September 24, 2012

Left Turn in Canada?

Murray Cooke and Dennis Pilon

The NDP Breakthrough and the Future of Canadian Politics

In the last Canadian federal election, the New Democratic Party (NDP) won more than 30 per cent of the popular vote. For the first time in the party’s fifty-year existence, it now forms the Official Opposition in the national Parliament in Ottawa. Because of this remarkable showing, the question of whether this election represents a historic national breakthrough for the Canadian left has been put on the agenda.

Conventionally, the NDP is considered a social democratic party in the Anglo-American mold, rather than the European socialist tradition. The party emerged much later than comparable labour parties in Europe, the UK and Australia. And unlike other comparable socialist and labour parties, it did not displace the traditional reformist Liberal Party. Arguably the key barrier to the Canadian left has been the continued viability of the Canadian Liberal Party, long after comparable liberal parties have waned in Europe and Australia. Therefore, the sudden increase in seats and shift into second place in the national party system, largely due to a breakthrough in the French-speaking province of Québec, was both unprecedented and unexpected.

The NDP’s success particularly surprised those pundits who had argued that Canadians have simply not been interested in its mild social democratic policy mix, or that American influences have tempered Canadian political collectivism. However, these “explanations” have failed to take into account that the party has gained office in five of the country’s ten provinces, demonstrating its broad popularity, while a great many of its national policies have been introduced by other parties.

So what were the factors contributing to the NDP’s success? And what kind of politics does the NDP stand for? Is it a party of the left or rather a mildly center-left force favouring the implementation of neo-liberal austerity policies, just as the other Canadian parties do?

Murray Cooke and Dennis Pilon from the Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto, both of whom have published extensively on issues relating to Canadian party politics, analyse the NDP’s outlook. They explore what kind of party the NDP is and has been, its historic position in the national party system, and the role of regional, linguistic and class factors in shaping its federal presence. Cooke and Pilon also discuss the more recent changes taking place since Jack Layton became the NDP’s leader in 2004, and the impact of his untimely death only months after his greatest political victory.