The Tightrope of Socialist Politics and Governance in Canada

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1994 ... February 9, 2020
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The Tightrope of Socialist Politics and Governance in Canada:
Obstacles, Dilemmas, Strategy

Marcel Nelson

One of the more persistent irritants amongst supporters of the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been its longstanding inability to replace the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) as the country’s alternative to the different iterations of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). This irritation has been amplified by the LPC’s habit of campaigning with a left(ish) platform, often scooping up NDP policies, and then governing from the right. At no time was this more apparent than during the 2015 federal election when the LPC overtook the NDP, in part, by tacking to the left while the NDP erred by moving to the center in a bid to consolidate the lead it had heading into the election. A typical response by New Democrats, one that was on full display during the 2019 federal election campaign and since, is to argue that the NDP is the real article and that it will actually implement programs like universal pharmacare and childcare if ever it... were to be elected.

What is implicit, yet increasingly explicit, in this criticism of the LPC is that the reason for this deceit is the LPC’s cozy relationship at an individual level with the wealthy and industry. To be sure, the LPC’s interpersonal relationships with the powerful interests groups and the wealthy, to say nothing of their overlapping worldviews, is important in explaining why their governments often abandon their electoral promises. Nevertheless, this line of criticism ignores important structural dynamics that explain in part why the LPC campaigns from the left and governs from the right. These are structural dynamics that the NDP -- and any social democratic party -- would confront in proposing redistributional reforms in a period of neoliberal capitalism.

Successfully passing and implementing policies such as universal pharmacare is not just a matter of putting in place different personnel in Parliament at the helm of the executive branch with different convictions. Let alone different membership cards. Notably, the NDP would face the same structural pressures the LPC does when it is at the helm, and likely at a greater level given the perceived threat the NDP represents to Canada’s elites as well as their lack of interpersonal connections with said elites. Moreover, that this amplified pressure would come not only from outside of the state -- from the media, think tanks, and business associations; but also from inside the Canadian state and its multiple jurisdictional levels. This pressure is, of course, something that several NDP governments have faced and managed at the provincial level with different degrees of success and as often accommodation.

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