Choosing a leader isn’t the new party’s only problem

Peter C. Newman August 13 1960

Choosing a leader isn’t the new party’s only problem

Peter C. Newman August 13 1960

Choosing a leader isn’t the new party’s only problem


Peter C. Newman

AT ITS REGINA CONVENTION this month, the grand old CCF party will perform the final rites in preparation for its wedding to the Canadian Labor Congress. Out of this marriage, following a ninemonth gestation period, at a founding convention next spring, will emerge the first new national Canadian political party in a quarter of a century.

As the new, yet unnamed movement finally passes out of the talking into the action stage, many politicians — including some influential CCFers — are seriously questioning whether it can fulfill its avowed purpose of unifying unto itself the votes of "farmers, labor, CCFers. and other liberally minded persons.”

That represents an ambitious roll call. Roughly two million Canadians of voting age live on farms. Organized labor numbers almost a million and a half. These votes, plus the solid core of about half a million CCF supporters across the country, give the new party a theoretical maximum of four million votes.

Properly distributed, four million votes is a surfeit of electoral support to guarantee the assumption of power in Ottawa. John Diefenbaker became prime minister in 1957 with only 2.578.045 ballots.

But not even the most dedicated of the new party campaigners hopes to garner anything like four million votes in the next general election. All the groups the new party is now courting could have voted for the CCF in past federal elections. But they didn't. The CCF has never received more than 822.661 ballots (in the 1945 general election) and has seated no more than thirty-two MPs.

One reason for the downward revision of the new party’s chances is that it was conceived three years ago in the premature hope that the Liberal party was dead, and that an alternate opposition force must be made available to Canadian voters. Since then, the Liberals have won in Quebec and New Brunswick, while in the five most recent provincial elections held east of Ontario the CCF has managed to seat only a single candidate in Nova Scotia.

Successful political movements in Canada have in the past always grown either as the result of magnetic leadership rallying mass discontent or by the bursting into organized form of popular alternatives to existing government. Instead of such a natural evolution, the new party has been trying to whip up enthusiasm by setting up a myriad of committees, some charged with searching upward for leadership, others combing downward for membership.

The new party is designed as an instrument of class conflict, in a society where almost no class conflict exists.

The CCF drew its original strength from the political insurgence that swept the west in the late Twenties. Despite some tortuous explanations by the new party’s adherents, these roots as an agrarian protest movement are not easy to reconcile with the protectionist and urban forces of big labor.

T his classic conflict has shown up in the fact that Canada’s farm organizations, without exception, have voted in the past fewmonths against alignment with the new political movement.

The farmers haven’t forgotten the transport union strikes timed to hit the Prairie harvests. Many farmers feel they can't align themselves with a group like the United Auto Workers, which advocates higher tariffs against the car exports of our best customers for agricultural produce. The textile unions are demanding a ban on Japanese imports, at a time when Japan is our second-largest w'heat buyer. Organized labor wants restricted immigration; the farmers want more people to raise domestic food consumption.

These and other divergent points of view will be aired at the Regina convention, but its most important function w'ill be to pick a successor for M. J. Coldwell, who has led the CCF since 1942. There has been great pressure from labor to put off the leadership choice until next spring’s founding convention of the new party, but CCF strategists arc determined to act on the leadership question, because the man picked will almost certainly head the party after it’s combined with labor.

The CCF’s best vote-getter is Tommy Douglas, premier of Saskatchewan since 1944 and the only CCF politician ever to run a government. There is mounting pressure to conscript Douglas for the leadership, but he has written privately to friends that he’ll refuse a draft if one develops.

Anxious to replace Douglas as the party’s unanimous leadership candidate is Stanley Knowles, the former deputy House leader of the CCF. remembered as the skilled procedural tactician of the pipeline debate. After his 1958 defeat at the polls, the CCF wanted Knowles as national organizer, but couldn't meet his salary requirements. He became instead an executive vice-president of the Canadian Labor Congress, at $13.000 a year. He has been the main organizational force behind the new party, but his candidacy is weakened by his intimate union ties.

Knowles' main opposition will come from David Lewis, a Toronto lawyer, who for the past two decades as national secretary or national chairman of the CCF has been the party’s éminence grise. When he was trying for a Rhodes scholarship in 1932, Lewis told the board taking his oral examination that his ambition was to head a Canadian socialist government. Sir Edward Beatty, president of the CPR and a member of the Rhodes board, asked him: "What would be your first act in power?” Lewis snapped back: "I’d nationalize the CPR.”

He won the scholarship and became president of the Oxford Union — an astounding feat for a Polish immigrant to Canada who spoke no English until he was twelve. Lewis has solid backing from the CCF’s doctrinaire wing, but his position is considerably weakened by his intimate association with this country's least desirable unions. He is chief legal adviser to Hal Banks’s Seafarers International Union and to Jimmy HofTa’s Canadian Teamsters.

Gaining strength as a compromise leadership candidate is Hazen Argue, the CCF House leader. Only thirty-nine but already fifteen years in the Commons, he’s a bright, enthusiastic politician with an attractive platform manner. His Assiniboia constituency is in the heart of Saskatchewan, a province now disillusioned with Diefenbaker. It is probably the safest CCF seat in the country.

One of the new leader’s first decisions will be choosing a name for his party. Suggestions that have come into CCF headquarters at Ottawa include the Social Democratic Party, the Social Republican Party, the Party of the Common Man. and the Social Democratic Order of Canadian Organizations. "The new party should definitely carry on the name of the CCF —the movement that has given expression to the democratic socialist philosophy since 1932,” says Bert Herridge, the deputy CCF House leader, whose duels with Tory ministers have earned him a reputation as the wittiest man in the Commons.

The labor wing of the new party is opposed to retaining the CCF label, but in Saskatchewan the CCF has already decided to keep the CCF name for both provincial and federal purposes, and in British Columbia, CCF leader Bob Strachan has said he'll fight the provincial election this fall as a straight CCFer.

The new party strategists who are determined to kill off the CCF forget that with all its faults it has been the most successful protest movement in Canadian history. It formed the government of one province, the opposition of three others, and under J. S. Woodsworth and Coldwell injected a stream of ideas into Canadian political life that has given it influence far beyond its nominal power. Even now, when its federal representation has been reduced to eight, the CCF has fielded such outstanding men as Douglas Fisher, the bear-size history teacher from Port Arthur who has become the best backbencher in the current parliament.

Most of the socialists now sitting in the House of Commons intend to contest their seats in the next federal election as straight CCFers, regardless of the new party’s instructions. Fisher, the group’s unofficial rebel-in-chief, said recently: "The CCF is inured, perhaps too much so, to adversity. But damned if it’s ready to die.” it