Monday, 4 March 2013

How Can the NDP Get Back on Track?

Act Up in Saskatchewan
March 3, 2013

Labour delegation meets with CCF government 1961
As everyone knows, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is no longer Saskatchewan’s “natural governing party.”  In the 2011 election they won only 32% of the vote and today Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government, in its second term, has an approval rating of around 70%. All four of the young men who have been seeking the leadership of the NDP have stressed the need for a serious renewal and revitalization.

So where should they start? With the disappearance of the provincial Liberal Party, the NDP will have to get close to 50% of the vote to once again form the government. In the past, how was it possible for the CCF-NDP to win 50% of the vote in a Saskatchewan provincial election?

The success of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)

In 1944 the CCF, under the leadership of T.C. Douglas, won the election with 53% of the vote and won again in 1952 with 54%. The CCF was actually a vehicle for a broad democratic movement which included family farmers, the trade union movement, the co-operative movement, teachers and other groups. While in office they regularly consulted with community organizations before implementing new policies.

The CCF party through the Annual Convention, the Provincial Council and the Legislative Advisory Committee exerted considerable influence over the CC F government. Furthermore, the government itself respected and encouraged this co-operation. In addition, there were other links to the grass roots of the party. Within the CCF and then the NDP, the Saskatchewan Farmers Union, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation jointly met every year to co-ordinate policy approaches to present to the party and the government.

When the CCF formulated the platform for an election, they set forth policies they fully intended to implement, and they did so. In the election campaigns they would remind voters of what had been accomplished. Defend the family farm. Rural electrification. Build the grid road system. Hospitalization for everyone. A progressive social assistance program. Modernize the school system. Civil service legislation. A new Trade Union Act. Diversify the economy. And so on.

Following the 1956 election, where the vote for the CCF fell to 45%, the Douglas government feared that it was getting out of touch with its supporters. In 1958 they began a process of expanded consultation with citizen groups. As one example, they created the Rural Development Council to advise the government, with a broad membership representing rural organizations and the general public. Conferences were organized to engage the public on more specific issues. They actively sought presentations from organizations and community groups. To help them come up with programs, they created the Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life.

The key issue in the 1960 election was to be the introduction of a comprehensive government backed medicare program. An Advisory Planning Committee was appointed by the Douglas government with representatives from the government, the medical profession and the general public. It eventually held hearings, received briefs, and presented an interim report, although its activities were greatly hindered by the representatives of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce.

The political parties of the right, representing first of all the interests of big business and finance, have the advantage of access to extensive resources as well as support from the mainstream media. The only way the political parties of the left can effectively confront the power of money is through the mobilization of the broad public. Even in Saskatchewan, the CCF and the NDP have required a large body of committed activists in order to win elections. People are attracted to a party of the left when they agree with the policies they advance.

The CCF won the 1960 election with 41% of the vote and introduced the medicare program. In 1964 their vote fell to 40%; the Liberals also took 40% of the vote but won a majority of the seats in the legislature and formed government. There was a repeat in 1967, with the Liberals winning 45.6% of the vote and the CCF 44.4%. A party renewal was in order.

The NDP wins a major victory in 1971
In the 1971 election the NDP won 55% of the votes and 45 seats in the legislature. They won a solid majority of the seats in rural and small town Saskatchewan. Why did this happen?

First, it was a time of mass participation in political activities by citizens across North America. In the United States the civil rights movement was making great advances. There was broad popular opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, both in Canada and the USA. The women’s movement was on the rise. The Red Power movement was beginning to take form, even in Saskatchewan. There was strong public support for the anti-colonial movement in the Third World. The public mood was for the expansion of democracy.

In Canada political discussion focused on foreign ownership and control of the Canadian economy as well as American cultural domination. In 1968 the Waffle group was formed within the NDP, an organized caucus that advocated an independent, socialist Canada. The Waffle was quite strong in Saskatchewan. There was widespread debate on the key political issues of the day, both within the NDP and in the general public. Citizens were engaged in important political and economic issues.

The Waffle caucus, whose meetings were always open to all, had a major influence on the party in Saskatchewan. They contested for the leadership in 1970, won by Allan Blakeney. Through policy resolutions adopted by the party, they had a major impact on the platform for the 1971 election, A New Deal for People.

The Blakeney government (1971-82) is best known for the success of its policy of creating greater ownership and control over the natural resource sector, through Crown corporations in oil and gas, potash, uranium and the forest industry. With much higher royalties on resource extraction, the NDP government was able to introduce and fund new social programs, expand public housing for low income people, and increase services for seniors.

The Waffle was expelled from the NDP in 1971, and many activists left the party. Over the period of Blakeney’s government links with the party’s extra-parliamentary allies were weakened. The NDP was not only becoming an urban party, it was also shifting from a political movement towards a traditional political party. Part of the reason for its defeat in 1982 stemmed from a number of major conflicts with the trade union movement, a large group of traditional supporters.

The 1991 election and the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice
The NDP lost the 1986 provincial election, and Allan Blakeney stepped down as leader. Roy Romanow was selected to replace him in November 1987. Romanow had been the leader of the right wing faction in the party since he contested the leadership in 1971. He was known to be a strong supporter of the New Zealand Labour government (1984-90) which virtually repealed the welfare state and set the tone for the move to the right by social democratic parties. Neither the left in the NDP nor the labour movement put forth a candidate to challenge his candidacy.

Nevertheless, at this time political mobilization was occurring across Canada. Broad popular movements were creating provincial Coalitions for Social Justice. The primary target of this mobilization was Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government in Ottawa, but conservative provincial governments were also under attack. The Action Canada Network was formed in 1986 to oppose the free trade agreement with the United States. From March to May 1987, trade unions and community groups organized to form the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). In June 1987 the SCSJ mobilized 8,000 people to a march in Regina to oppose the policies of the Grant Devine Tory government. It was the largest demonstration in the history of the province.

In April 1989 Grant Devine’s government introduced legislation to privatize the Potash Corporation, and the NDP caucus walked out of the legislature for two weeks. The SCSJ mobilized another large demonstration in Regina. Other actions were held during the buildup to the 1991 provincial election. The creation of this extra-parliamentary movement was very important to the outcome of the 1991 election. The NDP took 51% of the vote and 55 seats in the legislature. They won a large majority of the rural and small town ridings that had been the core of the support for Grant Devine’s party.

From a democratic movement to a liberal party
The NDP was transformed under the leadership of Roy Romanow. His views were frankly stated in an interview for Briarpatch Magazine in the late fall of 1987. In answer to questions posed by the editor, Adriane Paavo, Romanow stated:

“We can’t afford to have a significant group of thoughtful, dedicated people standing outside of the process. For one thing it is a useless waste of time on their part. I think extraparliamentary activity has limited value - I don’t say no value...”
“Because I’m a parliamentarian and I believe in the parliamentary process, I think these things have to be channeled into the traditional political system, otherwise I think they may make points, they may develop policy, they may disrupt but I think the history of Canada is that they don’t go much farther than that.”

The NDP government under Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert managed to stay in office until 2007. But the neoliberal agenda it pursued drove people away from the party. Their vote dropped dramatically. Their membership declined by three quarters. The grass roots movement of support disappeared. They lost almost all their support in rural Saskatchewan. The NDP even disappeared as the government of Regina.

The new leader of the NDP must clearly face up to the status of the party today. They have a long way to go to build enough support to again form the government. The party must recognize that if it is to win back its former supporters it must offer a vision of the future of this province which is different from that of big business and the neoconservative right. The evidence is quite clear: as the NDP under Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert moved to the  right, their support dropped very significantly. A great many people now even refuse to vote, around 50% in the 2011 election. Policy does matter.

A political party of the democratic left can only offset the power of capital by the mobilization of the people. Almost all of the social democratic and socialist parties have had their base in the working class, those who are employed by others and  who are paid a wage or a salary. As the social democratic parties have moved in recent years to minimize their ties with labour organizations and other popular movements, their support has declined. In Saskatchewan, the CCF and the NDP were only able to win a majority of the voters in elections when they were backed by popular organizations and movements outside the party structure. There is a lesson here for the new leader.

John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and political activist and is author of Saskatchewan: The Roots of Discontent and Protest. He sat on the steering committee of the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice from its beginning to its end in 1995.

No comments:

Post a Comment