the upsurge in labor militancy, pushed the NDP somewhat further to the left.

After avoiding the term "socialism" in 1961, the NDP resurrected it during the 1963 convention. The NDP increasingly took more progressive positions on Quebec and women's rights through the 1960s. The party's policies and rhetoric arguably became more radical.

This was reflected in the 1972 federal election campaign under David Lewis, the 1971 election platform of the Saskatchewan NDP, "A New Deal for People," and perhaps even in the Dave Barrett-led NDP government elected in British Columbia in 1972. The Waffle movement within the NDP was part of this process, but the modest shift to the left reflected the broader vitality of social and labor movements. The NDP exists within and is influenced by the broader left.

5. The economic crisis of the late-1970s, the resulting capitalist offensive and the hegemony of neoliberalism have pushed the broad left onto the defensive, and the NDP has abandoned any attempt to significantly reform capitalism.

While this process requires a deeper analysis, the provincial NDP governments of the 1990s demonstrated the dramatic transformation of social democracy in Canada. The NDP, like social democrats around the world, has adapted to, and even contributed to, the neoliberal onslaught, rather than being able to resist it.

Today, the NDP at the federal level, in government in Manitoba and Nova Scotia, and across every other provincial party section, does not have any coherent social democratic economic agenda. At the federal level, this has been magnified under Jack Layton's leadership. Rather than re-thinking its approach, the NDP under Layton has accelerated its retreat from social democracy. Without any agenda to significantly reform capitalism, the NDP has been reduced to a left-liberal formation.

6. The NDP's goal in 1961, as it is today, was to replace the Liberals and realign the party system along left-right lines.

The NDP was formed in the context of a Conservative government and a weak Liberal party. Whenever the Conservatives have formed the federal government for a significant period of time (under Diefenbaker, Mulroney or Harper) and the Liberals have appeared vulnerable, the NDP has been pulled in two directions.

Today, the NDP sees a historic opportunity to surpass the Liberals, while other voices (primarily outside the NDP) suggest that the NDP must merge with, or at least work with, the Liberals to defeat the Conservatives. The historic achievement of Official Opposition status means not only that the federal NDP has no interest in a merger with the Liberals, but that their primary political goal is to permanently displace them. This will shape the NDP's behavior over the next four years.

7. A key aspect of the NDP's formation was the attempt to reach out to Quebec.

This was one of the key areas of debate in 1961 as the NDP recognized Quebec as a nation. Over the last 50 years, the NDP has really struggled to respond constructively to Quebec nationalism. Past attempts have always come into conflict with Canadian nationalism.

These battles have been played out inside the party and have consistently divided the party. In the past, with little electoral payoff in Quebec for the efforts that have been made, it's always been easier to jettison controversial stances than to stick with them.

Now, with a caucus of 59 members of parliament (MPs) from Quebec, the NDP is going to find it much more difficult to backtrack away from its rhetorical commitment to recognizing Quebec as a nation and to recognizing Quebec's right to self-determination. The NDP is already under tremendous pressure on this front. Beyond the NDP, for the left in Canada, there is a desperate need to build links with the Quebec left and defend Quebec's right to self-determination.

8. The broad left in Canada is very weak.

When the NDP was formed, the Communist Party of Canada was in decline, but still had a significant base in some unions. During the radicalization of the '60s and '70s, a variety of Marxist groups were active in Canada and especially in Quebec.

Today, however, the left beyond the NDP is weak. The trade union movement is in crisis and on the defensive. The radical left is very marginal. The upsurge of the anti-globalization movement has largely withered away. As of yet, the economic crisis and the politics of austerity have not generated significant mass mobilizations in Canada.

Within the NDP, the left is also weak and unorganized. The Waffle was disbanded. The New Politics Initiative, which was active at the 2001 federal convention, was disbanded. There is no significant left force in the NDP today. The Socialist Caucus is not a significant pole of attraction for leftists within the party.

During his leadership bid, Layton was successful in co-opting much of the left within the party. He remains remarkably unchallenged. If Alexa McDonough had attempted to take the NDP as close to the centre of the political spectrum as Layton has, she would have faced greater resistance and outrage.

9. The NDP still matters.

The NDP is not a socialist party. The NDP is not going to become a socialist party. Based on the parameters of postwar social democracy around the world, the NDP is no longer a social democratic party. Around the world, social democracy is either dead or has lost all meaning.

The goal of the NDP over the next four years will be to present itself as the pragmatic alternative to the Conservatives and a responsible party of government. Its leadership will not encourage extra-parliamentary opposition and will undoubtedly take many positions that disappoint the broader left.

Still, the NDP has important ties to working-class organizations and remains the center-left alternative to the Liberals and Conservatives. Across the country, in many regions, in many cities and towns, the NDP for all intents and purposes is the left. According to the mass media and many Canadians, the NDP are "the socialists," even while Layton tries to shake the tag.

Many social movement and union activists have been elected to parliament as New Democrats. Voters who voted for the NDP want to defend social programs and public services and want an alternative to the Conservative vision. So the election of 102 New Democrats to Parliament does matter. The opening of dialogue between the left in Quebec and in Canada matters.

Overall, there is certainly a real danger in placing too much stock in the future of the NDP. The broader left, including the labor movement, still desperately needs to be rebuilt. New organizational forms beyond the NDP need to be built. The future of the left in Canada is dependent upon building mass organizations and movements to fight against neoliberalism and to fight for a better world.

First published at NewSocialist.org.