CANADA

Staring into the abyss

Canada’s beleaguered party of the left searches for a new leader and new ideas

WARREN CARAGATA May 2 1994
CANADA

Staring into the abyss

Canada’s beleaguered party of the left searches for a new leader and new ideas

WARREN CARAGATA May 2 1994

Staring into the abyss

CANADA

Canada’s beleaguered party of the left searches for a new leader and new ideas

WARREN CARAGATA

It was one of those cases of telling coincidence. In Ottawa, Audrey McLaughlin told reporters last week that she would not be leading the New Democratic Party into the next federal election. In the central British Columbia city of Kamloops, meanwhile, deputy NDP leader Nelson Riis told reporters that the party was ready to discuss a merger with the Reform party. For a fleeting moment, at least, it seemed that a party that traces its roots back to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and the Dirty Thirties, that brought the country medicare, that counted the legendary J. S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas among its leaders, had come to this: leaderless, reduced to a corporal’s guard of nine MPs in the Commons, and increasingly dismissed as irrelevant.

It was not quite that bad, of course. Riis later insisted that he was simply passing on an idea that had come from the Reform party— but Reformers later said it was just a joke. Even before McLaughlin’s announcement, a 13-member “renewal” committee was looking at, among other things, whether the party should retain its traditional links to organized labor. The party also hopes to choose a successor to McLaughlin by sometime next year. But nothing, and no one, could disguise the fact that the NDP has fallen on very hard times indeed. As McLaughlin herself acknowledged: “What we have been saying, what we have been putting forward, has not struck a chord with a large number of people.

That’s quite self-evident.”

When things go bad, it is natural

to point the finger of blame—and -

there have been a lot of pointing fingers as NDP members have tried to assess the party’s worst election performance since it was formed in 1961 from the ashes of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which had been reduced to eight seats in the Diefenbaker sweep of 1958. Some blamed McLaughlin, who advocated a new style of politics that sometimes seemed short on inspiration. Others blamed provincial NDP governments, and particularly Bob Rae’s Ontario administration, for moving to the right and betraying party principles. Still others blamed the Liberals for campaigning like New Democrats, or Brian Mulroney for making the Conservatives so unpopular

that people voted Liberal just to get rid of them. There was more than enough blame to go around.

To her credit, McLaughlin, 57, party leader since 1989, accepted much of the responsibility. The Yukon MP had been willing to step down immediately but agreed to stay on until

a successor is chosen. “When I was elected, that gave me a responsibility too,” she said. “I don’t think you just walk out the door and say, well, you know, you sort it out.”

Already, there is a long list of rumored replacements, though no one has openly evinced any interest. They include: Riis, who is viewed with suspicion by some party activists because of his moderate views; Svend Robinson, the openly gay and aggressively green Yancouver-area MP; Dawn Black, a champion of feminist causes and a defeated Vancouver-area MP; Chris Axworthy, a Saskatchewan MP and unabashed moderate; Lome Nystrom, a former Saskatchewan MP who thought about running last time and de-

cided against it; Bill Blaikie, Winnipeg MP and United Church minister; Steven Langdon, a left-wing former Ontario MP who went to war against Rae; and Tony Penikett, former Yukon government leader.

In the meantime, NDP activists must come to grips with what many analysts see as a party that has lost its moorings. Born in a spirit of populism, the NDP joined the establishment with its support of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional deals, and with the election of three provincial governments in the past four years. It dismissed too easily the threat from Reform and then watched as its support went to Preston Manning, a better populist than McLaughlin. Alan Whitehorn, a political scientist at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and author of a recent book on the party, points out that the second-largest source of Reform votes in the last federal election was disgruntled New Democrats. Adds Whitehorn: ‘The NDP has clearly lost some of its populist roots.”

Party members also have to figure out what it means to be a social democrat in the aftermath of free trade, in an era when public ownership and state direction of industry have been widely discredited, and when even socialist governments must contend with high deficits and taxes. Axworthy, an MP since 1988, says the party must be pragmatic as well as progressive and should avoid the temptation to retreat to the comfort of the left. He speaks approvingly of how Swedish social democrats abandoned their policy of full employment and how Saskatchewan’s NDP government has reduced the province’s debt-load. “We shouldn’t just wait for the Reform party to self-destruct and for the Liberal government to lose popularity,” he says. On the other side are people like Julie Davis, the federal party’s chief strategist in the last election. “We clearly have to be seen to be on the left,” she says. “There’s no sense fighting it out with the Liberals for the radical centre.” It is a tension that has existed in the party since the time of Woodsworth: between principles and power, between the zeal of the prophet and the realism of the politician.