In my new role of NDP moderate and regime apologist, I have to say that I am baffled by the sudden vociferousness of people marking the Tom Mulcair leadership as the moment the NDP abandoned socialism and joined the Third Way. The reality is that, depending on which province you live in, this event took place some time between 1989 and 1997.
The NDP joined the global capitulation of social democratic parties that culminated in the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour earlier than most SDPs did. In many ways, Mike Harcourt and Roy Romanow could be credited as the true founders of the Third Way; and Audrey McLaughlin can be seen as the first national NDP leader to focus more on limiting rather than building the power of Canada’s federal government to build a fair and equitable nation.
The reality is that whereas Jack Layton’s left turn ended in the middle of the 2004 federal election campaign, the party under Mulcair unflinchingly marks the high water mark for advocating old-style social democratic programs and policies. While I do not agree with all of them, like the Energy East endorsement, for instance, it is undeniable that Mulcair’s party is offering the most comprehensive social democratic national vision the NDP has offered Canadians since the 1988 election.
So, why all the whinging now?
I would suggest that current whining about the NDP abandoning socialism for neoliberalism comes from very problematic places and helps to reveal what has sustained the New Democrats, as a party, in the generation since the Cold War ended and global financial elites no longer needed to tolerate the existence of NATO-member welfare states as a bulwark against the Soviet Empire.
The New Democratic Party survived from 1989-2011 based on lineage and culture. Those connected to the party remained connected to it through family ties, union ties and ties to the non-profit QuaNGO sector that expanded vastly under Third Way ideology. In provinces where, to privatize services, shrink the state and deregulate and depress wages, Third Way governments delivered new programs or transferred delivery of old programs to state-patronized non-profits, the NDP-aligned institutional sector grew, as did the loyalty of those in the caring professions to the party. Family and extended family lineages, reinforced for a minority through access to trade union seniority or QuaNGO jobs, held onto their loyalty to the NDP not just through nostalgia, social memory and the making of a shared past but through governmental and trade union financial patronage.
Relatedly, the party survived, especially in the West, through the cooptation of the right-wing populism practiced by Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon and George Wallace, one that blames some element of the working class for the ills suffered by the rest of the working class. For the Third Way governments in BC and Saskatchewan, this group was welfare recipients. Draconian laws were enacted throughout Western Canada, cracking down on “welfare cheats and deadbeats,” and there was little difference between those of Tory Ralph Klein in Alberta and those of New Democrats Mike Harcourt and Roy Romanow. In this way, working class people distant from union, QuaNGO and other party-aligned patronage networks were offered a watered-down right-wing populism that lacked the financially suicidal character of its genuinely conservative competitors.
So, why is it that a minority of long-time NDP supporters and activists are so upset that Tom Mulcair, like most NDP leaders in most elections since the early 80s, is refusing to say he will raise taxes on individuals? Why are people so upset with Mulcair’s anemic climate justice platform, when the BC NDP ran for re-election in 1996 and 2001 trumpeting a five-fold increase in hydrocarbon extraction in the province’s northeast? Why are people so unimpressed with the most robust national energy, childcare and housing policies the party has offered since Audrey McLaughlin stepped down in 1994?
Perhaps it is because, for what remains of the long-term NDP base, our most left-wing leader in a generation is not “one of us.” If what makes you a New Democrat, increasingly, has come to mean your descent from an old NDP lineage, your association with a QuaNGO or trade union patronage system, your access to a union job or your belief that the NDP will crack down on the indigenous and/or chronically unemployed Canadian underclass on your behalf, then Tom Mulcair and his crew are not New Democrats.
They don’t even act like New Democrats. No double-speak and cheap shots against indigenous people, no demonization of the chronically unemployed, no signals that the new regime will be run by the multigenerational party lineages with names like Notley and Woodsworth, no sign, even, that the career courtiers, like Brian Topp, and their hangers-on are part of this new crew. Not to mention the suspicion of Catholics, francophones and Quebeckers endemic in any Canadian party with Western roots.
Most troublingly, by standing for the kind of activist federal state that Svend Robinson stood up for when his party foolishly endorsed the Meech Lake Accord, the Mulcair leadership is offering an implied criticism of those who never questioned or spoke out against the ugly expediencies and terrible betrayals of the 90s and 00s. What, he is effectively asking, if being a New Democrat lives not in patronage, lineage or culture; what if it really does live in policy and principles? If that is the case, many of those expressing first-time qualms with the party after a generation of betrayal and capitulation, may actually be turning against Mulcair because, just by running on an old school 1980s social democratic platform, he is implicitly suggesting that maybe it is they who are not the real New Democrats?