How the NDP Can Win

With the NDP leadership debates soon to get underway, I thought I would post some thoughts on what themes and issues the party should be emphasizing

To form a majority federal government, the NDP will have to make another big leap, from 30% to about 40% of the popular vote, with much of that increase concentrated in growing suburban areas in Ontario and British Colombia. The party will have to win over many middle-class former Liberal and Conservative voters.

It is possible that this task might be accomplished through a combination of waning Conservative popularity and astute political tactics. But the NDP risks becoming a Liberal Party by another name if it ditches core social democratic principles and simply moves to the “responsible” centre as defined by the media and corporate and other elites.

There is a better way. The NDP can win if it remains a philosophically rooted social democratic party and develops and promotes a coherent and practical alternative program in opposition to the neo liberal ideology and policy agenda of the right.

To remain firmly rooted on the left does not consign a party to defeat. While the political pendulum has generally shifted to the right in recent years, the democratic left remains the alternative party of government in much of Europe and now governs in most of Latin America, perhaps most successfully in Brazil.

Social democratic ideas can win majority political support because they are rooted in values, such as democracy and equality, which are shared by most Canadians, and inform policies which are in the interests of the great majority.

The Harper government is set to cut spending on public services and social programs in the name of deficit reduction, but implemented mainly to increase reliance on the market, to create new sources of profit for the private sector, and to finance future tax cuts. This ideological agenda will take place against the background of a sluggish economy, a very weak job market, rising inequality, and increased insecurity for the great majority of working families .

The Harper government agenda must be confronted by an equally coherent alternative which resonates with currently centrist voters.

Here are five key social democratic propositions which can frame specific policies which attract broad support.

More – not less – public investment  is needed to increase private sector productivity and future economic growth.

One of the major problems we face as a country is that economic growth is weakening due to population ageing and poor productivity performance just as we face major new social challenges such as a growing elderly population.

While the ideological right want to shrink the state, we need more rather than less public investment to build a strong economy. Even eminently mainstream economists have long recognized that public investment in basic infrastructure such as roads and airports is a key ingredient in private sector success, but the story is wider than that.

Take the example of child care and early learning programs. As leading economist Pierre Fortin has argued, the Quebec program has significantly boosted the labour force participation rate of women with young children to well above the level in other provinces, more than paying for itself in terms of increased incomes and tax revenues. And investments in this area will reduce future government spending by ensuring that disadvantaged children reach their full potential.

Or take the example of public transit. As cities and the Toronto Board of Trade point out, the national mass transit strategy spurned by the Conservatives would greatly reduce business costs due to traffic congestion; would encourage higher urban density and thus lower infrastructure costs; and would significantly reduce pollution and carbon emissions,

The key point is that the NDP should develop a major public investment program that would create badly-needed jobs now, and would also increase our future rate of economic growth. Since a larger economy results in higher government revenues, an intelligently designed public investment program would be largely self-financing.

Expanding public programs is a more equitable, and also a much more cost effective, way to provide the services we all need.

As we all should know, Canada already gets much better health outcomes at much lower overall cost than the United States because publicly funded primary and hospital care covers everyone and is less costly than private insurance.

Similarly, expanding the Canada Pension Plan is a better and more cost effective way to provide adequate retirement benefits for all workers than high fee RRSPs. or pooled pension plans run by the banks and insurance companies. The CPP delivers a fully indexed defined pension benefit at much lower cost than anything the private sector can provide..

A national pharmacare program would provide much more effective coverage at much lower total cost than the current mix of public and private insurance programs A home care program as part of the public health care system would provide better care at lower cost than  the further development of a costly for profit system in which only the wealthy can afford the care that we all deserve in old age.

The key point is that public programs to meet many of our social needs are not just more fair, but also less costly than the alternative of market, for profit delivery.

To be sure, public programs are not costless and will have to be funded through higher taxes. This should be acknowledged, without pretending that everything we need can be paid for by taxing only the rich.

Expanding public programs is key to shoring up an equal opportunity, middle class society.

The false claim of the right that tax cuts make us all better off is open to attack because it is patently wrong. The fact of the matter is that all but the most affluent gain if we raise taxes in a fair way to pay for decent programs and services available to all.

Leaving it mainly to the market (in terms of pensions child care, health care, post secondary education) is fine for the well-off, but squeezes middle class families and shuts out the poor. Tax cuts which mainly go to the most affluent would be better directed to the maintenance and expansion of public services and social programs to which we all gain access as citizens.

These programs make up the core of an equal opportunity society, as opposed to the increasingly unequal society which has been created by relying more and more on the market. The claim of the right that equal opportunity can continue to exist even as income and wealth become more and more unequally distributed is false.

We need a strong and productive private sector as well.

Arguing that government is best at doing many things does not mean that we can ignore the creation of wealth. Canada needs a much more innovative and productive private sector. It is ironic, not to say tragic, that two decades and more of leave it all to the market economic policies have resulted in an expert consensus that Canada has a major private sector productivity problem.

A progressive government can help build a stronger private sector by investing more in education and skills, in research and development, and by supporting major private investment projects which add value to our natural resources and develop our capacities in emerging, knowledge and skills intensive sectors. The recent experience of Asia shows that economic success comes from building a genuine mixed economy where government plays a significant role. Funding to support private investment through institutions like public investment banks can be secured by scaling back corporate tax breaks which have failed to raise investment.

Unions shape an equal society

Social democrats (unlike Tony Blair’s New Labour) understand that strong unions are needed to bring a fair balance to the workplace and job market, to sustain a strong middle-class, and to limit the growth of the working poor. Increasing inequality of wages and incomes has to be countered by increasing the ability of workers to get a fair wage and to have a voice at work.

All of these propositions would, of course, be strongly contested by neo liberals and the Harper Conservatives. And that is just what we in Canada need and can get in the wake of the partisan realignment of the last election – a healthy democratic debate between the philosophical right and left over what policies are needed to build a democratic, inclusive and equal society.

This is a debate that social democrats need not be afraid of, a debate that we can win.


  • The ingredient you’re missing is support for cooperatives. Marc Lee discussed this some in his column of October 18th ( But they’re discussed more thoroughly in Wilkinson & Pickett’s Spirit Level. W&P mention ways that governments could foster co-ops and discourage the mega corporations that are gobbling up the competition as discussed by Barry Lynn in Cornered–a frightening book.

  • Andrew, NDP’s future has already been decided. If you look at it Quebec is the testing ground for policies in Canada, whether it is politics or massacre where a lone gunman suicided, assault on defense attorney’s and now the Euthanasia debate – underhanded moves with hidden sinister motives much like Frederick Lee aka Ted Morton’s Bill 36. It isn’t about power lines at all, it is a ruse to divest farmers of their land owner rights and that is not the end either. Otherwise why would politicians threaten councillors and RCMP has not charged these Albertan politicians? So Muchado About Cons Crime Bills !!

    If anyone thinks dismantling CWB, Bill 36, leasing BC Rail for 99 years to Americans are unrelated is ignorant of the ways of the shadow government or is seriously deluding themselves. Is it a surprise Grant Devine and Gordon Campbell were banished from Canada and if that wasn’t enough Dave Bronconnier was marched off as well. A precautionary measure in case they might fit the pieces of puzzle together. I suppose Frederick Lee never gets homesick. There is something creepy about Harper bio, I checked on Wiki last night and it appears he has been acting as Waiting in Prime Minister of Canada since his teenage years.

  • Good article. A large part of the new NDP voters needed, especially in W Canada, are currently Conservative voters. 15 years ago they were NDP before the Reform stole them away. A lot are also union members. They will be won back with a jobs program for resource industries, and plain talking politics.

  • excellent ideas Andrew, and should include policies for cooperatives, in which rural and western folk really understand and support.

  • Rentier Fungicide

    Excellent stuff, but largely pointless, in my view, unless the NDP gets its act together on Federal-Provincial relations. The NDP has no hope of winning an election as long as it holds to the Sherbrooke Declaration. The NDP must stand up for national social programs and against further decentralization to the provinces (with the attendant dangers of inter-provincial tax competition and races to the bottom in provincial austerity) and staunchly in favour of expressing the national will and protecting the Federal spending power. As long as the NDP does not endorse the Clarity Act in its entirety, left-wing Canadians outside Quebec will not take the party seriously. There are many, many Canadians, including people like myself, who have canvassed for the NDP in election after election, who will support even Harper before they elect a party which endorses Quebec nationalism as the NDP has done. Quebec nationalism and other regionalisms, such as Albertan decentralism, going back to Oliver Mowatt in Ontario just after confederation, have always led to reduction in services, increases in inequality, and social injustice. We also need greater national integration to develop the kind of industrial policy that would allow us to combat climate change. Right now, the NDP is leaving the royal road open to Liberal revival because of its poorly conceived concessions to Quebec nationalism. If the Liberals again ask “and who shall speak for Canada?”, nobody will accept the NDP’s rejection of the Clarity Act. And the NDP must always argue in favour deficit finance. The problem for the NDP is that they captured the Quebec nationalist vote, and some die-hard NDP support in the rest of Canada, but that is all. Precisely what got Layton his electoral gains — his move to the right, the down-playing of social democratic principle, and his cynical appeal to Quebec nationalism — is what impedes any hope of the NDP of reaching power. I grew up in the bosom of the NDP, and Layton’s generation is so right-wing that, incredibly, the Liberals now look more radical and more honest in their policies.

  • Your key social democratic propositions do not address inequality. Granted we are a whole lot more equal than the USA, but still much less than even Germany (and the whole EU), let alone Scandinavia. While redistribution to low-income households is not a winner in suburbia, restoring fair tax rates for corporations and the rich probably is, if the rich are carefully and clearly defined. Leaving this point out seems less than social democratic, unless you have an explanation.

  • I’d say that isn’t strictly true. The proposals aren’t explicitly redistributive, and I agree that explicit redistribution is an idea that should be making a comeback. But broad social programs are redistributive in their effects and help create a floor for the bottom end, while broader union membership and stronger unions also tend to reduce inequality.

  • For any of above to resonate public needs to be educated. Current level of political/economic illiteracy is such that PC slogans catch much more attention than real questions and real answers. In other words: best (and first) thing NDP (or any other progressive political force) should do is educate masses, steer them towards the *questions* not the answers, so that it doesn’t turn into propaganda. Otherwise all the othef points won’t resonate at all.

  • I forwarded your article to all 8 leadership campaigns. They promised to respond shortly. We’ll see if they have the time to sit down, breath, read, think and write. I’ll keep you posted.

  • Wonderful article. Great starting points.

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