|May 10, 2006
Fake Left, Go Right: Can the NDP get it straight?
|By James Laxer
downtown Toronto and announced that Canadians had voted for change and that more New Democrats in Parliament would mean
better lives for working families and seniors. For Layton, winning twenty-nine seats and 17.5 per cent of the popular vote represented
an electoral triumph vindicating the NDP's campaign strategy: an attack focused almost exclusively on the scandal-plagued Liberal
government. But what Layton did not say that evening was more interesting: that the most ideologically right-wing prime minister in
Canadian history was about to be sworn into office.
Layton's speech capped a campaign in which he had studiously avoided warning Canadians about any potential threat from Harper
and the Conservatives. This odd fact was driven home to me a few days before election day when a newspaper reporter phoned to
do an interview. Clearly frustrated, he told me he had been on the NDP campaign plane for three weeks and that despite repeated
efforts, he couldn't get Layton to say anything of significance about Harper, except a one-off shot at his proclivity for decentralization.
The NDP leader was quick to attack Paul Martin and the Liberals, but all he would say about the front-running Conservatives was that
they were “wrong on the issues.” Shortly after the election, arguing that Canadians wanted Parliament to function and for the sniping
to end, Layton said that he could and would work with Harper.
The NDP had joined with the Conservatives and the Bloc Quibicois to defeat the minority Liberal government in a late-November vote
of non-confidence. Inside the NDP, the move was divisive. By voting day, it had created a veritable chasm within the broader left
community. The federal election “badly tested the relationship” between social movements and the NDP, wrote Canadian Auto
Workers economist Jim Stanford in the Globe and Mail a few days after Harper's victory. “(Progressive movements) had used the
Liberals' fragile minority position to extract impressive, important gains (child care, new legal protections for workers, the aboriginal
deal, and others); they wanted to solidify those victories, and win new ones.” Leaders from these progressive constituencies “all
wanted the election later, not sooner.”
The most visible sign of division was Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove's campaign to stop the Conservatives by
supporting New Democrats in ridings where they were likely to win and Liberals elsewhere. Three weeks after the election, the
Ontario NDP executive suspended Hargrove from the party; its resident,
Sandra Clifford, explained that the sum of the union leader's actions led to the suspension. “It was appearing with the prime minister
... hugging him. Saying that he wanted a Liberal minority government,” Clifford said. In effect, the party had decided that it was an
expellable offence for members to advocate strategic voting. While many insiders wanted Hargrove to “buzz off” (which he and the
CAW's national executive did in late March, voting unanimously to sever ties with the party), others were just as concerned about the
decision to bring down the government; some also saw the entire NDP campaign as strategic and found Hargrove's dismissal
Prime Minister Martin had promised to call the election by early March at the latest, following the release of the final report on the
sponsorship scandal. But NDP strategists thought it dangerous to allow the government to set the terms of debate, and were
concerned that on the key issue of political ethics the party would be caught in a squeeze between the Liberals and the
Conservatives. They believed that the Liberals would accept virtually all of retired justice John Gomery's recommendations and that a
chastened Liberal party could win a majority government.
Still smarting over Martin's successful last-ditch appeal to NDP supporters to vote Liberal to stop Harper during the 2004 election
campaign, Layton's team was determined not to let history repeat itself. Polls indicated that NDP supporters were the most worried
about a Conservative government and, the thinking went, many would vote strategically again in the event of a successful campaign to
demonize Harper. So, as revealed by NDP press releases, campaign literature, and Layton's speeches, to prevent erosion of NDP
support the party concentrated its fire on the Liberals, only sporadically mentioning the Conservatives in its attacks. The most
memorable NDP television advertisement depicted Canadians giving the corrupt Liberals the boot.
These messages set the tone. Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, for one, told me that she felt pressure “not to
critique Harper,” and that the top priority was “to win more seats for the NDP.” During the election, the Council was involved in the
Think Twice coalition, made up of groups that came together to warn Canadians about Stephen Harper's record. “If the NDP was not
going to talk about Harper's record,” Barlow said, “we felt we had to.”
The NDP and the wider progressive community are divided over whether it really matters if a Stephen Harper or a Paul Martin is in
power. The standard party answer during the election campaign was a flat no, a position Barlow couldn't agree with. With Harper
now in office, she thinks that “dialogue and healing need to take place” among progressives. For her, the road ahead should spring
from an alliance of forces from inside and outside of Parliament, including New Democrats, some Liberals, and some members of
the Bloc. “If Stephen Harper wins a majority in the next election,” she says, “we will lose decades in the social struggles we are
Strategic co-operation is one thing. But Canada needs a progressive party willing to do battle in both the social and economic policy
arenas. The NDP should fight to expand its influence - but this does not mean that its leaders should give in to the cynical politics of
short-term electoral advantage, as they did in the recent federal election.
Political scientist and former NDP insider James Laxer is the author of In Search of a New Left: Canadian Politics After the
Neoconservative Assault (Viking, 1996). This excerpt is from an article in the May 2006 issue of The Walrus magazine and is
distributed by The Canadian Press.