It should be made clear that the NDP has decided to look before they leap. The LEAP Manifesto, a vision document launched by a who’s who of Canadian celebrity activists, has been forwarded on to the party grassroots for debate and discussion. The authors and supporters of the Manifesto are to be congratulated for this, and it showed confidence in their ideas that they did not press their convention floor advantage to end the debate.
The LEAP Manifesto certainly tries to live up to the parting words of Tom Mulcair that the NDP will dream no small dreams. It imagines a completely clean economy by 2050, spurred on by a screeching halt to subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and a carbon tax where polluters pay more. The Manifesto challenges the Liberals’ acceptance of further trade agreements and calls for greater emphasis on building local economies and agriculture. It calls out the price of austerity agendas and calls for a living wage and guaranteed annual income for Canadians, with public sector job growth in caregiving, zero-emission jobs like teaching, child care and social work and an ambitious retraining agenda to aid workers through the economic shifts.
Politically, this document would give the NDP a clear identity, although the breadth of its appeal is open to debate. It would give Canadian progressives their own version of the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders showdown, except in a two-party structure rather than the internecine battle the U.S. Democrats are waging. Winning progressive parties, it must said, manage to speak to both of those strains of believers, and therein lies the challenge.
It would also mark the end of one era in progressive politics and begin a new one. In that, it will bring a close to the three decades of a progressive approach that ranges from Bill Clinton’s breakthrough to the final victories of Barack Obama and Jack Layton.
There is a tendency, in this debate, to view the past outside of its historical context. To understand the very real merits of what is happening in the LEAP Manifesto and its international equivalents, it is worth understanding why the Third Way was ascendant in the first place.
When the 1980’s wound down, the political right was having an extended moment. Ronald Reagan retired undefeated and was able to bequeath power to his Vice-President. Brian Mulroney had overcome massive personal unpopularity to not only win, but ratify a free trade agreement that was anathema to the left. Margaret Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society and started a war over islands, and was winning majorities. Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl won comfortable victories.
The left wasn’t just losing power. We were losing ground. These wins by the right led to massive tax cuts for the wealthy, the loss of social programs and universal benefits, and draconian approaches to crime that destroyed families.
The climate that allowed these policies to win had been sowed by what came before. In the 1970’s, left-wing parties were governing. The New Deal era and very real victories had given way to an economic recession that shook faith in government. Governments were finding that there were limits to how regularly governments could run deficits and raise taxes, and families got hurt. Interest rates, driven up by the demand government borrowing placed upon the money supply, exceeded 20%. (To imagine what that’s like, imagine having to put your mortgage on your credit card). Investment and risk-taking dried up and jobs were lost, and inflation began to cycle.
At the same time, new technology, communications and efficient transportation expanded the ability of companies to move outside of national economies and regulations. If the 1950”s and 60’s had seen governments make regulation national to keep companies from leveraging local governments, by the dawn of the 1980’s companies were threatening international moves to leverage national governments.
For conservatives like Reagan and Thatcher, this was a perfect storm. The working class, unionized households that had bolstered the left through the New Deal and Equal Opportunity eras were hurting, and they were ready to vote for change. Reagan and Thatcher and Mulroney essentially argued that the problem was not that big business was exploiting the new international game, but that incompetent leftists were trying to resist and cling to higher taxes, environmental regulations and unionized work. Play the game, they urged, let companies benefit and the benefits will trickle down to all of us.
The gambit worked beautifully, and in some ways, the excesses of the left in ignoring economic reality let them get away with it. Taxing and borrowing with ease had led to an ability to avoid some basic issues of public management and our own excesses created the conditions for a counteraction.
Of course, the right quickly began to give in to its own excesses. After a burst of good times gained by rolling back the most excessive taxes and regulations, the flaws of conservatism showed. Tax cuts did not, in fact, pay for themselves with economic growth and so deficits ballooned. As deficits ballooned, public services like health and education were cut back with disastrous effects upon families and the economy. The expansion of free trade without any safeguards for local economies decimated communities. When the situation grew desperate, the right fell back on blaming the victims of economic change, creating draconian laws to deal with alleged career criminals and welfare cheats. This probably reached its nadir in the cruel last days of the Mike Harris government, where one pregnant woman died of heat exhaustion while under house arrest for a minor case of welfare fraud, and the overstretched and underregulated local government in Walkerton poisoned its residents with tainted water, killing seniors and children.
As the right lost lots claim to good governance, they won a few final elections by scaring people about the still-remembered folly of the left. Figures such as Ed Broadbent, Neil Kinnock and Mike Dukakis saw their window of opportunity close with vicious campaigns focused on the issues where we did not yet have voters’ trust – taxes, crime and trade.
Which led to the rise of the Third Way. Left-wing parties would stop denying the reality of the economic change that had occurred. There were limits on taxing, spending and borrowing, they would say, and they could be trusted to manage these new realities more gently and kindly than the right-wingers who cruelly embraced them. They would focus on responsibility and community to make collective social goals possible, they would focus on smaller regulations such as family leave and small minimum wage hikes, they would live with the need to reduce tax bills but would focus the benefits more on the middle class and less on the plutocrats. Where they would push for large new social investment, it would be in areas where many businesses would see a competitive benefit to the expense – education, training, R&D and infrastructure.
By accepting some limits on their left flank, progressives like Clinton, Blair, Schroeder and Chretien won elections and did indeed roll back the worst excesses of the right. It must also be acknowledged that, for a while, the result was economic growth. The right had surely underfunded important economic services like education and infrastructure, they had sidelined too many potential workers through poverty and illiteracy, their deficits caused by reckless tax cuts had made capital too expensive. The balanced budgets, community-minded left did create a boom of jobs, investment and start-ups by re-embracing the role of government in the economy. In fact, Al Gore did fight for funding for an obscure DND project called the internet, which needed public money in its incubator until the private sector saw a way to make money off of it. He did take the lead in the invention of the Internet, even if the awkward phrasing would haunt him.
It is highly dubious that an ideological approach that sought to return to the tax rates and borrowing of the 1970s would have worked. I recall in 1993, squeezed by the Liberals, the NDP ran an angry black-and-white ad raging about free trade and austerity. We won 9 seats, while the avuncular Chretien and his red book marginalized the NDP for a decade.
Today, as many rush to embrace the insurgencies of Sanders, Corbyn and the LEAP Manifesto, they see only the modern limitations of the Third Way. They forget, or never knew, the context of its rise – that there was a very real need to accept the excesses of the 1970’s in order to beat the right and stop the damage of the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney years. This is why many of us who fancy ourselves genuine progressives have a softer view of the Clinton/Blair/Chretien years – because we remember what came before and why it beat us.
If that sounds like a set up to trash the LEAP Manifesto, I am about to surprise you. Like the Sanders insurgence, I think it is a positive development and worthy of good faith discussion by all Canadian progressives. That is not to say very troubling questions -- about affordability, about the narrowness of its vision, about its regionally narrow view in a big, diverse country -- should be ignored. If LEAP fans are to be party builders and not iconoclasts, they will have to see questions like these as opportunities rather than hostilities. But for all that, there are aims here that resonate with many willing to work for the NDP, and that must also be heard.
The Third Way gambit was worthy because, if we were honest, there was no real plan to combat the global movement of companies and capital. Even if we accepted the moral critique of what was happening, there was not a good answer for the fear that excesses in taxation and regulation would drive companies away. History tells us that there is always a lag time between big business’ ability to move beyond government’s ability to regulate, and government’s reaction. Companies used to threaten local and governments with moving to other cities, driving down taxes and leaving many small centers with substandard schools, hospitals and social programs. The New Deal/Equal Opportunity era saw government began to work provincially and nationally to rein in these excesses. The occasional proposal like the Tobin Tax aside, government had not yet figured out how to react to the fact that business could move internationally and government could only act nationally.
Of course, the first step to an international arena where government insists on fair trade, living wages and decent social programs starts with a consensus among national governments. In a way that was unimaginable when I watched Bill Clinton get nominated in 1992, there is some hope for international standards and collaboration. If the Third Way was an acceptance of the best idea we had at the time, the LEAP Manifesto appears just when there is hope of something better. That is the best reason of all to start a new era.
The LEAP Manifesto envisions a Canada where the Liberal Party pursues progressive goals within the same system, where free trade, mobile capital and hedge fund managers operate with minimal government oversight, while New Democrats question and challenge the limits of the system itself.
This is not a bad thing. Stephen Lewis’s critique of Justin Trudeau resonated because it was fair – while Trudeau has mastered the symbolism of a break from Harper by embracing Syrian refugees, transgender rights and marijuana legalization, he has not really broken from Harper when it comes to actually transferring money from haves to have nots. The lack of hard action on child care funding, First Nations programs, environmental regulation and foreign aid matters more than all the Twitter #BecauseIts2015 mentions will. His willingness to run deficits may prove less progressive if it is spent on politically driven road projects and corporate bailouts and does not leave behind a stronger, renewed social safety net.
The LEAP Manifesto clearly goes beyond hashtag activism, and deserves credit for focusing our discussions on goals like First Nations rights, environmental sustainability, income inequality and a guaranteed national income. As millennials face life in the Uber economy, renewal of the social safety net is an essential discussion of we are not all to be standby labour for big business. A call for universal early childhood education is simply a recognition of what the science of human development has been telling us for 20 years – because it’s 2015, indeed.
If any of this is to matter, the debate must keep our coalition together, the coalition that Jack Layton built. And that will require discipline from all sides.
For those who were supporters of Layton and Mulcair for their centrist appeals, we must keep an open mind that maybe the Overton window has opened for a more activist state, and not let the caution of battles past close our minds to the growing expressions of willingness to address some of the structural problems in the economy that are still leaving too many families behind and goals unfulfilled.
For those who have already signed on to the LEAP manifesto, I can only encourage them to continue to invite debate and to accept thoughtful critiques on the journey to their goals. Do not dismiss those voices that fought in different eras, but seek to address them. When Naomi Klein tweeted that the motion to accept the Manifesto was a victory of “hope over fear”, I admit I recoiled. Using the same language that described the defeat of Stephen Harper to summarize a debate among friends is dangerous indeed.
Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair (and for that matter, Darrel Dexter and Rachel Notley) grew their coalitions by reaching a large group of progressive swing voters, those who choose between Liberals and New Democrats (I will claim to understand these voters, for reasons that are clear). These voters often choose the Liberals when they find the NDP too fixated on complaints and not enough upon solutions. They will return to the NDP when the Liberals’ pragmatism veers too close to entitlement and political calculation. If we use our renewal process to find solutions together, we will win.
Reading the LEAP Manifesto, legitimate questions come to mind.
1. The authors call for jobs in approved sectors such as caregiving, education and the arts. As a philosophy major and educator, I have no doubt that these are legitimate economic drivers. Yet surely people can aspire to be engineers, programmers, entrepreneurs, pipe fitters, investors, and many other things too. And surely, to grow these public sector drivers will require some economic activity where taxes are not just a percentage of a public salary. We cannot create cronyism of good intentions, where we narrow our focus of job creation to a point we ignore the dreams of many Canadians.
2. As an Atlantic Canadian, I felt uneasy at what sounded like a too-flippant tone to the displacement of workers in economic shifts. Our emotional rejection of the Harper Conservatives flows in part from a sense that they always saw Atlantic Canada as little more than a source of surplus labour for the oil patch if we could be pushed to move. There is a need to understand that, for many small towns with their own community institutions and local economies, retraining and public transit alone will not answer the fear and unease that comes from being torn apart by grand economic shifts. We cannot simply treat Alberta the way Harper treated, say, Cape Breton. We are better than that.
3. The need for income security has never been greater. The LEAP Manifesto has the right instincts in addressing living wages and guaranteed annual incomes. However, it falls back into an outdated false dichotomy that suggests we are all workers or corporations. In fact, entrepreneurs and investors are increasingly those who need income security so that they can take risks and grow the economy. Simply adding money to old programs may not be as effective as asking what income security means in a new economy. This debate can be an opportunity for our party if we come to grips with it – because local entrepreneurship increasingly stands as an antidote to multinational dominance. In other words, small businesses and startups should be part of our coalition.
These can be seen as critiques, or opportunities to collaborate on new ideas. I challenge my NDP colleagues to see them as the latter. In his eulogy for Rob Ford, his former chief of staff Mark Towhey reminded us all of Torontonians whose hearts don't flutter at public art installations or the shifting of paradigms, but simply work too long for too little money and want their calls returned, potholes filled, and streets safe. Ford won because he remembered them. Because our ideas are better, we only lose to the right when we forget them. I can introduce you to voters who want plans, not manifestos. Jack reached them. We still can.
As Tom Mulcair once said, the ceiling is now the floor for the NDP. Not long ago, a leader winning 44 seats would have been a conquering hero. Our expectations have grown, and that is a good thing. But with big goals must come big tents. The NDP kept this growing coalition together through two leaders; Jack Layton through force of personality and Tom Mulcair through the prospect of power. Now, both leaders are gone. Coming out of this weekend, we can either shrink or grow in their absence. Each of us has the potential to be a leader in keeping our coalition together.
In the weeks ahead, the media will likely remind us of the risks – the 52/48 leadership vote, the Trudeau honeymoon, and the loss of Stornoway. If we insist upon seeing ourselves as two camps, if we buy their paradigm, we will risk seeing our coalition return to the pre-Layton days.
But if we truly open our hearts and minds to each other, if we accept that we all are prepared to dream big dreams, then this weekend may be the start of a new era rather than the end of our quest to govern. To mix icons of both sides of this vital debate, ‘tis truly not too late to make a better world if we have the courage to reason together.