The Onterrible politics of the NDP

I’m back in Ontario (and Canada) for the first time in roughly 3.5 years to find the province in the midst of a pre-election phony war. The election isn’t until 7 June, and the official election period hasn’t even started yet, but the campaign has already started to get underway, particularly as the party most likely to win the election – the Progressive Conservatives – have just elected a new leader when their old leader resigned after a series of allegations of sexual misconduct. Their new leader is Doug Ford, elder brother of the late Rob Ford, who achieved international fame for smoking crack while in office (and possibly in city hall), and whose term as mayor was rhetorically right-wing but largely ineffective. Doug Ford is cut from the same cloth as his brother – an angry, childish and blustery suburbanite who won the party leadership election by his fingernails on the back of support from conservative parents opposed to a provincial sex education curriculum updated for the 21st century.

However, I’m not interested in talking about Doug Ford. Rather, I want to talk about Ontario’s third party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), a social-democratic party currently with 18 seats in the provincial legislature. Their leader, Andrea Horwath, has held the party leadership since 2009, but has seemed to be mostly harmless and lacking in any kind of big vision, with the NDP failing to do anything notable despite holding the balance of power in the 2011–2014 legislature. The party has run dull campaigns that are just slightly to the left of the governing Liberal party’s, and doesn’t differentiate itself from the status quo in any meaningful way. They have struggled to get media attention (in part because they are so dull they rarely work well on TV), and have failed to overcome negative memories of the Bob Rae government of 1990–1995, even though no one under the age of 40 would have even been able to vote in the 1995 election that saw the NDP slip to third, a position from which they have yet to recover. The party’s response to these challenges has been to win about 20 seats in each of the past few elections, then sit in the legislature and sulk. Classic Canadian socialists1 in that regards, just happy to be there.

The NDP looks set to continue this pattern, too scared to break their bad habits or develop new ideas. This, despite surprising insurgent left-wing campaigns in recent elections in the three countries that Canada has the closest cultural ties to: Bernie Sanders in the USA, Jean-Luc Mélechon in France and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn-led campaign in the UK. Yes, none of those old-guard lefties were successful, but they have had a transformational impact on their respective polities, and demonstrate that there is an appetite for politics that are somehow different, that recognise the need for change. For the first time in decades there are politicians and parties in G8 countries with significant support talking (if often under their breath) about the end of capitalism, but not in Canada. The NDP could try to emulate the success of socialists in other countries, instead of another bland, Diet Liberal campaign, they could be bold, innovative, dangerous, radical, other buzzwords – at least by the standards of Canadian politics.

So what could the NDP do to be different? I have a few modest suggestions:

  • Add a couple points to the highest tax brackets, introduce a provincial capita gains tax to bring capital gains income into parity with income tax, and a wealth tax of 1% on all property, financial assets, etc.

  • Create a universal child care system, set a rate of $10 a day and fund it properly so it is high-enough quality to attract upper-middle class parents.

  • Eliminate or greatly reduce tuition fees for college and university.

  • Reduce privatisation in the provincial health care system and eliminate two-tiered medical treatment.2

  • Abolish the separate Catholic education system and bring its schools into the public system, ending public funding of religious education.

  • Introduce a carbon tax that goes above and beyond federal requirements, bring in progressive vehicle licensing fees based on vehicle emissions and make transit funding for cities dependent on their reducing vehicle traffic and pollution.

  • Get better graphics people. The NDP is putting out policy documents in the default Microsoft Word font with graphics that look like screenshots, they are an embarrassment for a major political party. Surely there is someone around the office who knows how to use a computer?

  • Most importantly, run as insurgents and outsiders. Go on the CBC and criticise its lazy coverage of Ontario politics, show up for meetings with the editorial boards of Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail and denounce them as out-of-touch voices of a dying establishment, produce campaigning content aimed at social media and young people, publish articles on left-wing websites, talk to newly converted Doug Ford supporters and explain how only socialism can satisfy their discontents. Campaign like people who really believe in something, like people who might build barricades in the streets of Toronto and declare a commune if it came to that. Talk about the end of capitalism like a realisible and necessary goal. Put forward a positive vision for what the province will look like.

There is nothing particularly radical in any of those proposals, I’m hardly saying the NDP should establish a dictatorship of the proletariat (not that anyone in the NDP would know that that meant even if I did). Variations of these ideas exist elsewhere in Canada or in other countries, including relatively conservative European states. Will these ideas get the NDP elected? Almost certainly not. More than likely they will end up in third place, with about 20 seats – maybe 25 as a consequence of an enlarged legislature – and continue to be irrelevant, only with a Conservative government instead of a Liberal one. But at least they will have stood for something other than the status quo. I’m doubtful – when I lived here Canada seemed a deeply depoliticised place and I suspect it has only gotten worse – but you never know. There are two proposals on the NDP website – bringing Hydro One back into public ownership and a universal pharmacare programme – that could be the start of something politicaly interesting, although the NDP is so dull they probably won’t be able to sell them to the public.

Socialist politics is about ideology and improving peoples lives through the transformation of society, not dry policy statements on a better public administration. The NDP needs to embrace whatever remains of its socialist ideology if it wants to have a hope of relevancy, yet alone victory. Its campaigners will need to ignore media punditry – any socialist election campaign is against the media as much as rival parties – reach out to people who have never been involved in politics before and involve them in the campaign, and be unafraid of challenging any and all existing political orthodoxies. Most of all, the NDP must demonstrate leadership and vision, it must have a clear idea of what a better Ontario looks like and constantly remind people of the potential for a better tomorrow the province has. It will probably all end in failure and ~20 seats, but wouldn’t the party rather have a spectacular, exciting failure then a polite, boring, painfully Canadian slide into political meaninglessness?

  1. I think calling the NDP socialists requires a grain or two of salt, as I’ve never thought of them as having any of the characteristics typically associated with a socialist party, but I digress. [return]
  2. This suggestion is largely meaningless, but it sounds good and will likely be popular, Canadians have a strong cultural identification with their health care, much like British people and the NHS. [return]
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