THE NDP FACES A TESTING TIME AMID INDICATIONS THAT BROADBENT PLANS TO CALL IT QUITS
THE NDP FACES A TESTING TIME AMID INDICATIONS THAT BROADBENT PLANS TO CALL IT QUITS
For the New Democratic Party—and for the nation—the move would mark the end of an era. NDP Leader John Edward Broadbent, one of the most popular politicians of his generation, will likely announce within two months that he is stepping down from the position that he has held since July, 1975. Broadbent, like many New Democrats, had high hopes of achieving a historic breakthrough in electoral support in the last election. But on Nov. 21, those hopes were dashed. NDP candidates won a record 43 seats—up from the 32 they had in the last Parliament—but the party attracted just 20 per cent of the popular vote, a figure roughly in line with its support in the past three elections. Since then, Broadbent, 52, has consulted with friends and NDP veterans about his future—and Maclean’s has learned that he has told some friends and associates that he has decided to retire. Broadbent has said to several of his colleagues that, early in March, at a meeting of the NDP federal council that is to be arranged in Toronto, he is expected to announce that he is resigning as party leader.
But if Broadbent’s personal soul-searching has ended, his party’s self-examination has just begun. NDP stalwart Stephen Lewis, 51, former leader of the Ontario New Democrats, said that the NDP is on the verge of “a wrenching internal review.” After the federal election, furious party members lashed out at senior NDP officials for their management of the campaign—an anger fuelled largely by the party’s inability to capitalize on opposition to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Broadbent himself was spared much personal criticism, although last week John Rodriguez, MP for the Northern Ontario riding of Nickel Belt, became the first New Democratic MP to say openly that Broadbent should resign. “I think Ed should seriously consider stepping down,” he told a CBC TV interviewer on Jan. 12.
At the same time, Broadbent’s staff braced for another attack from within the ranks as NDP MPs—along with several embittered former MPs who lost their seats—gathered in Ottawa at week’s end for a two-day meeting. But more and more, the angry outbursts have given way to broad questions about the party’s future. “People were angry in December,” said deputy campaign director Robin Sears, himself a major focus of the criticism. “But since then, the party has been much more reflective—and that is long overdue.”
The current internal debate is unmatched since the early 1970s, when New Democrats
split violently over the leftist views of the party’s so-called Waffle faction, which produced a 1969 manifesto written chiefly by James Laxer, Gerald Caplan and Broadbent— he later abandoned the group—that favored an “independent, socialist Canada.” Now, any debate over the party’s future direction likely will come to a head during a party convention that is expected to be held in Winnipeg in August. And if Broadbent sticks to his decision to step down, that convention will also choose a new leader. But until then, NDP supporters across the country will continue to debate issues at the heart of the party’s philosophy, from taxation and economic management to the role of organized labor in the NDP— and even whether the NDP should continue to seek power or be content to act as a social democratic gadfly. In minority Parliaments in the 1960s and 1970s, NDP goading contributed to the Liberal governments' rejection of nuclear warheads and the passage of foreign investment regulations.
The soul-searching has been prompted in part by breathtaking political swings abroad, where some socialist and social democratic parties have married their welfare-state philosophies to hardheaded, neoconservative economics. Lewis, who opposed the Waffle in the early 1970s and now lectures at the University of Toronto, said that on a trip to New Zealand
in 1987, where a nominally Socialist government holds power, he was shocked to find it transferring responsibility for some government services such as health care to private hands and putting rigid controls on government spending to control the deficit—policies more in line with the thinking of orthodox Canadian Conservatives.
There is no apparent movement toward such economic conservatism within Canada’s socialist party. But some influential NDP supporters and analysts have noted the electoral success of some foreign socialist parties. For his part, former NDP federal secretary Caplan, 50, has called on the party to examine the economic policies of nominally Socialist governments in New Zealand, Australia and France for lessons. And former Waffle leader Laxer, 47, an economist at Toronto’s York University, has criticized the party for hanging on to outmoded concepts of state manipulation of the economy. The NDP, Laxer said, has become “an intellectual backwater.”
As it considers its policy options, the party must confront one overriding question: should it continue to seek power or should it be content to serve as the self-appointed conscience of the nation? Said Lewis, who spent four years as Canadian ambassador to the United Nations before returning to Canada last fall: “It would be wonderful for the party to exercise power, but it is not necessary. We can do useful things without being in government.” That view infuriates many party professionals, particularly in Western Canada, where the NDP and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, have formed 13 different provincial governments. Former federal secretary Clifford Scotton, who has served in senior party posts for 38 years, said that such a view is limited to “a hard core of purists.” He added, “Some people will always feel better in sackcloth and ashes than in Ralph Lauren sweaters.”
But Scotton acknowledged that there is bitterness among NDP idealists—the people who
are still “the heart and soul of the NDP”—over the party professionals who ran what the critics dismissed as a slick campaign. That criticism is focused on the party’s handling of free trade. Although the party was united in opposition to the Canada-U.S. agreement, party strategists were convinced that concentrating on free trade would only highlight the NDP’s perceived weaknesses. The reason: polls indicated that the issue was linked too closely in voters’ minds to economic management and international relations—two areas that voters have traditionally regarded as NDP soft spots. As a result, Broadbent, Sears and other strategists decided before the campaign that the NDP should downplay free trade and concentrate on how it would affect medicare and pensions.
Meanwhile, as NDP supporters await Broadbent’s announcement on his future, there is no obvious heir in the NDP ranks. But there should be no shortage of contenders when the leadership becomes vacant. Possible candidates include MPs Lome Nystrom, Nelson Riis, William Blaikie and Ian Waddell; former MPs Michael
Cassidy and Marion Dewar, both of whom would be hampered by the fact that they lost their seats on Nov. 21; and former B.C. premier David Barrett, who won a federal seat in the election. As well, one of Canada’s bestknown labor leaders, Canadian Auto Workers president Robert White, is also touted as a leadership candidate.
As for Broadbent, friends and colleagues expect that, after 20 years as an MP, he will, probably return to academic life. Before entering politics, Broadbent, who holds a doctorate in political science, taught at York University. As well, he is likely to become more actively involved in Socialist International, the Londonbased grouping of socialist and social democratic parties from around the world. Broadbent has been a vice-president of the organization since 1978. But regardless of Broadbent’s decision, the painful process of self-examination will continue within the party that he has led for 14 years.
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