Liberal minorities with a strong NDP presence have, historically, created some of the biggest openings for social movements to make major gains. 

This type of minority historically sets a unique dynamic into play, with Liberals clamoring to regain popularity, and the NDP forced to maintain a principled stance.

The minority is a key leverage point for progressive movements. While those movements don’t have the power to push the NDP into a majority, the difference between a Liberal majority and a minority is often just a few thousand votes in key ridings – most of them in urban centres.

When Liberals are struggling in the polls, strategically concentrated efforts by just a few hundred people can make a major difference.

(The catch: to get a transformative result for the lives of millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people, social movements must also mobilize after the election.)

How the NDP itself responds to the situation is, nonetheless, a key factor.

As the 2019-2021 Liberal minority wraps up, how has it compared to previous minority governments? 

A look at past minority governments can clarify how we understand what just happened – and what might be winnable under a future minority government.

A pamphlet advertising medicare to other provinces after its success in Saskatchewan. (Via The Pigeon.)

Pearson/Douglas: 1963-68

Lester Pearson’s Liberal Party couldn’t eke out a majority of seats, twice. They had to rely on Tommy Douglas and the NDP to govern. 

Douglas was fresh off 17 years as Premier of Saskatchewan, where, backed by labour unions and movements, his government had won an epic battle for public healthcare, facing down a doctor’s strike and a full scale propaganda war backed by big business. Douglas was a leader in an effort to take a wildly popular policy – reviled by the elite and backed by movements – to the national stage.

Threatened by the popularity of the NDP’s policies – which were backed by labour networks, farm organizations, consumer associations, community groups and some churches – Pearson forced the Liberal Party’s right wing to vote with NDP MPs to implement a public medicare system and the Canada Pension Plan. 

Today, both remain key pillars of Canada’s welfare state.

Petro-Canada headquarters (now Suncor Energy Centre) in downtown Calgary was colloquially known as “Red Square”. Publicly owned until the 1990s, Petro-Canada was created through left nationalism and NDP leverage. Photo: Rich Moffitt

Trudeau/Lewis: 1972-74

Trudeaumania faded after Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s first term. His second term as prime minister in 1972 relied on David Lewis and the NDP to pass confidence votes.

The left wing of the NDP – and a current of left nationalism in other parties and organizations – had been pushing for nationalizing the oil industry, a demand that resonated during the oil crisis of 1973. The NDP leadership took up the call for nationalization. 

Trudeau wouldn’t go that far, but he created crown corporation Petro-Canada and gave the government a major presence in the oil patch.

Petro-Canada was a bold step away from the status quo of total control by US oil companies and investors over oil extraction in Canada, until it was privatized by Liberals and Tories between 1991 and 2004. 

In hindsight, Petro-Canada could have been a key vehicle for transitioning oil workers into green energy. Instead, climate policy has been hamstrung by oil companies and their big money backers.

Children play in a Nunavut village. NDP leverage provided over a billion dollars for housing, including hundreds of millions for housing in the north. Photo: Dru Oja Jay

Martin/Layton: 2005

In 2004, new Liberal leader Paul Martin went to the polls and was busted down to a minority of seats in Parliament. In 2005, Martin needed support from Jack Layton’s NDP, who made the most of the opportunity. 

Martin, who until that time had defined his political identity as a proponent of austerity policies, emerged from negotiations with the NDP with a more ecological and humanitarian spirit, adding $4.6 billion in spending on housing, public transit and climate initiatives. 

The significance of this concession has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by 10 subsequent years of Conservative rule. 

$4.6 billion is nothing to sniff at. It hardly solved the housing crisis, but the hundreds of millions allocated to housing in Indigenous communities (including a total of $200 million for Nunavut) had profound effects on living conditions and opportunities for countless people living in desperate and precarious situations.

Trudeau/Singh: 2019-21

The Justin Trudeau-led minority has been defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The NDP used its influence early, proposing $2,000/month payments when the Liberals were proposing a vague patchwork of temporary measures. Trudeau’s Liberals were quick to adopt the proposal as their own, creating the popular Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

Despite its flaws, like shifting criteria and its exclusion of large numbers of people, CERB was a clear progressive redistribution of wealth. Without the NDP holding the balance of power, there could easily have been tens of billions fewer dollars for people who needed it.

What came next, however, was less inspiring. 

The NDP signed a joint letter with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (an openly anti-union organization) and some private sector unions, calling for a 75 percent wage subsidy paid to employers who keep their employees on. 

Within mere hours, Trudeau announced the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).

CEWS payouts disproportionately benefited large corporations and their investors, with billions going to dividends and executive compensation while right-wing news outlets cheered on, and enforcement of rules was nonexistent.

New Democrat MPs complained about abuse of the CEWS, which carried a final price tag of over $100 billion (the CERB’s total was $77 billion), but it was too late.

The NDP had the opportunity to push further for transformative redistribution, but it didn’t. Instead, the party created a consensus around the biggest single corporate giveaway in a generation.

The party also seemed poised to push for dental care and pharmacare (which Liberals have promised for decades but never delivered), but never seemed to mobilize members or other groups to push for those policies.

Small business and fossil fuel connections constrain the NDP

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy,” the party announced in March, positioning the NDP as a champion of small businesses.

The NDP’s turn to “small business” appears to be part of a larger strategic shift.

As critics on the left have noted, this puts much of the party’s core political offering – support for raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions – on a collision course with the small business owners they are working hard to bring into their coalition. Small businesses, after all, are among the most stringent opponents of minimum wage hikes and unionization. 

Also lurking in the background is the NDP’s alignment with fossil fuel interests. When it was in power, the Alberta NDP became a shockingly vociferous advocate for oil companies’ agendas, backing pipeline expansions and reversing its promise to raise royalty rates. The BC NDP has dished out billions of dollars in subsidies for natural gas and other fossil fuel extraction. 

During his leadership campaign in 2017, Jagmeet Singh reluctantly backed off of supporting pipeline expansion. The party’s current national director, among other staff, has deep ties to the Alberta NDP, while Singh’s chief of staff is a veteran of the neoliberal Manitoba NDP. 

Individual MPs and party members who want the federal NDP to become a force for climate justice face these roadblocks, among others.

Transformation is born in social movements 

The NDP’s most significant legacy by far comes from bold policy proposals that emerge from social movements, capture the public imagination, and energize electoral efforts. 

Demands like “public health care for all” or “nationalize the oil companies” are easy to understand, potentially transformative, and difficult to co-opt.

The bad news? No such signature demand will emerge from the current federal or provincial parties. MPs or members may say the words, but electoral logic dictates that the issue has to be popular before the party can pick up the banner.

As the climate crisis escalates, movement groups or member-based political organizations are the most likely birthplace of a demand that can become irresistible enough to pierce the mainstream. 

Some recent attempts to build momentum for climate justice demands include “free public transit” and “one million green jobs”. 

The latter appeared in the Liberals’ 2020 throne speech, suggesting that it was indeed vulnerable to cooptation. The former is promising and growing, but was dealt a setback by the pandemic.

Tactical Voting and Electoral Organizing in 2021

An NDP majority – captured as it currently is by its fossil-fueled provincial counterparts and operatives obsessed with courting small business – would not likely lead to a redistribution of wealth and a transition off fossil fuels. Without massive movement pressure, the NDP would revert to ruling on behalf of corporate interests, empowering social liberal elements in the party and marginalizing progressives.

To confirm this, we have only to look at how things played out in Nova Scotia, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the last places the provincial parties won majorities. 

Party operatives deserve plenty of blame, but this state of affairs is mainly a result of weak social movements, sleepy labour unions, and the late neoliberal grind that dulls the edges of social forces before they can achieve momentum. 

Even with that said: an election is still a key leverage point that can shape the future. The NDP’s standing can mean the difference between austerity and a transformative opening.