The Canadian federal election on 19 October sent the hardline right-wing government of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives packing. They suffered a crushing defeat.
That was the good news. But the big winner was the traditionally ruling-class favourite Liberals, Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister the late Pierre Trudeau, now leads a huge and unexpected majority government. The social democratic New Democrats (NDP), finished a distant third, losing 17% of the seats it formerly held in the previous parliament, where it was the official opposition.
There were a number of factors that affected and shaped these results. Two-thirds of Canadian voters were sick and tired of the 10 years of Conservative rule (the last four of those, in a majority). The Harper Tory party was the result of a merger of the old Progressive Conservatives, that combined old-style fiscal conservatism, championing the neoliberal counter-revolution, and often socially progressive approaches, with a hard-line, radically right-wing and socially conservative group. Stephen Harper represented the latter, and steadily championed a regime of tax cuts, free trade deals, attacks on the working class and especially the trade union movement. In the past few years, Harper waged an all out attack on democratic rights (anti-terror laws that threatened people’s citizenship, limiting voting, using tax authorities to persecute critics), refused to take climate change seriously and attacked those who did, and backed oil and gas and extractive industry interests. He implemented serial attacks on the right to strike, racist demonisation of certain immigrant groups (especially Islamophobia, attacks on scientists, public media, and a new cold-war like foreign policy, etc. Along with this, were Nixonian/Thatcher-like vendettas against political enemies and critics that disgusted many people.
The Liberals were, for many years, the favoured party of Canada’s ruling class. They had suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2011 election after a series of scandals. budget But the new leader and the disaffection with Conservative rule helped to put wind in the sails of the party. Moreover, the Liberals began promising mild Keynesian state borrowing — challenging the balanced budget mantra of the Tories — in the name of increased spending on urban infrastructure.
They argued that they would increase taxes on the wealthy and cut subsidies to the rich, in the name of cutting taxes “on the middle class”. The NDP is a mildly centrist social democratic party that has been steadily drifting further towards the centre in order to appear “responsible” to centrist voters and elements of the capitalist class. The NDP platform was more progressive than the other two parties in many ways, with calls to raise the federal minimum wage, a modest increase in corporate taxes, opposition to the anti-terror laws and questioning the free trade agreements, respecting the national rights of native peoples; as well as ending the attacks on the labour movement and public services.
Despite this, it notably refused to oppose Conservative “balanced budget” obsession and didn’t distinguish itself on international affairs. It refused to increase taxes on the wealthy, called for tax breaks to manufacturers that invested in jobs and inexplicably, small business. Its opposition to free trade is also rather half-hearted and conditional. The NDP had made huge gains from its perennial third-party status in the 2011 election, and especially had gained a number of seats in the province of Quebec. In 2015, its leader, Tom Mulcair, had hopes of getting elected to government, possibly a minority. Even with its clear unwillingness to challenge the general neoliberal consensus (and its acceptance of the economic domination of capital and competitiveness), its possible win was seen as providing a potential, modest opening for more progressive social forces, including much of the labour movement.
Ultimately, the NDP blew its initial lead to the Liberals, because of a number of factors. The Liberals actually positioned themselves as being further to the left in a number of areas than the NDP. There was no real challenge to the underlying status quo of neoliberalism by the NDP (precarity, capital mobility, power of finance, etc). Then there was “strategic voting”, the tendency of many voters to support whomever they think can best defeat the Conservatives. Once it became clear that the NDP had little new to offer, and that the Liberals might have the best chance to defeat the Conservatives, huge numbers of voters (including NDP supporters) moved to the Liberals.
The Liberals are traditionally said to “run elections from the left, but end up ruling from the right.” This is most likely what will happen in its future government. The NDP, on the other hand, in the words of a popular progressive journalist, was hoist on its own petard of trying to appeal to mainstream bourgeois notions of what is acceptable. “Faced with a choice between the Liberals and a social democratic party posing as Liberals, voters opted for the real thing.” This is what the NDP has become over the past 30 years.
The extent of the NDP setback shouldn’t be underestimated. It lost all its seats in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, and much of its faux base in Quebec. It went from 103 to 45 seats (in the 338-seat parliament). It had hopes of winning on the Federal level for the first time in Canadian history. But before socialists around the world get upset, a number of things need to be emphasized. The NDP, like all of its social democratic sister parties around the world, has long lost any link to a fundamental challenge to the system or its latest form, neoliberalism. In its desperation to get elected, it is even willing to drop its historically modest reform agenda, let alone dare to adopt ambitious calls for structural reforms, such as moving off of fossil fuels, nationalizing the financial sector, massive investment in public transit, health care, and rejecting free trade and capital mobility. Change, in the short and medium term will come from building movements around key social and class struggles, and working to build a space for socialist politics.