When news broke this week of the Liberal-NDP agreement, I thought immediately of a remark from last fall by Jennifer Howard, Jagmeet Singh’s chief-of-staff and one of the pact’s lead negotiators.
“It was not a campaign that, by and large, Canadians were interested in major change,” she said after the election in September, 2021. “That was maybe what voters felt the message should be. And we’re all going to take that message and do our best to work with it.”
“Not interested in major change”: that essentially is the working slogan of today’s New Democratic Party. Run by professional operatives whose outlook is closer to operatives in other parties than to Canadians outside the Ottawa bubble, bereft of any coherent opposition plan or a distinct political vision for the country, the party has settled for some abysmally vague concessions from the Liberal government in exchange for propping them up for three years.
Their unambitious reasoning goes something like this: if we can “get things done,” slightly improving policies Liberals might have implemented anyway, we can at least net some recognition for it from the electorate.
Never mind that, in purely electoral terms, junior partners in such governing arrangements never receive any credit when something of beneficial consequence happens, and receive all the blame when it doesn’t.
Never mind that polls consistently show that three out of four Canadians, having watched the pandemic expose “ugly truths” about social inequality, expect a “broad transformation of society”—suggesting many are indeed interested in major change, if only there were a political party advocating it to vote for.
And never mind that right-wing politicians like Pierre Poilievre are building political momentum by tapping into the anger and discontent with this status quo better than anyone. If this pact results in more of the usual progressive posturing from the Liberals, heel-dragging on policies, and little change to the daily realities that see half of Canadians struggling to pay their bills, it will be fuel for a faux-populist Conservative upsurge.
What could the NDP do if they wanted to meet this moment with audacity and ambition? They could relentlessly attack the Liberals as the political agents of a corporate elite standing in the way of taxes on the rich, major public spending, and a Green New Deal, policies backed by a super majority across the partisan spectrum.
Attempting to realign Canadian voters with a bold, electrifying agenda could raise a boatload of money—as Bernie Sanders has proven is possible—so the party wouldn’t be afraid, as they are now, to force an election when necessary. And if Liberals were anxious about a visibly and genuinely progressive alternative, the NDP could extract more from them without signing away their leverage—dental and pharmacare, but much else as well. When the winds of change blow from the left, the Liberals always offer far greater concessions.
Instead, the NDP has spent the past few years ideologically conceding ground to the Liberals, rather than opening up the distance between them. Just think of some of Jagmeet Singh’s favourite lines: “Justin Trudeau says the right things, but doesn’t follow through,” or the New Democrats will “get the job done for Canadians.” This has made them sound like they are trying merely to be more honest and effective practitioners of their opponents’ politics—a kind of Taskmaster Liberalism.
No wonder Justin Trudeau is thrilled. According to a report in the Toronto Star about the negotiations with NDP officials, at one point he even remarked that he was “having too much fun.” With 22 of the 23 policies outlined in the agreement already being Liberal promises, or modifications or extensions of them, Liberal strategists know the impression left to voters will echo an old refrain of Prime Minister St Laurent’s: the New Democrats are “Liberals in a hurry.”
This NDP strategy is not being driven by rank-and-file members of the party, its many progressive parliamentarians, or even particularly by the leader. Its principal proponents are an advisor clique led by chief-of-staff Howard, a former Finance Minister in the Manitoba NDP government—the most consciously moderate and centrist among the provincial parties. Its success was based on “inoculating” itself from attacks from the right and the business sector by simply abandoning any traditional left-wing policies. Howard’s guiding lights are US Democrats of the Biden/Clinton current.
A paradox is that NDP’s recent platforms have, on paper, been the most progressive and social democratic in decades. But these have been pulled together not out of any overarching commitment and conviction, but based on advisors’ vague grasp of the growing popularity of insurgent democratic socialist politics elsewhere in the world.
Actual advocacy of ideas has remained half-hearted, while promotion of the image of its leader has become increasingly vigorous. The party is stuck promoting a flashy personality, not far-reaching policies.
Take as an example how the party brass eagerly promoted an online gaming event between Singh and U.S. democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2020. But when the party’s caucus had been offered a briefing about the Green New Deal—to be given by one of AOC’s advisors—Howard rejected the idea. Later MP Peter Julian was allowed to campaign for a symbolic Green New Deal bill on the party’s margin’s—a perfect encapsulation of how the party gives lip service to potentially powerful causes, without devoting any real effort to building support or momentum for it.
The same unimaginative leadership flip-flopped on a climate-incinerating TMX pipeline. They watched silently as the BC NDP government trampled over the rights of the Wet’suwet’en. And recently they lined up behind the Liberals on the civil-liberties infringing and unnecessary Emergencies Act, which we’ve just learned was a good faith negotiation gesture.
Rudderless, unprincipled, and always missing opportunities, the current pact with the Liberals is the culmination of these politics.
How the party got into this state is a story of a multi-decade drift toward the neoliberal consensus. It has involved a transformation—consolidated under former leader Jack Layton—toward highly centralized decision-making, focus-grouped and moderated politics, and fear and wariness about social movements. It has seen the rise of a consultant class, with advisors and operatives moving through a revolving door of organizations like Now Communications that are a vehicle for entrenching this style of campaigning in every province.
To pave the way, this layer of operatives have stymied meaningful participation in the party. Stage-managed conventions have hollowed out the party’s democracy, neglect of riding associations have ensured there is little activity or campaigning among members year-round, and any left-wing MPs who show real vision and principle are disciplined or marginalized.
A cynical accomplishment of this pact is that the thousands of activists who believe in a different kind of NDP—more democratic, bold, and willing to campaign for a different vision of society—will be further disenchanted and alienated. It will give fodder to those who want to believe, to paraphrase Frederic Jameson, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the reinvention of a social democratic party.
It can be reinvented. But it will take movement from below, and new leadership at the top. Until that happens the party will be run by a consultant class geared toward capitulation instead of transformation.