The NDP comes from a tradition of Prairie populism and socialism. It is this history that made the party distinctive. As the Regina Manifesto said: “We aim to replace the present capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated, in which economic planning will supersede unregulated private enterprise and competition, and in which genuine democratic self-government, based upon economic equality will be possible.” The party took the side of the broad interests of the oppressed, and from that vantage point articulated a vision of an alternative society. The role of organized labour within the party, as well as other grassroots movements, guaranteed that it would be more than a collection of office-seeking politicians.
Today, the idea of a vision of another social order arising from the injustices of capitalism sounds anachronistic. Worse still, the NDP has become a collection of office-seeking politicians, however well meaning. There are many reasons for this. The most important is simply the fact that capitalism has successfully raised the living standard of enough people to take some of the sting out of exploitation (this was acknowledged a generation after the Regina Manifesto in the Winnipeg Declaration). Equally, the welfare state (for which the NDP can take much credit) has improved the lives of most if not all Canadians. Finally, many of the greatest problems we face as a society are no longer (if they ever were) fundamentally rooted in work and production. Unions increasingly seem more like mere interest groups, while business interests are given priority because of the taxes and jobs they create.
Part of the task of the NDP, if it is to remain a voice of conscience, is to remind us of how tough life is for those who still suffer hard times under our economy; and there is a role of the NDP in challenging the idea that what is good for business is good for society as a whole, especially in this era of inadequately regulated financial speculation.
But the party has a deeper problem: what guarantee do voters have that the NDP is different from any other collection of well-meaning office-seekers? Let me be absolutely blunt: the crass rejection of the carbon tax by Carol James is the clearest possible evidence that the NDP is no longer more than an electoral vehicle for seeking office. Current leadership candidates give us well-meaning rhetoric but few guarantees that the NDP would govern any differently than the Liberals.
The solution seems straightforward enough, but perhaps hard to stomach within the deeply conservative culture that pervades the NDP: the party needs to transform itself from a vehicle for electioneering into a convener and articulator of social movements. The guarantee of a strong environmental policy is strong links to environmentalists. By the same token, the best way to guarantee policies that will serve the broadest possible interests in a range of issues is by convening educators, nurses, students, First Nations, anti-poverty groups, small business owners; and, of course, labour unions are important in that context as well.
I recently visited Bolivia where remarkable political and social changes have been initiated by a government that sees itself as an instrument of social movements. Building on intense conflicts over water and gas, land and indigenous rights, Bolivia’s current leadership has managed to create a new constitution that is an amalgam of indigenous and republican ideals, new forms of democratic government at the local and departmental level, and new ways of governing “by obeying,” as their slogan goes. We could learn a lot from Bolivia.