THE ONLY PARTY NOBODY’S MAD AT

WILL THE NDP TURN PARLIAMENT UPSIDE DOWN?

Blair Fraser July 24 1965
THE ONLY PARTY NOBODY’S MAD AT

WILL THE NDP TURN PARLIAMENT UPSIDE DOWN?

Blair Fraser July 24 1965

WILL THE NDP TURN PARLIAMENT UPSIDE DOWN?

THE ONLY PARTY NOBODY’S MAD AT

Blair Fraser

THOMAS CLEMENT DOUGLAS, MP, national leader of the New Democratic Party, has a rhetorical catchphrase that he likes to use at the larger and more euphoric NDP rallies:

“Give us seventy seats at the next election, and we’ll turn parliament upside down. Give us a hundred and seventy, and we’ll turn the Canadian economy right side up.”

Actually no sensible person, and certainly not a hardheaded realist like Tommy Douglas, really thinks the NDP can win seventy seats at the next election, whether it comes this autumn or a year or two hence. Douglas and all his men would be overjoyed if they could equal their peak of the late 1940s, thirty-one seats, and if they went much over that figure they would be astounded.

But Douglas would not in fact need seventy seats, nor even half that number, to “turn parliament upside down.” If the mildly socialist NDP can add a few percentage points to its popular vote across Canada, even if it elects no more members than its present eighteen, it will have unpredictable effects on the fortunes and future of the two major parties.

The main reason for this uncertainty can be stated in one word: disenchantment. Gallup Polls show little change in the voting intentions of Canadians since 1963, but great and disturbing changes in their appraisal of major party leaders and of parliament itself. More than half of all voters think John Diefenbaker has declined in popular esteem since the last election. Four in ten think the same of Lester Pearson. Nine percent of Conservatives think Pearson makes a better prime minister than Diefenbaker, but four percent of Liberals return the compliment and prefer Diefenbaker to their own chieftain. Three quarters of the

electorate rate the present parliament fair to poor, with almost as much disapproval for the Liberal government (sixty-three percent) as for the Conservative opposition (seventy-two percent).

The NDP has some grounds, other than mere selfrighteousness, for thinking itself exempt from this general disdain for politics. The last two Gallup Polls, in March and June of this year, show declines for both the old parties (two points down for the Liberals, three for the Conservatives) but a three-point rise for the New Democrats. Moreover, the NDP itself commissioned a private survey last January in three urban areas, two in Ontario and one in British Columbia, to get some idea of its public image and the reasons why people vote for and against it. The results were not sensational, but on the whole they were encouraging: the trend seemed to be in the direction of approval and acceptance.

The survey was conducted by Peter Riegenstrieff, a young sociologist and public-opinion sampler who had a good record of accurate prediction in the last two general elections. What he learned about the NDP was not entirely flattering: the party had relatively little appeal to women, less support than it thought it had among younger voters, virtually no support among either the well-to-do or the very poor (incomes over eight thousand or under three thousand a year).

But at least the old bogeys seemed to have disappeared: the picture of the NDP as a band of doctrinaire socialists (let alone revolutionaries) bent on nationalizing everything for ritualistic reasons, or on dangerous experiments and economic tinkering, had faded. Instead, the NDP had a reputation, even beyond the ranks of its actual supporters, for forthrightness, honesty of purpose, and concern for the common man. Thus the party appears to be well placed to benefit from any further decline in the prestige of either or both of the old parties.

That this should be so is a rare tribute to Tommy Douglas, who only three years ago seemed to have ended a distinguished political career in complete disaster and failure.

In November 1961 he had resigned after seventeen years of unbroken and serene success as premier of Saskatchewan, to accept the national leadership of a newly founded political organization called the New Democratic Party which, its sponsors hoped, would rise phoenixlike from the ashes of the old CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation). It was a bold and risky venture, as Douglas well knew, but at least he had no doubt of his own personal survival in federal politics. He planned to run in Regina, his home town for many years, where the CCF had long held the provincial seats and where Douglas was thought to be much stronger than his party.

On election day 1962 he was beaten by almost ten thousand votes — came perilously close to losing his deposit, for he got barely more than half as many votes as the winning Conservative, Kenneth More. Facing the television camera that night, his voice steady but his face understandably glum, Douglas quoted from an ancient ballad of the Scottish border:

“Fight on, my men,” said Sir Andrew Barton,

“I am hurt, hut I am not slain.

"I will lay me down and bleed a while,

“And then I’ll rise and fight again.”

He was hurt, all right, and for a while he bled in silence and nearobscurity.

It was a bitter pill, for a man who had lived in Saskatchewan for thirty years, to go out to Vancouver, where he had neither roots nor ties, and dislodge the veteran MP Erhärt Regier from the safe seat of Burnaby-Coquitlam. It was almost equally bitter, for the man who had led his provincial socialists to five consecutive victories and had then retired unbeaten, to assume the leadership of a parliamentary group of nineteen and come back, after another general election in 1963, with only seventeen. (One more was added in a by-election last November.)

It would take a nationwide survey in-depth to establish all the causes of the NDP’s recovery in the past two years, from a twice-proven failure to a stronger threat than ever before, but some of them at least are obvious.

One is the party’s performance in the House of Commons, a vast improvement on its showing in the twenty-fourth parliament of 1958-62. Tommy Douglas himself, after a rather slow and hesitant start, has regained some of the fire and zest that made him in his heyday one of the most formidable campaigners in Canada. Some of the men around him who were political greenhorns in 1962 have matured into highly effective parliamentarians, while such veterans as Stanley Knowles, the party whip and expert on House rules, are back in their old form after an interval of reconditioning. At the same time several who were embarrassingly prominent in the little band of eight in 1958-62, and who contributed to the low repute from which the party then suffered, have been returned to the obscurity from which they should never have emerged.

“I used to wonder sometimes if AÍ Grosart (now a senator but then Conservative national director) picked out the eight seats he wanted to let us win,” a senior of the NDP said recently. “He could hardly have done it better, from his own party’s point of view.” This judgment is too sweepingly harsh to be realistic; the eightman group in the twenty-fourth parliament included some able MPs — Douglas Fisher for one, now the deputy leader of the party in the House. But it’s undeniable that the NDP or CCF did not look its best in parliament between 1958 and 1962.

Another reason why the NDP has become formidable is the great leap forward in its methods of organization and electoral campaigning. This party of amateurs has suddenly become professional in its techniques.

The new expertise was demonstrated last year in two by-elections, both in Ontario — the provincial riding of Toronto-Riverdale in September, the federal Waterloo South in November. In Toronto-Riverdale a traditionally Conservative seat was being challenged by a contender for the provincial Liberal leadership, Charles Templeton. He and the Conservative ran almost neck-and-neck for second place, but the NDP’s James Renwick won by fifteen hundred votes. Waterloo South, where the Conservatives had lost only two elections since 1900, gave a majority of twenty-three hundred to a self-made businessman named Max Saltsman, making his first venture into federal politics for the NDP. (He’d been defeated in the provincial election of 1963.)

For both victories, party men give much credit to Stephen Lewis, the twenty-seven-year-old MPP who sits for Scarborough West in the Ontario legislature, and who has shown a remarkable talent for political organization. He headed a team of experienced workers, drawn from many other ridings, who were able to come into Riverdale and Waterloo South and show the local party people what to do.

“I had almost exactly the same local group working for me in 1964 as when I lost the provincial seat in 1963,” Max Saltsman said recently. “The difference was, in 1964 they knew exactly what to do and how to do it.”

Another difference was that the party had approximately twice as much money to spend as it had ever had before — roughly eight thousand dollars. The NDP is confident that both these new factors — the roving teams of experts and the bigger campaign fund — can be brought into the next general election campaign. In 1963. NDP headquarters had only about seventy-five thousand dollars; next time it’s hoping for something over two hundred thousand. And this is for national expenses only: the various constituencies would be expected to finance their own local campaigns. Between fifty and a hundred are planning to raise about eight thousand dollars apiece.

Last December Tommy Douglas was invited to speak at a fund-raising dinner in Toronto. “My Scottish blood ran cold when I heard they were charging fifty dollars a plate,” Douglas said the other day. “I didn't think we could raise a corporal's guard at that price.” In fact, more than nine hundred turned out — nearly half as many as even the affluent Liberals were able to deploy in Montreal for a fund-raising dinner at the same fifty-dollar rate for Prime Minister Pearson in May. (Douglas began his address: “It’s always a pleasure to speak to a group of the underprivileged proletariat.”)

A third reason for the NDP's new firepower, in addition to better performance and better organization, is the prospect of a modest success in Quebec for the first time. And this prospect in turn depends on the personality of the party’s new Quebec leader, a lawyer from rural Beauce County named Robert Cliche (rhymes with “leash”).

Neither the CCF nor the NDP has ever elected an MP from Quebec. Communist Fred Rose did win Montreal-Cartier in a 1943 by-election, and held it until he went to jail in 1946 for his role in the spy ring that Igor Gouzenko revealed, but Cartier is an untypical riding and 1943 was an untypical year. (The Soviet Union, our glorious ally, had just defeated Hitler’s army at Stalingrad.) Pink Socialism has never shown any strength at all in French Canada. There are many reasons for this, no doubt, but one is that no socialist party has had a strong, charismatic, French-speaking leader there.

Cliche was a Liberal until 1962. He was only moderately active in politics but he came of a distinguished Liberal family — his father was a judge, and one of his cousins is minister of lands and forests in the Lesage government of Quebec. He joined the NDP because he had become utterly fed up with both of the old parties; specifically it was the Liberal switch to acceptance of nuclear arms that caused his defection, but he’d been unhappy for some time for other reasons.

In a recent speech to an NDP convention in Vancouver, Cliche gave some of the reasons not only for his own change of party affiliation, but for his hope that a large body of Quebec electors might change with him. Not one but two revolutions are in progress in French Canada, he said: the first of them is national, lingual, cultural, but the second is economic, and “it may in the long run be even more important.

“For this mood of revolt is not a passing fad. It may have taken bizarre forms up to now; for instance it led to the election of twenty-six Social Credit candidates, pledged to a program almost none of them could understand. But the sentiments which sent that delegation to Ottawa will not wither away.

“We in Quebec may not be much worse off than, say, the people of Appalachia in the United States. But the Appalachians are half-convinced of the American myth, that if they’re poor it’s their own fault. Our Quebec people have never believed this. They know whom to call to account.

"That is why, in voting for Réal Caouette, they were not all that wildly off. They identified their enemies correctly, which is half the battle. Now they have only to identify their friends, to find the vehicle to carry their demands to fruition. This they are doing, and we can see it in the dramatic upsurge of the New Democratic Party in our province.”

Actually this “dramatic upsurge” has yet to be demonstrated, as no one knows better than Robert Cliche. He is a realist, and he has no illusions that the NDP can sweep Quebec in the near future. On the other hand, as a realist, he knows that in 1963 the Créditistes took twenty Quebec seats with only twenty-seven percent of the vote, that polls show a higher “undecided” group in Quebec (forty-four percent in March) than anywhere else in Canada, that Social Credit has been losing strength there and that the votes it loses will be fair game for all the other parties.

In the 1963 election the NDP candidate in Cliche’s riding of Beauce got only seven hundred and forty votes, and in the whole province the party got only seven percent of the popular vote, or about half the national average. True, the NDP popular vote was even lower in the Atlantic Provinces, but that is considered less serious — the NDP has held one Maritime seat, Cape Breton South, in five of the last eight parliaments, and expects to win it again the next time. To have no representation whatever of the Frenchspeaking one third of the Canadian nation is a much more crippling weakness, and if Robert Cliche can win even one Quebec seat at the next election he will have promoted his party to a national status it has never yet enjoyed. At least, unlike the Social Credit group, the NDP will not then split into English and French wings — because this split has already taken place. A small splinter broke away last year to found the Parti Socialiste de Québec, which now is counted as one of the numerous separatist organizations in Quebec. “A troop of wild asses,” said an NDP spokesman cheerfully. “We’re much better off without them.”

Significantly, the NDP itself has no provincial organization in Quebec: its activities there are purely federal. In provincial politics, its men back René Lévesque and the radical wing of the Quebec Liberal Party. One reason for their high hopes of the next federal election is that they think Lévesque may return this support, and throw his considerable influence behind them rather than the federal Liberals.

Elsewhere, strangely enough, the NDP looks to the Conservative Party for help. If the effort to depose John Diefenbaker from the Conservative leadership is successful before the next election, the NDP hopes to gain by it in two quite different ways. In the cities they hope to benefit from renewed Conservative strength, and on the prairies from a new Conservative weakness.

There are at least several, perhaps many, city ridings that the NDP can win if the antisocialist vote is divided between Liberals and Conservatives, but will lose whenever either old party is decisively strong. For example in 1962, when the Conservatives still retained some strength in the Toronto area, David Lewis recaptured York South for the NDP and Val Scott ran a close second to the Liberal winner in York Centre. Ten months later the Conservatives had collapsed; Lewis was beaten by almost exactly as many votes as he had won by the year before, and Val Scott was crushed. Under any other leader than Diefenbaker, Toronto Conservatives expect to make a strong comeback — strong enough at least to split the antisocialist vote again, and give the NDP another fighting chance in these two and perhaps a couple more Toronto seats. The same factors operate in most big cities.

On the prairies, and especially in Saskatchewan, the removal of Diefenbaker would have precisely the opposite effect. The so-called Conservatives from the prairies are really agrarian radicals, loyal to Diefenbaker as one of themselves. To the party as such their attachment is

slight, and if the party gets rid of “Our John” against his will, their loyalty could become bitter hostility to the men who forced him out. This would set the stage for a swing like that of 1945, when the CCF took all but two seats in a province that had been mostly Liberal.

This may sound odd, considering that a Liberal Party led by Ross Thatcher defeated a well-entrenched CCF government in Saskatchewan only a year ago. But of Thatcher’s

thirty-two seats only four were won by more than a thousand votes, and five were taken by less than a hundred. One by-election has already brought back a CCFer in what had been a Liberal seat (another is being fought as this article goes to press). And most important of all. Premier Ross Thatcher is on stridently bad terms with the Liberal government in Ottawa and is unlikely to give their candidates much help.

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More important than any such squalid little sums in political arithmetic is the prospect that the NDP might then achieve what the CCF attempted for nearly thirty years — a genuine coalition of farm and labor radicals. The CCF set out to make one in 1932. The word “federation” in its cumbersome name meant the alliance of farm organizations with the Canadian Labor Party. But in fact the CCF was a party of agrarian radicals with some marginal support from labor. The NDP, founded in 1961, tried to marry the CCF farm bloc to the urban labor movement, but so far it has merely substituted a labor group for a farmer group in the House of Commons. If, next time, it can hold its urban strength while recapturing the agricultural prairie, it

will become the kind of party it has always intended to he but has never quite become.

What this would mean to Canada is difficult to predict. From the early days of J. S. Woodsworth and M. J. Coldwell, the days of its greatest material weakness and greatest moral strength, the party has always prided itself on being “the conscience of parliament.” It led the early struggles for welfare legislation. J. S. Woodsworth drove a bargain with Mackenzie King nearly forty years ago, giving his support to a minority government in exchange for a pledge to establish the first Canadian old-age pension; his followers and successors still dream of holding a balance-of-power position, and using it in the interest of “the common man.”

Today, of course, once-radical social measures have become commonplace. Not for a generation has any political party dared to be conservative with a small “c”; in lip service if not in practice, they are all parties of the Left.

But there is still an economic Establishment in this country, and the New Democratic Party is still its enemy in a sense and to a degree that the old parties are not. Tommy Douglas’s ambition to “turn parliament upside down” and “the Canadian economy right side up” is neither an idle dream nor an empty threat. If, as some people are beginning to hope and others to fear, the long - attempted coalition of the Left is about to become a fact of political life, this is exactly what he will set out to do. ★