On the NDP Surge in Canada
So, amidst the standard gloomy news of austerity, autocratic elites who don’t give a damn about anything but themselves and populations who keep voting for the wrong people, some actual good news arises: the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada has surged into second place in the polls.
The NDP are the leftmost party in Canada with the exception of the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec separatist party who runs candidates only in Quebec. They are strongly union associated. They have been the third party in federal politics basically forever. Provincially they do run some provinces. Their birthplace was the prairies, but in the last few decades they’ve been strongest in Canada’s Pacific coast province, British Columbia (BC), though that does fluctuate. I’d argue that the NDP are BC’s natural ruling party and has been for about 30 to 40 years. The other parties, to defeat them, have generally had to agree that only one of them seriously run against them.
The NDP is most famous for having created Canadian Medicare, provincially under Tommy Douglas, who many Canadians consider the greatest Canadian to have ever lived. The Feds adopted the plan after he pushed it through at the provincial level.
The scourge of the NDP has been the perception that they can’t win Federally. As a result, in most Federal elections vote switching has often cost them at least 5% of their vote, and I’d argue up to 10%. Canadians would vote Liberal in an attempt to keep the Conservative party out.
As a result, parties that range from Center to Left (the Liberals, NDP and Bloc) have regularly pulled in about 60% of the vote, and yet the Conservatives have had minority governments for much of the last decade. This is also due to the fact that, like the US system, ours is first past the post, winner take all. Geographical concentration counts big, and the Conservative’s hard support in the prairies and Alberta in particular has translated well into seats.
So the NDP being second in the polls is a really good sign, because it means that core NDP voters now have no reason to switch, and Liberal voters whose first priority is making sure the Conservatives don’t get a majority government may switch to the NDP, instead of the other way around.
The NDP surge is particularly impressive in Quebec, where they are now clearly in the lead. The Bloc Quebecois has collapsed. Why this has happened, exactly, isn’t something I’m entirely clear on, Quebec politics are somewhat opaque to me, but I will note that it is particularly in Quebec’s interest to make sure that Harper (the Conservative leader) doesn’t get a majority.
You may have noticed the emphasis on “majority”. In a parliamentary system like Canada’s, with extraordinarily strong party discipline, a prime minister with a majority is pretty close to an elected dictator. If he wants to pass a law, it gets passed. If he wants to do something administratively, it happens. God only wishes he had as much power as a Canadian Prime Minister.
Harper is run by energy interests from out West. Essentially they want to pump oil and exploit the oil sands, and they want to keep all the money from their windfall profits. Quebec’s economy, in export/import terms is also an energy economy. Quebec, essentially, is a hydro-power farm for New York State. That money allows Quebec to run their economy the way they want—lots of farm subsidies, lots of good food, a generally fairly relaxed lifestyle. Quebec isn’t France, but it’s as close as you get in North America. It’s a pleasant place to live in many respects.
If Harper gets his majority, the energy interests he is beholden to may cast their eyes on getting control of Quebec’s energy. That would be the end of Quebec’s pleasant little economy. I doubt most Quebecois are explicitly aware of this, but I think they may feel it in their guts.
And other than in terms of independence, the NDP and BQ aren’t very far apart on policy. If anything the BQ is slightly to the left of the NDP. (In American terms, they’re practically communists, not that they are in reality. But they definitely are socialists.)
There are other factors. Ignatieff, the Liberal leader, is a sleazeball who apologized for torture. Most Canadians don’t really care about the torture apologetics, but Ignatieff comes across as a sleazeball with no actual convictions. So when the Liberals went on the offensive against the Conservatives, claiming Conservatives couldn’t be trusted with Medicare (which in Canada means universal single payer health care), I suspect that many Canadians thought “well, that’s true. But I don’t think I can’t trust you with it either.” On the other hand, the idea that the NDP would ever harm Medicare if in power is ludicrous. Whatever one thinks of the NDP, even its detractors know that the NDP loves universal healthcare.
Jack Layton, the NDP leader, is someone I’ve always liked. He used to be a Toronto city councilor. Back in the early 2000’s I went and watched city council during budget deliberations. As it happened, it was a session when ordinary citizens were giving depositions. They were limited to 5 minutes each, and there were plenty of them. In essence, many of them were begging for money to whatever they cared about to keep coming, or for tax changes, and so on. It was obvious that for most of them, whatever their issue was, it was extraordinarily important. I remember one guy, admittedly a bit of a crank, with 5 boxes of documents.
Most of the councilors clearly weren’t paying any attention. They were talking amongst each other, laughing, walking in and out of the room, in some cases clearly mocking the people ostensibly speaking to them. Now I get this, it was the end of a long day, and really, most of these people were asking for money they obviously weren’t going to get, or that they obviously were going to get. The councilors had already made up their minds.
But the people giving depositions, they cared. Some of them were desperate, all of them had put a lot of work into it. Ignoring them, laughing while they talked, or even mocking them, was extraordinarily cruel and disrespectful.
There were only three councilors who at least appeared to be paying attention to what the citizens were saying. They may not have been, they may have been off in space, but they at least had the common decency or basic political cops to pretend to give a shit. Jack Layton was one of them, his wife, Olivia Chow (now a Federal MP as well, and my MP, as it happens) was another. There was a third female councilor whose name I forget as well. Every other one was a complete jackass, being cruel to desperate people who had put a lot of work into the speeches they were giving.
So ever since then I’ve had a soft spot for Jack Layton. I don’t know if he’d make a good PM, but at least he isn’t an asshole to constituents in public. And at least he showed he could handle the basic blocking and tackling.
So, what’s outcome of this election going to be? Damned if I know. The polls are all over the place. The most likely outcome remains a Conservative minority government. The second most likely outcome seems to be that the NDP and Liberals, together, get more seats than the Conservatives, in which case they could form a coalition government, probably with the NDP as the senior coalition member (at which point I will spend a few minutes rolling on the floor laughing hysterically.)
If the Conservatives get a minority government, odds are the NDP will be the official opposition party. Layton will be a far more effective opposition leader than Ignatieff. And Ignatieff’s days as Liberal leader will soon be over, the Liberals will turf him, as being third party is a complete and absolute disaster for them. The Liberals and Conservatives have traded being the government of Canada back and forth for as long as Canada has existed.
If Layton does do a good job, he might be able to cement the NDP as the second party in Canada, and if he does that, eventually the NDP will be the government. That’s a big deal, because the Liberals are essentially centrists. They campaign slightly left, rule slightly right, and are certainly neo-liberal friendly. I say this as someone who actually has a lot of respect for the government of Chretien and Paul Martin. They did a good job overall and managed a period when Canada had to kiss America’s ass very well. Chretien, in particular, is due a lot of credit for telling Bush to fuck off when Bush tried to coerce Canada into joining the Iraq war, as that took a lot of guts from a Canadian PM, and was clearly the right thing to do.
What does this mean for the rest of the world? Canada was one of the first nations to go to a right wing government. Through the 2000’s there has been a wave of right wing governments in the West. The NDP doing this well might be a sign that things are beginning to turn. Again, the NDP aren’t the wimpy left, they are actually socialists, not a party like Labor in Britain, which is clearly right wing, just not as right wing as the nutbar Conservatives.
How good a government Layton would run I don’t know. I don’t have a good feel for the wonks behind him, or for how strong a leader he’d be. Nonetheless I am confident that of the possibilities, he’s the best man for the job. Ignatieff is a weasel, and no one who has apologized for torture should be in charge of anything, anywhere, while Harper is a conservative ideologue who thinks that Canada should be more like the US, as well as being an autocrat who spits over Canada’s democratic and parliamentary traditions. The sooner he retires, the better.
The outcome is still uncertain. Heck, it’s even possible the Liberals could come back into second place, or that the Conservatives could surge. The polls are all over the place, as noted, and this has been a very volatile election. Someone could put their foot in it. But still, for the first time in a long time, I am actually seeing some hope for the future. Canada, amongst countries in the world, is uniquely positioned to ride out the next couple decades. We have everything we need to do really well, to be one of the most prosperous and free nations in the world. But doing so requires a course change that will never happen under the Conservatives and is unlikely to happen under the Liberals. The NDP are the best chance, not a sure thing, but a decent chance. So here’s praying they keep surging.
More Details for those who care
Ontario. The largest population province in Canada is Ontario, and the Conservatives are doing gangbusters here. This really bad for the Liberals, whose heartland Ontario is. One of the most depressing political results of the last year was in Toronto, where Rob Ford, a conservative whose first act was to tell the unions he was canceling their contracts, was elected on the strength of the suburbs deciding that they didn’t want to pay taxes to keep the goose that lays the golden eggs healthy. Ontario, as with much of Canada, is in a mild housing bubble, a bubble which has been deliberately kept inflated by the Conservatives. The actual cities (not the burbs) vote Liberal or NDP, but the suburbs have been going Conservative. Southern Ontario’s employment has been devastated by the decline in the US auto industry, and the Conservatives have really done nothing about that, but what they have done is make sure housing prices stay high. So people who, in essence, have nothing else, are voting for them.
Alberta: Ah, Alberta. Think of Alberta as Canada’s Texas, except that Alberta still has lots of oil, even if most of it is in the form of the oil sands. Alberta votes Conservative both out of old resentments against central Canada (somewhat justified, though the most legitimate complaints are getting to be decades old, and I say this as someone who grew up out West) and for cold hard cash reasons: exploiting the oil sands is brutally environmentally degrading, and the Albertans want to do it dirty so they make more money. They also don’t want their windfall oil profits taxed, nor do they want to be forced to sell oil to other Canadians (ie. they don’t want a pipeline to Central Canada). Since all of these policies make sense if you think of Canada first, and Alberta second (ie. if you’re looking out for all of Canada) and some of them make sense even if you think of Alberta first (the oil economy will end, and if they’ve fucked up their groundwater, Alberta will be in a world of hurt, plus they aren’t reinvesting properly),well, Alberta doesn’t want a leftish party in charge of Ottawa. What should be done is windfall profit taxes on the oil, and policies which make it necessary to reinvest in Canada (and not in real estate. It should be made very hard or impossible to invest these profits in real-estate.)
There’s still a ton of stupidity and greed in Canada. The five big banks have never forgiven the Liberals for not letting them merge, there is a housing bubble, there is insufficient investment in our industrial base, which is collapsing, and no one is really thinking properly about the future. Even brain dead simple obvious things, like expanding Halifax’s harbor to make it into the major northern east coast container port or like making a pipeline from west to east for oil so that we can credibly threaten to withhold oil from the US when the US fucks with us, are not being done. How much of even the brain dead obvious stuff Layton will do, I don’t know. But I know there’s at least a chance with him, and no chance with Harper of Ignatieff.