May 18, 2011
Thomas Walkom: What does the NDP Stand for?
Reprinted from the Toronto Star
See also this article.
The Liberal Party is under the spotlight and deservedly so. It is confused and rudderless. It appears to have no aim other than winning power. It lacks a reason for being.
All of this was made starkly clear in the federal election. What is less obvious is that the New Democrats — ostensibly major winners on May 2 — suffer similar problems.
To rain on the NDP parade might seem churlish. Yes, the New Democrats won big. Yes, they finally made a breakthrough in Quebec. Yes, party leader Jack Layton ran a skilled and graceful campaign.
But who are they? What direction would they take if they did win power?
We know that the NDP isn’t a socialist party. It hasn’t been for decades. But is it a social democratic party? If so, what does that mean in 2011?
The ideological uncertainty of the NDP has heightened under Layton’s leadership. As a young, municipal politician, Layton didn’t shy away from controversy. In 1984, he was famously arrested for handing out pro-union pamphlets in Toronto’s Eaton Centre.
But by 2003, the grand gestures were gone. Instead, he won his party’s leadership by promising to be practical, to win more seats and to increase the NDP’s appeal among younger voters.
In all of these areas he has succeeded. His optimistic message of practical solutions for working families resonated particularly well in this campaign.
Yet at the same time, the overall direction of the NDP under Layton has been harder to pin down. His parliamentary caucus does back the Canadian Labour Congress’ call for a vastly improved Canada Pension Plan. But otherwise, labour seems largely invisible — this in a party the unions helped create.
Certainly, there were few hints of either labour or the left in the party’s 2011 election platform.
In fact, the central economic theory behind that platform was a very conservative one: The best way to create jobs is through tax cuts for business.
The only difference between this position and that of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives was that Layton focused on small rather than large business.
In the Commons, all parties are opportunistic. But the NDP under Layton has been unusually so — attacking the government at every turn without attempting to determine if its various critiques contradict one another, settling for the easiest or most popular position rather than one best aligned with its principles.
The NDP had little to say in 2005 when Canada decided to send troops into Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Only when opposition started to mount publicly did it come out against the war.
Similarly, and with almost no debate, the NDP joined other parties in quickly approving Harper’s decision this year to make war on Libya.
In 2005, it sacrificed the very national child care scheme it had long advocated in order to bring down Paul Martin’s Liberal government.
If the NDP had a coherent overall game plan, none of this might matter. Democratic politics is complicated. Even Harper’s Conservatives take one step back for every two forward.
But Harper also has something larger in mind. He wants to transform Canada into a different kind of society, where collective action through government is minimized, where markets rule and where individuals are given freer rein to accumulate as much as they can.
Does the NDP these days have an overarching notion of where the country should go and how it can get there? If so, I don’t see it.
Rather its aim seems merely to become the Liberals. This, as the Liberals themselves have demonstrated, is not enough.
Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
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