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Editorial: Labels matter less than policies, as NDP will learn

July 2011

Flush with its unprecedented victory in the May federal election—103 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons—the New Democratic Party as official opposition is in position to challenge the Conservatives for power.

The temptation among some in the party is to move toward the centre to occupy the space the Liberals represented for so long in this province and across Canada as either the government or the alternative.

That is clearly what was behind the proposal at its convention in late June to drop its commitment to “democratic socialist principles” from the party constitution, a move that was put off, because it put off a good number of delegates.

This is a wise move because labels matter less than policies, and what many voters expect from the NDP is what could be called progressive policies from the party that brought medicare to Saskatchewan, setting the stage for the Canada Health Act.

Under the proud banner of social democracy, or democratic socialism, health care for all on an equal basis, irrespective of income or wealth is, in the words of Jim Laxer, “the greatest achievement of those who espoused equality of condition.” As Laxer noted in a recent blog post ( ), equality of condition, not just the small-L liberal notion of equality of opportunity, is a basic thread of social democratic polity.

In Europe, it has meant in some cases free university tuition, strong job protection and termination benefits, higher minimum wages, better pensions, pharmacare, free full-day early childhood education and generous parental leave.

There were those at the convention who argued for changing the language of the party constitution, adopted when it was founded 50 years ago by linking the Canadian Labour Congress to the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation). The preamble says the NDP believes “the social, economic and political progress of Canada can be assured only by the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs.”

The revised wording would have removed references to socialism in favour of a more centrist declaration of belief in “social justice, equality and environmental sustainability.”

Yes, words matter, but as the NDP is at a takeoff stage of its development as a truly national party, with MPs elected in eight provinces, its policies will matter more. Many voters who switched to the NDP from the Liberals in Montreal and Quebec ridings did so because they see a complementarity in some of their policies, and wanted to give what some journalists call “the dippers” a chance.

Whatever the constitution says, as long as the NDP continues to advocate a progressive agenda, it has a chance of maintaining electoral support, and maybe building on it. This agenda would include maximum coverage under medicare, progressive taxation rates that enable the most vulnerable to live decently, increased foreign aid, more support for higher education and the arts, energy conservation and commitments to meet international greenhouse-gas emission standards.

Adopting a clear centre-left policy agenda is the challenge—the main task of the newly launched Broadbent Institute think tank, charged with generating new ideas to shape the party’s platform for the next election. These policies, and the performance of its youthful and mostly inexperienced caucus—not the democratic socialist moniker—will determine whether the NDP becomes a serious contender for power.



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