Neo-Progressive Alert: The NDP as risk-averse conservatives

As some of my readers know, I’m always interested in articles that highlight how all the political parties in Canada (and the US?) have become conservative. Not necessarily in the sense that they want to roll back government, but in the sense that they cannot not imagine some new future.

I think the classic example of that in Canada is the NDP which seems stuck in trying to remake the country as it was in the 1950s. This opinion piece in the Star by McMaster Assistant Professor David Goutor touches on the theme of a conservative NDP party, to scared to take a stand.

At the most basic level, today’s NDP is a truly remarkable phenomenon: it is a fourth-place party, usually stuck in the teens in the polls, and purporting to represent the most marginalized groups in society – yet it has become stubbornly risk-averse, acting as if it has too much to lose to speak out strongly on many key issues facing the country.

When it comes to strategy, the NDP was certainly bold in lunging for power through the coalition. It also has a notable amount of talent in its parliamentary caucus, with even right-wing commentators praising NDP MPs for being knowledgeable and performing effectively in parliamentary committees.

But when it comes to the party’s main policies, a mind-numbing blandness has set in. There are few instances where the NDP has boldly taken a controversial position on a key issue.

If you have visited the NDP’s website frequently in the last couple of years, you were much more likely to read about credit card rates, bank fees, and insurance premiums than central economic, social, or foreign-policy questions.

A particularly deep part of the NDP’s rut is that avoiding controversy has become to be seen as the “pragmatic” approach. Standing out on major issues, meanwhile, is viewed as the “radical” approach that will keep the NDP on the fringes. But if pragmatism means anything, it is paying attention to results. The results of the recent “pragmatic” approach are in, and they are dispiriting.

I suspect (but could be wrong) that Goutor would disagree with my and Taylor’s neo-progressive thesis and that our understanding of why we believe the NDP are conservative are markedly different. My assumption(potentially deeply flawed) is that I’m sure Goutor wishes the NDP was more aggressive in re-invoking the 1950’s (a more planned economy, closed off from the world with labour forming a bigger part of the pie) But the fact is, for many Canadians going back isn’t desirable, moreover the party doesn’t know what going forward means and so is flailing around in the present, going after small wins without a grand vision appears to be the order of the day.

This isn’t to say the other parties are significantly better off, the challenge is just more noticeable with the NDP.

Postscript – I notice the NDP never got around to debating the motion about the name change. My sense is that this means it got killed… in the way you’d expect from a democratic party, by procedural means.

4 thoughts on “Neo-Progressive Alert: The NDP as risk-averse conservatives

  1. Conrad Barwa

    Its a class issue; for the groups that NDP would claim to represent; many of your assertions of being imaginative sound a lot less pressing than their more material concerns. Generally as far as class goes and to the degree that one regards class as an organising pole of politics labels of 'neo' this or that are pretty much crap unless you are describing particular ideologies.Of course its always been class for some of us ;)

  2. Tariq

    My own uninformed perspective is that the NDP became much less bold in policy when Layton decided that the party needed to move from being an influential party, to one that seeks to govern. At that point, pragmatism seeps in and you almost have no choice but to move closer to centrist policies. I think that if anyone studied the history of the CCF/NDP, they'd see a party with much more influence on the Canadian system, and identity, than most people give them credit for. I'd argue that they were able to do this by sticking to principled, bold policies, coupled with the opportunities that minority governments have offered them, but not by trying to appeal to the masses. I agree with Conrad. They are (or were) above all else, a class party. I would also suggest that seeing their policies as holding on to the past at the expense of the future just adds a time dimension that doesn't need to be there. Good policy is good policy and bad policy is bad policy. It doesn't matter when it was suggested. If a particular marginalized group is still being marginalized, and someone wants to advocate for an old policy that can help them, that doesn't necessarily make them antiquated. Perhaps it just means that the rest of us haven't been paying attention to those we marginalize…

  3. pjr

    Michael Valpy's interview with Ed Broadbent in the Globe (Sat, 14 Aug 09) had more substance than Goutor's column. Broadbent was invited to address the NDP convention – there's a link to his speech in Valpy's column.…He thinks a main focus of the NDP should be on the increasing income inequality and poverty in Canada, which is growing faster than in most OECD countries (graph at following link): Canadians are going to have equality of opportunity then it is important to deal with this trend, which also undermines social cohesion. As for the NDP name change, Broadbent dismissed it as “silly talk”.

Comments are closed.