The NDP out of season

These should be good times for Ed Broadbent and his party, but instead they find themselves fighting for their lives

Ian Urquhart November 29 1976

The NDP out of season

These should be good times for Ed Broadbent and his party, but instead they find themselves fighting for their lives

Ian Urquhart November 29 1976

The NDP out of season

These should be good times for Ed Broadbent and his party, but instead they find themselves fighting for their lives

Ian Urquhart

In a television studio beneath the House of Commons, federal New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent was standing before the cameras giving his views on the government’s Speech from the Throne. It was, he said, a cynical speech, written with one eye on the Gallup poll. “Don’t you read the Gallup poll?” asked a reporter. Broadbent, taken aback, blinked, then stammered: “Yes, of course, but I consider that to be quite irrelevant.”

The truth, of course, is that Broadbent and his fellow New Democrats have been watching the monthly Gallup results (see chart page 62 ) with growing dismay of late. With public disenchantment over Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at a peak, unemployment at a 15-year high, wageprice controls politicizing the labor movement,and a power base of two provincial NDP governments and two more provinces where the NDP forms the official opposition, the federal party should be riding a crest of popular support. Instead, it has stagnated in the polls and has been virtually ignored by the press and public in the showdown between Trudeau and the Conservatives under Joe Clark. According to the polls, it is Clark who has picked up virtually all the anti-Trudeau votes, a fact made all the more galling for the New Democrats because they consider Clark a lightweight.

While the struggle for support at the national level intensifies,the NDP’S provincial power bases, long thought to be the route to power in Ottawa, have proven next to useless; provincial votes do not transfer to the federal level, something the Liberals and Conservatives learned long ago. The labor movement, the party’s other power base, has also proven less than solid. The Canadian Labor Congress, prime force behind the formation of the NDP at its founding convention in the summer of 1961, is drifting away from the party and attempting to become a political force on its own. Even the traditional left-wing votes the NDP has counted on in the past may no longer be safe. In an election between Clark, who is slowly formulating a profree enterprise, anti-government platform, and Trudeau, whom business accuses of socialist leanings, the left may decide the NDP does not count and vote Liberal.

Faced with such a bleak outlook, NDP supporters are beginning to question the future and relevance of their party. Some fear that the next federal election, expected in 1978, could be a repeat of the 1958 election, which saw the old Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) reduced to a mere eight seats, a catastrophe that prompted the formation of the NDP. Now, says NDP-leaning columnist Larry Zolf, “It seems the federal NDP is facing for the first time in its history a real existential crisis: why exist at all? Whose views does the party reflect, what does it want to accomplish, and what can it really do that Trudeau’s liberalism can’t do better or isn’t already doing?”

The NDP’S current problems date back, paradoxically, to the 1972 federal election, the time of its biggest national triumph. The party polled 17.7% of the vote—equaling its previous high—and won 31 seats, the most ever captured by the NDP or its CCF predecessors in a general election. But with success came responsibility. Suddenly, the NDP held the balance of power and could decide who was to be Prime Minister. In a move that many party members now regard as a mistake, David Lewis, then leader of the party, and his 30 colleagues in parliament opted for Trudeau instead of Robert Stanfield. “We should have backed Stanfield and the Tories,” says one NDP MP. “That would have killed the Liberals. That [killed the Liberals] is what we did at the provincial level in Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba. And that’s what we have to do federally.”

After 18 months of supporting Trudeau and enduring countless editorial cartoons and snide remarks about being in bed with the Liberals, Lewis finally decided to pull the plug in the spring of 1974. By withdrawing his party’s support for the government, he forced the July, 1974 election. Many party members were critical of the decision at the time because they felt the circumstances were not right for the NDP to fight an election. Subsequent events were to prove them right. During the campaign. Lewis committed what some believe to be another tactical error: he spent the first few weeks attacking the Conservatives and their plan to impose wage-price controls and succeeded only in driving more labor votes over to the Liberals. The result was a disaster for the NDP: just 16 seats and 15.4% of the vote, the party’s poorest showing since 1963.

After the election, the NDP was shattered and demoralized. They had lost not just 15 seats, but their leader (Lewis was defeated in his Toronto riding by an unknown Liberal) and several of their brightest young members, including John Harney and Terry Grier in Toronto, Doug Rowland in Manitoba, Bill Knight in Saskatchewan, and Mark Rose in BC. For an interim leader they turned to a reluctant Ed Broadbent from Oshawa, one of the 16 surviving MPS. Broadbent was not a great orator in the tradition of David Lewis and Tommy Douglas, his two predecessors. He had finished a mediocre fourth in the 1971 leadership convention that had elected Lewis. And he was considered wishy-washy (he helped draft the radical “Waffle” manifesto that sparked a major internal debate in the party leading up to the 1971 convention, then refused to sign it). Nonetheless, he was bright enough and he had won his own seat, something Lewis and Douglas had failed to do.

Still, Broadbent was.not sure he wanted the job on a permanent basis. As the party’s leadership convention loomed in 1975, he became the object of a tug-of-war between his wife, Lucille, and party officials. When some influential party members tried— unsuccessfully—to draft Liberal outcast Eric Kierans as leader, Broadbent grew angry and pulled out of the race. But the party, desperate for a credible leader, went back to him cap-in-hand to persuade him to reenter. He agreed on the condition that, if he won, he could have weekends off “to spend time with my family, listen to Bach, or read novels.” As it happened, he had an unexpectedly close fight for the leadership, eking out a fourth-ballot win over Rosemary Brown, a previously little-known BC MLA. The party had a new leader, but many of the faithful viewed him as a caretaker holding the fort until BC’S Dave Barrett or Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney answered the call.

Soon after the leadership convention, the Liberals introduced wage-price controls, the Conservative policy they had opposed during the 1974 election campaign. It was the most massive government intervention in the economy ever in peacetime and, with modifications, the kind of policy a socialist party could support. But the federal NDP, with one eye on its labor constituency, decided to fight controls all the way. At the same time, provincial NDP governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan went along with the program. The labor movement was furious and began to rethink its association with the NDP. Says Dennis McDermott, Canadian director and vice-president of the United Automobile Workers, a key NDP ally: “Our recent experiences with NDP governments in the provinces have led people in the labor movement to the hard-nosed conclusion that the elevation of the NDP to power does not automatically bring about Utopia. To that extent, we have to try to remain a viable, politically conscious, but independent force.” Nor was labor especially grateful to the federal New Democrats for their anti-controls stance. Some labor leaders feel the party has too little impact at the national level to be worth supporting. Ron Lang, research director of the Canadian Labor Congress, made the following statement in a confidential memo to the CLC executive last summer: “The tough question is: do we wait for the NDP to come to power or do we use our newfound powers to protect the workers whom we represent?”

There is still uncertainty about where the CLC and the NDP are headed. There is considerable debate inside both organizations over whether they should split, go on as before, or find some new arrangement. Some New Democrats, pointing to labor’s inability to deliver trade union votes to the NDP, favor a split on the grounds that at least then the party would not scare away non-union voters. Others, including Broadbent, view labor participation in the party as essential and are working hard to keep the CLC from drifting too far away. Whatever the outcome, the longstanding NDP-CLC alliance is now in an uncomfortable state of flux, and much could depend on a meeting of the executives of the two bodies in Ottawa on November 29.

But that is only one of the problems facing the NDP. As a leftist party caught in conservative times, the NDP would seem to have little room to grow. Says Jim Laxer, former leader of the Waffle faction that

broke away from the NDP and a political scientist at Toronto’s York University: “The NDP decline has little to do with the performance of the party on Parliament Hill. We’re dealing with a very great shift of public opinion and deep-seated sentiments and fears.” One NDP MP lists some of the major issues of the day—capital punishment, abortion, prison reform, gun control—and laments: “We’re on the wrong side of all those issues as far as the public is concerned.” But at least on those issues the NDP knows where it stands.

Another, bigger issue—bilingualism— has the party baffled. Without a single MP from Quebec and fewer than 2,000 mem-

bers in the province (compared to almost 30,000 in neighboring Ontario), the party has little sensitivity to French-language aspirations and sided with the Englishspeaking air traffic controllers in last summer’s dispute over language. Broadbent even went on national television during the dispute to question the cost of converting to bilingual air traffic control in Quebec, prompting The Last Post, a leftleaning magazine, to ask: “How much is national unity worth? Fifteen cents? A quarter?

“The NDP likes to see itself as the conscience of parliament, if not as the conscience of Canada,” the magazine continued, “and it might have been expected that Broadbent would keep his eye on the ball and devote his TV time to meeting the racist backlash head-on. But on this issue the NDP’S conscience was out to lunch.” Bilingualism was supposed to be discussed late last month at a meeting of the federal council, the governing body of the NDP between conventions, but somehow the council never got around to it. Some party members wish the issue would just go away and pray that it will not be a major factor in the next federal election.

It is a rainy October night in North Vancouver, and Ed Broadbent is speaking to about 150 party members at a community college. He talks about unemployment, “the forgotten issue,” and declares: “Full employment is necessary and possible and should be a national priority of the first order. It is an NDP commitment, and it is one we insist be immediately adopted by the current government.” It is a 30-minute speech, delivered in skilful but almost professorial tones that fail to arouse his audience. Only twice is he interrupted by applause, and several of the faithful appear to nod off in mid-speech. Afterward, George Sawchuk, a construction worker, sums up the reaction: “Not too gutsy. He should scream and holler a little.”

Later, Broadbent, relaxing over a beer at a hotel bar, asks a reporter if he thinks unemployment can be made into an issue in Canada. When told it is unlikely because 93% of the labor force is employed and does not care much about the remaining 7%, Broadbent grimaces and replies: “Well, I think you’re wrong. I don’t think people are that selfish. I think they have a sense of fair play. And I think we can make it an issue.”

The son of a working class family in Oshawa, John Edward Broadbent, 40, took the academic ladder to success, attending the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics and ending up with a PhD in political science. A New Democrat who is not afraid to call himself a socialist, he is probably one of the most decent and sincere political leaders in the country. But he is also accused of being “dull,” a deadly label in politics, and is blamed by some for his party’s poor showing in the polls. If Joe Clark is Joe Who, then Ed Broadbent is surely Whatshisname. A Gallup poll last spring showed that 68% of the respondents could not identify the national leader of the NDP (compared to 32% who could not identify the national Conservative leader). Says a west coast Liberal: “If Broadbent ever looks like he’s in trouble, we should give him a scandal or two just to keep him there. He’s the best leader the NDP could have as far as we’re concerned.”

Broadbent himself bridles at the suggestion that he is dull. “Personality is perceived in politics in relation to the power position you’re in. [Saskatchewan Premier Allan] Blakeney and [Manitoba Premier Ed] Schreyer were regarded as monumental yawns before they became premiers. My guess is that if Pierre Trudeau led my party, he’d be seen as the dullest guy around. He doesn’t use wild rhetoric. His speeches in the House of Commons are the dullest around. But his candor, as leader of the government party, has been an asset. My hunch is that if I were prime minister, the kind of intelligence and straightforwardness that I know I possess would lead people to say: ‘That’s an interesting guy.’” Broadbent also points out that “when we had colorful leaders like Douglas and Lewis, the party didn’t do remarkably well. People can recognize them as being outstanding men, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for them. In fact, the kind of rhetorical flourish they had may be unappealing to people who aren’t already committed to the NDP.”

Broadbent concedes that the party was drifting for a while under his leadership but says he has been working hard in recent months to turn it around. One area in which he has concentrated is policy development. Since World War II, the CCF-NDP have watched the Liberals take over virtually all their policies, one by one. Now, if it is to survive, the party must develop new issues. It is a task that has been performed well by the provincial parties, but the federal party has stumbled since the Waffle purge in the early 1970s. To broaden the narrow base of his tiny band of 16 MPS in parliament and to handle policy development, Broadbent has created a whole range of party committees under the general direction of Jack Weldon, professor of economics at McGill University and an innovative thinker. Even former Waffle leader Jim Laxer has been brought back into the fold to work on energy policy.

But the biggest changes have come in Broadbent’s own office, which was in a shambles for about a year following the leadership convention. To straighten it out, Broadbent recalled two old Lewis aides, Murray Weppler and Marc Ehesen, as his executive assistant and research director respectively. The initial result was, perhaps, predictable: Broadbent immediately took off on an anti-profit campaign that was reminiscent of Lewis’ “corporate welfare bum” pitch four years before. He was attempting to show that while wages are being controlled by the Anti-Inflation Board profits are not. The problem with the campaign was that his figures were out of date. A recent survey by the Toronto Globe and MaiTs Report on Business showed that the combined profits of 97 major Canadian corporations had risen a scant one-tenth of 1% during the first year of the controls program. The campaign did manage to attract some headlines, but Broadbent soon dropped it, perhaps realizing its limitations. He is now busy trying to make unemployment an issue. He also plans to make major policy statements on such other issues as energy and housing. He was even planning to announce an “incomes policy,” a euphemism for wageprice controls with a redistributive element, something the NDP has backed away from until now.

Despite the conservative mood of the country, Broadbent is convinced the public is ready for radical solutions to economic problems—as long as they are not couched in socialist rhetoric. Thus, he will not talk of taking over the banks but will recommend instead that they be required to invest their money in socially beneficial areas such as housing. He will not suggest “soaking the rich,” but he is toying with the idea of a $100,000 ceiling on an individual’s annual income.

But Broadbent’s proposals for creating more jobs, including tax credits for the

poor, a home-repair program, and a crash program for insulating homes, seem more liberal than socialist. Indeed, the government is actively considering adopting some of these proposals and the NDP may find it has once again lost its policies to the Liberals. With this in mind, some prominent New Democrats have criticized the job-creation proposals for not being radical enough. Says former MP (and Broadbent leadership opponent) John Harney:

“We have to make sure not to do what some Liberals are already doing badly.” Broadbent responds that people want “realistic” programs, and adds: “We’re not saying you can create Utopia over-night.”

By taking definite policy stands, Broadbent hopes not only to present the NDP to the electorate as a viable alternative but also to smoke out the Conservatives who have heretofore avoided staking out positions. At the same time, he believes the NDP has got to stop adopting every fad issue or minority concern that comes along, “whether it’s the homosexual minority or whatever. Because of the very decent impulses of members of the party to protect the aggrieved individual, there is a tendency to want to project minority grievances into a national thrust for policy. The party is then perceived as being just concerned with this or that minority group. The concerns of the majority should be the principal thrust of a democratic socialist movement. This doesn’t mean a cynical disregard of minority concerns; it means putting them in the right perspective so as not to make their concerns the overriding concern.” All of which means that Broadbent can be expected to take more conservative stands than his predecessors on issues such as immigration, native land claims, and the environment, wherç minority rights might clash with majority concerns such as jobs.

This approach might clash with the more traditional NDP view that, if the cause is right, the party should adopt it as its own and the electoral consequences be damned. “We’ve been out in front on issues like nationalism, pollution and women’s rights,” says former MP Mark Rose, “and there is no doubt that has hurt us. But if we don’t popularize these issues, who else is going to?” Answers Broadbent: “We have to consider more mundane, but real, practical issues that affect people.”

In addition to policy matters, Broadbent has also put a new emphasis on party organization at the national level. Previously, the party was dependent on its provincial arms for organization and funding. The federal machinery just came into being at election time. The results were often comical as first Tommy Douglas and then David Lewis struggled to carry on national campaigns with ill-coordinated, provincially based organizations. On one legendary day during Lewis’ last campaign in 1974, the NDP leader took all morning to fly into St. John’s, Newfoundland on a milk-run flight from Halifax in order to make one speech to about 50 longshoremen and fishermen and then spent all afternoon and evening getting from Newfoundland to New Brunswick. He arrived exhausted at his hotel at about 11 p.m., having devoted a whole day to one speech in a lost-cause riding. Now, however, an election campaign team has already been set up, with former MP Terry Grier, now dean of arts at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, as its chairman. They have begun targeting the 50-odd seats where theNDP has a decent chance of winning in the next election, all of them in English Canada and more than half of them in Ontario. Quebec has been written off. Broadbent calls this “taking the pursuit of power seriously.” But the danger with writing off Quebec is that the rest of the country, particularly Ontario, may not take the NDP seriously as a national party. Says Lewis, with the voice of experience: “It’s kind of a vicious circle. People don’t vote for you because you can’t win, and, because they don’t vote for you, you can’t win.”

“I don’tgetgreyhair becauseof theslowness of the federal march to power,” Lewis adds. “That was inevitable once the NDP proved unable to sink roots in Quebec. Once that happened there was no way in which the party could have quick-marched to federal office. But I have confidence it will come eventually. In the interim, the party will have had a beneficial influence on Canada. Let’s not forget that. The traditional concept is that if you’re a political party you want power, and if you don’t get it you’re nothing. Well, I don’t subscribe to that point of view.”

The future is murky for the NDP. If the Liberals regain lost ground and pull up close to the Conservatives, allowing the NDP to run up the middle in an election as in 1972; if Jimmy Carter succeeds in popularizing unemployment as an issue in the United States, enabling Broadbent to ride his coattails; if the Liberals drift to the right, leaving a vacuum on the left of the political spectrum with only the NDP to fill it; if the country drifts back to the centre, reversing the current rightward trend; and if bilingualism and national unity are not election issues, then the NDP could hang on. But unless most, if not all, of these conditions are met, the party could be back where it started after the 1958 election and be forced to go through the agonizing process of picking up the pieces again.

In the meantime, Ed Broadbent plods on and suffers the monthly insult of the Gallup poll. “The polls are disappointing, obviously,” he says. “But they’re not as bad as they look.” And an NDP MP scoffs at the suggestion that some elements of the party might be plotting to remove Broadbent because of the polls. “Quite frankly,” he says, “no one else wants the job.” 0

How the Hew Democrats fare at the polls

CCF-NDP popular vote counts in elections, and recent Gallup poll results: a long road to nowhere?

ELECTION RESULTS Year % Vote 1935 (CCF) 1940 1945 1949 1953 1957 1958 1962(NDP) 1963 1965 1968 1972 1974

GALLUP Month % Poll September 1974 16 January 1975 17 July 17 November 22 January 1976 17 March 17 April 17 May 21 June 16 July 17 August 17 September 16 October 17