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A Battle for the Federal NDP’s Soul
Q&A with Matt Fodor, author of "From Layton to Singh: The 20-year conflict behind the NDP's deal with the Trudeau Liberals."
The NDP has come a long way from the days of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation’s agrarian socialism, through the years of Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent and the party’s near-collapse in the 1990s.
A new book from Toronto-based writer and researcher Matt Fodor focuses on the NDP’s evolution over the past 20 years, from the high of 2011, when Jack Layton became Leader of Opposition for the first time in the party’s history, to Tom Mulcair’s total abandonment of any social democratic principles and Jagmeet Singh’s slight shift back to the left.
From Layton to Singh: The 20-year conflict behind the NDP’s deal with the Trudeau Liberals (Lorimer) also delves into the rich historical context leading up to the past two decades of NDP history.
I spoke to Fodor about the party's past, present and future. This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for brevity.
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You open the book with a scene from the 2015 campaign trial, with Justin Trudeau slamming then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair for coming out on the side of austerity. Why is this an important starting point for the story you’re telling?
It's a very dramatic moment in the history of the NDP over the past 20 years. The NDP’s goal since the Layton era, and even before that, was to displace the Liberals as the main centre-left option in Canada. That's been the main goal going back to the founders of the party in the ‘60s, who wanted what happened in Britain over a century ago, with Labour replacing the Liberals as the progressive, or centre-left, opposition.
With the decline of the Liberals in 2011, Layton really saw an opportunity to start moving in that direction, to really do it. They end up moving to the centre and operating on the Liberals’ terrain.
The perception was we have to appeal to the bourgeoisie, the people who never voted for us, the media, etc. We need to get those voters. We don't want to be seen as anti-business, we don't want to be seen as fiscally irresponsible and so on.
But with Mulcair, they just kept going.
They lost the plot, because they ended up being outflanked by the Liberal Party. The NDP went so far to the centre that there was more space on the left than there was between the NDP and the Conservatives.
Mulcair ended up becoming an example of the centrist strategy going haywire. By embracing balanced budgets, the NDP ended up adopting one of the main tenets of neoliberal economics and they lost their credibility even among Liberal-minded voters.
You mentioned on Twitter that Mulcair was Jack Layton’s most important recruit. Why is that?
I think it was in response to somebody who said the party had lost its way after Layton. But I think Layton really was the transformative agent in terms of turning the NDP more into a Third Way party, more in line with what the other social democrats were doing around the world. You had Tony Blair with New Labor in the U.K. and Gerhard Schröder in Germany.
The NDP started almost playing catch up and underwent its own ideological moderation maybe about a decade after other social democratic parties had done so. But Layton absolutely went in with the Blairites and started moving the party to the centre quite quickly. In his first election in 2004, Layton backtracked on taxing inheritances and ended up taking a more centrist, no new tax position.
By the time you get to the 2011 election, it was pretty much a completely Third Way platform. Layton had actors like Brad Levine who were quite explicit in their vision to move the party away from the old NDP and move beyond ideology.
So who is Tom Mulcair? He was a member of the National Assembly with the Quebec Liberals under Premier Jean Charest. If you actually look back at the time, he wasn't even considered a left-wing Liberal in the Charest government.
Jack Layton recruited him to the party and he was immediately elevated to the position of deputy leader when he was elected in Outremont.
I almost feel like it's like the Liberals recruiting Stephen Harper or something. It's quite strange.
If Layton hadn't recruited him, Mulcair wouldn't have run. And Layton didn't have a problem with Mulcair’s lack of roots in social democracy.
There were differences between Jack and Tom. Jack had roots in the party, in social movements, and he understood the culture of the NDP. I would say Mulcair never really did and he took the party further to the right than Layton.
But I see more continuity than a fundamental break with Mulcair.
Why was Mulcair unable to capitalize on Layton’s success?
It's a mixture of factors. Layton had run multiple times while Mulcair was running for the first time, so that played a role. Layton was a more charismatic figure than Mulcair. That obviously played a role.
But I also think there was a real detachment from what was happening. By the time you get to 2015, you've had the Occupy movement, you have a discussion about inequality, and the neoliberal consensus is being questioned more.
Mulcair was very adamant about balanced budgets, and it was very much done from the top down, with almost no consultation with party stakeholders.
Meanwhile, people were really getting tired of then-prime minister Stephen Harper, and Trudeau had rebuilt the Liberal Party. Trudeau was charismatic and he was opening up the party by getting rid of membership fees.
There was too much caution from the NDP. Trudeau was calling for raising the income tax on the rich. I remember quite a funny moment in one of the debates, when Mulcair said doctors were being driven out of New Brunswick because of high tax rates of over 50%, which he said were confiscatory.
With Mulcair’s messaging around balanced budgets and lower taxes, and an emphasis on safety and competence, the Liberals just did a better job at getting that bold change message.
Why is it that provincial NDP governments in Western Canada — like Gary Doer in Manitoba, Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan or Rachel Notley in Alberta — have supplanted the Liberals by pivoting to the centre in a way Mulcair was unable to do?
The history goes back further. In Western Canada, the NDP has been the functionally centre-left party for a long time. In the Prairies, the Liberals were either weak, or even right-wing in some ways, so the dynamics were different.
If you go back to the Third Way meetings around the world in the ‘90s, you had Bill Clinton representing the U.S., Blair representing the U.K. and you had Liberal prime minister Chretien at some of these meetings representing Canada, because the Liberals were already naturally aligned with Blair and Clinton.
Meanwhile, in the provinces you had the NDP implementing neoliberal policies. There was a time in the early-‘90s when you actually had more than half of Canadians living under NDP governments in Ontario, Saskatchewan and B.C. These were all Third Way governments.
There was some flirtation with a Third Way in the federal party, but it never really went anywhere because the NDP could ill afford to go that way at that time, since the Liberals already occupied that terrain.
You note a slight shift to the left under Singh’s leadership. Given the undeniable failure of Mulcair’s centrist pivot, why has Singh not dramatically reversed direction?
Singh is, in some way, another attempt at Layton 2.0. A lot of the same people who were behind Layton were behind Singh.
In the book, I talk about how some of these Layton staffers became desired lobbyists. These people are fundamentally orange Liberals and they backed Singh, so I would be surprised if they pulled back and moved to an explicitly socialist or leftist position.
But, obviously, the party establishment had to retool the message to make sure they're at least to the left of the Liberals. I think the lesson they did learn from the 2015 elections is we can't be to the right of the Liberals, so we’ve to be a bit to the left enough to distinguish ourselves. But not too far, because they want to be influencers, rather than a party of conscience or a party of opposition.
They still want a certain level of respectability among the pundit and political class.
The agreement between Trudeau and NDP leader Singh occurred while you were writing the book. As someone in the early stages of writing a book myself, how annoying was it to have to update the book in response to current events?
Not at all. It was actually a great thing, because the book would have otherwise ended just after the ‘21 election and that would be kind of a boring end. There's a 2019 election and they got 24 seats, then there's a 2021 election and they got 25 seats. Nothing really changed.
The events of the accord, or agreement, were beneficial because they really brought the story to a powerful end.
We had the book ready to go and then I was re-approached by the publisher. It was supposed to come out a season earlier, in the spring. But then with the events, they decided to postpone it and add a chapter, which I think really brings the book together, highlighting how the NDP have accepted being junior partners to the Liberals.
I don't think the book would have gained as much interest if it ended after the ‘21 election.
What’s the NDP’s future?
I learned a long time ago to get out of the prediction business.
The NDP seems to have established a place in Canadian politics as an influencer to the Liberals. It's really hard to know whether people approve of their accord with the Liberals, or if they're really scared about Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre. Will voters in 2025 stampede over to the Liberals and give them credit for the progressive-ish measures coming out of the accord?
There was a period from 2011 to 2015 when it really looked like that the NDP was actually going to achieve its goal of displacing the Liberals. It really seemed conceivable.
They had a perfect storm situation in 2011, when the Liberal Party was weak and there was volatility in Quebec, so there were conditions where you could actually form government through ex-Bloc and ex-Liberal voters coming on board.
But now the Liberal Party is back. It will be really hard for the NDP to displace the Liberals again.
It could be a place for activists and social movements and the grassroots, but it really seems like membership has become a relic. It's become very much a party run professionally by its staffers. There’s little interest in party democracy.
The chances for a breakthrough or surge don’t seem to be in the cards right now.
So I don't know, I guess we’ve got three years to watch, wait and see about this future.
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