Hot! In a world without ‘socialism’

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinions
Published Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2011.    Margaret Wente

I kind of miss the good old days, when the NDP knew exactly what it stood for. Back then, nobody winced at the word “socialism.” The brothers and sisters marched shoulder to shoulder against the bosses, singingSolidarity Forever. Life was so much simpler when everyone knew who the good guys and the bad guys were (unions, Bay Street fat cats).

But now the NDP is caught in a longer-term crisis of identity. Despite the phenomenal success of the Orange Crush, the party faces the same challenges as left-of-centre parties across the Western world. As the welfare state comes under unprecedented siege, they’re struggling to redefine themselves. Consider the socialist paradise of Greece, where the retirement age is a mellow 62, except for those who labour in “hazardous” professions such as hairdressing, where the retirement age is 50 (with full pension). That’s why Greece is broke.

In the U.S., states and municipalities are being kneecapped by overly generous promises to public-sector unions. The Democrats have no credible response to the middle-class entitlements bubble, which is threatening the nation’s solvency.

Jack Layton is smart enough to know that the old days of socialist fantasizing are gone for good. It’s been a long time since the NDP favoured nationalizing anything. The party gave up its fight against free trade long ago. With the exception of a few aging bitter-enders, it favours balanced budgets and the market system. It even endorsed the bombing of Libya (despite the fact that many Canadians are opposed). So it hardly matters if the party keeps the word “socialism” in its platform, because there’s nothing socialist about it any more.

One problem for progressives is that, since the Second World War, the progressive movement has been substantially successful. It has given us universal health care and decent education for virtually everyone. The social-justice revolution has delivered equal rights for women, minorities and gays. What’s left? All-day kindergarten and washroom rights for the transgendered – things that matter only at the margins.

Now the great postwar expansion of the welfare state is at an end. We can’t even afford the one we have now. Meantime, the entire political class has fallen into disrepute. The central challenge for governments today is how to manage and reform the institutions we’ve created, not to create new ones. Sure, the New Democrats can promise to “preserve” medicare. But that promise is worthless unless they have some realistic notion of how to keep health-care costs from crowding out every other social expenditure.

The Liberals are in the same fix. Their basic problem isn’t leadership or infighting. Their basic problem is that they have no vision for how to fix the modern liberal nation-state.

Former NDPer Robin Sears, now with the public affairs firm Navigator, nailed it when he wrote in The Huffington Post: “Canadians today demand their government be more efficient, less tediously bureaucratic and invasive, genuinely committed to improved quality, outcomes and service; one where they have both guarantees of accountability and choice. They will sacrifice neither accessibility nor transparency. They have declared loudly they want action now.”

Mr. Sears was writing about the Liberals. But his analysis applies equally to Democrats, New Democrats and Labour – and, for that matter, Conservatives. The party that gets this will own the future. Everything else is hot air.

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